Sympathy for the Rapist: What the Stanford Case Teaches

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste.
...
Tell me baby, what's my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame.
 
~Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones
 

Brock Turner, 20, treated a young woman, 23, like a proverbial piece of meat, violating her behind a dumpster while she was unconscious. Among his father’s chief concerns was that Brock can no longer enjoy a nice rib-eye steak fresh off the grill, having lost his appetite. Many of us lost ours, reading Dan Turner’s statement, in which he lamented his son’s no longer being the “happy-go-lucky self” and “easy going” Stanford swimming star he once was. He described the assault as a mere “twenty minutes of action,” out of twenty years of good behavior. But just as the murderer can’t claim credit for all of the people he didn’t kill, Turner is no less a rapist for all of the women he didn’t violate.

Much was made throughout the trial and sentencing of Brock Turner’s swimming prowess, and the fact that he would have to give up his scholarship and dreams of competing in the Olympics. The judge in this case, Aaron Persky, notoriously worried about “the severe impact” of the conviction on Turner’s future, and gave him what has been widely recognized as a very lenient sentence for crimes of this nature – six months in a county jail, of which he is likely to serve just three, and three years’ probation. The maximum penalty Turner was facing was fourteen years in prison.

Many have called for a harsher sentence, to which there’s already predictably been some push-back. Is incarceration really the answer? But that is not the question. We can ask that question any day of the week. The particular issue which this case raises is what disposes people to feel sorry for the rapist, rather than the victim. The fact of the leniency is to my mind a symptom, rather than constitutive, of the main problem. And the problem is even bigger than rape culture.  

For this case vividly illustrates the often overlooked mirror image of misogyny: androphilia, as I’ll call it. It is so overlooked that it is a “problem with no name,” to use Betty Friedan’s phrase. But this isn’t because it is a rare phenomenon. On the contrary – it is so common that we tend to regard it as business as usual. The term ‘androphilia’ as I’m using it is intended to encompass all of the ways we collectively ignore, deny, minimize, forgive, and forget the wrongdoing of men who conform to the norms of toxic masculinity, and behave in domineering ways towards their historical subordinates: women.

The specific tendency on display here is the excessive sympathy sometimes shown towards male perpetrators of sexual violence. (Himpathy? Menpathy?) It is most frequently extended to men who are white, nondisabled, and otherwise privileged “golden boys” like Turner. There is a subsequent reluctance to believe the women who testify against these men, or even to punish the golden boys whose guilt has been firmly established – as, again, Turner’s was.

One reason for this denialism is a mistaken idea about what rapists must be like. Brock Turner is not a monster, wrote one of his female friends, in a letter blaming his conviction on political correctness. He was the victim of a “camp-like university environment,” in which things “get out of hand” due to alcohol and “clouded judgment.” Turner’s crime was “completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot.” “That is a rapist,” she writes. “I know for a fact that Brock is not one of these people.”

This exemplifies two common inference patterns, the first of which goes like this: a golden boy is not a rapist. So-and-so is a golden boy. Therefore, so-and-so is not a rapist. 

The second one: rapists are monsters. So-and-so is not a monster. We reach the same conclusion.  

It is high time to give up both of these myths, and reject the major premises in the corresponding arguments. The first myth exonerates by dint of lionizing some men, and placing them beyond reproach and above suspicion. The second exonerates by dint of positing a non-existent class of bogeymen in place of them. The point of calling someone a monster is that they are unlike anyone with whom you would willingly associate – in being completely heartless, or callous, or unintelligible, or malevolent. The convenient upshot is that there is no possibility of the shock and grief of discovering your son or friend, say, is a rapist.  

But this is what his father and friend did indeed discover. And if you think that someone like Turner can’t be a rapist, then you need to revise your theory – rather than positing the existence of rape without rapists, as his friend did, incoherently. Turner was found actively violating his victim, who was unconscious and intoxicated, in an alley behind that dumpster. That is rape. Someone who rapes is a rapist. So Turner is a rapist – as well as a golden boy. Therefore… 

The excessive sympathy which flows to perpetrators like Turner both owes and contributes to insufficient concern for the harm, humiliation, and trauma they cause to their victims. This plausibly owes something to a tendency to take up the perspective of the golden boys first and foremost. This is part of privilege: a default claim to the moral spotlight, or being the locus of moral attention. But if someone sympathizes first with the rapist, insofar as he loses his appetite or swimming scholarship, then he will be prone to figure as the victim in the story. And a victim narrative needs a victimizer, or at least a harbinger of disaster. And who is the ‘but-for’ cause of the rapist ending up in this situation? None other than the person who testified against him: his victim may hence be recast as the villain. 

This is just how it worked in the case of Brock’s friend. “I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next 10-plus years of his life on the decision of the girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank, to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right.” (She was, and it isn’t.) The impulse, however, doesn’t arise out of nowhere, and I don’t much feel inclined to blame the friend either. This is one of so many ways women are encouraged to practice, and signal, excessive loyalty to men of privilege.

The excessive sympathy extended towards perpetrators is hence one of the factors which gives rise to victim-blaming. Indeed, it gives rise to victim-blaming in a particularly pernicious form, in which the moral narrative is turned on its head, and the real victim and victimizer undergo a role reversal.

Neither the judge nor the father blamed the victim in this case. Instead they made a move as, if not more, insidious: they erased the victim from the narrative entirely. In this case, she courageously refused to go quietly. Her powerful testimony explains, with devastating clarity, what the impact on her was. That is the main reason the case came to our attention – that and the fact that Brock Turner was caught, thanks to the two Swedish graduate students who were active bystanders. 

Too often, we avert our eyes, and refuse to face both the ubiquity and character of sexual assault in the US in general, and on college campuses in particular. Even among those who are prepared to acknowledge its prevalence, there is a subtler form of wishful thinking that is also very common: the idea that the latter occurs primarily due to alcohol and sexual miseducation, to the exclusion of misogynist aggression, frat culture, serial sexual predation, and norms that enable and protect the perpetrators. Dan Turner says his son is fully committed to educating others about “the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.” The judge spoke of this plan approvingly. But so-called promiscuity is not the issue; violence is. And Brock Turner is not an appropriate spokesperson against sexual violence at this juncture. He needs a moral education before attempting to provide one.

He might start by listening closely to the words of his victim, who spoke to him directly for the bulk of her impact statement. What she has to say is too important to excerpt. I urge anyone who can afford the emotional investment to read every word of it. Let me just quote her closing lines, in which she shifts from Brock to address “girls everywhere,” so as to echo them: “You are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you... I am with you. Thank you.” Truly.

 
 
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