Yes, the Stanford Rapist Is to Blame for His Crime. So Is This

We’d be naive to think that porn has nothing to do with rape.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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We’d be naive to think that porn has nothing to do with rape.

By now you’ve heard of the Stanford rape case. Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student who was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault, was given only a six-month sentence. The public outcry to the short sentence has created a national conversation this week, spurring an online petition signed by more than 300,000 people calling for Judge Aaron Persky to be recalled; he was just offered another term because he had no challengers face him for reelection this week in California.

In his verdict, Persky cited Turner’s young age and said the fact that he was drunk caused him to bear “less moral culpability” for the actions he took. Persky also shared his concerns that state prison could have a “severe” impact on Turner’s life. Turner’s father issued a statement bemoaning how “twenty minutes of action” could ruin his son’s twenty-plus years of life.

Oh, world. You can be so depressing at times.

This reasoning is so far from reason that it is hard to know how to respond. Both Turner and the raped woman were drunk, but somehow the woman’s intoxication means she’s culpable for putting herself in a compromised position, whereas the man’s drunk state makes him less culpable for his actions. (In case anyone could still say they didn’t know what sexism looks like in action, I’m sorry to say, voilà.)

Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine any other crime committed while drunk being considered less grave by standards of morality. If he committed drunk manslaughter, he would still be convicted as harshly. If he threw a brick through someone’s window while drunk, same thing. Heck, if he were speeding while drunk, he’d be convicted more harshly, not less. You don’t hear officers saying, “Well, how could he have known he was not fit to drive; he was drunk! His passenger girlfriend who died? She should have taken the keys away from him. She was drunk, too? Well, she shouldn’t have gotten drunk.” In other words, by being drunk, she who experienced the worse fate had it coming.

As a woman following the news this week, I have to say, this is how the story sounds to me.

Thank God there are heroes in this story, though. There is the assault survivor, whose own statement went viral this week for its powerful candor, and there are two Swedish men who found Turner assaulting the unresponsive woman by a dumpster, stopped him, and held him down until the police arrived for his arrest.

There are lessons we can take away from this—both for those who decry the verdict and for those who agree with it. My view is this: If we wonder how people can do these horrible things, in addition to holding rapists responsible, we also have porn to blame.

Notice how the sexual assault, as an action that took place while drunk, was treated differently—more leniently even—than other drunken crimes. Rape is a crime that is just as abhorrent while drunk as when sober, yet there’s a false thinking out there that somehow if sex is involved, it’s in the realm of natural human behavior; it’s less criminal. Even if consent isn’t clear. ​I don’t think this thinking is an accident.

As we know, alcohol lowers our inhibitions, making us more likely to do the things we wouldn’t while sober—but they’re still things we may want to do while sober. By and large, women don’t go about stripping, fondling, and raping men while blacked out. Drunk women typically dance and act silly. They, generally speaking, don’t take advantage of incapacitated people and commit crimes. But when this man had a passed-out woman at his disposal, he decided to have sex with her.

This isn’t normal behavior.

Consider this scenario. If, say, a person seems normal by day but come nightfall and the influence of alcohol starts reciting the credo of the KKK, we might suspect this person has been exposed to some form of KKK teaching, right?

And if someone civil by day starts breaking into buildings and stealing things with expedient skill while drunk, we might assume he had been exposed to this type of behavior before—while not intoxicated.

So if a person seems like a nice All-American swimmer by day but by night, while drunk, sexually assaults an incapacitated woman in plain view of passersby and tells a story that tries to make the event sound romantic, I am going to make a very likely assumption that this man has some prior experience to influence this behavior—which, today, is most likely exposure to porn.

Sure, I haven’t asked Turner if he watched porn, but because a 2008 study surveying more than 560 college students found that 93 percent of boys were exposed to pornography before age 18, I think it’s safe to say that he is a product of his generation and has watched some sexually explicit material.

Undressing a woman and having sex with her limp body by a dumpster is not normal. It’s not a romantic tryst following the designs of the heart and human nature; what this man did was abhorrent. It is not a natural chain of events for an evening to end like this—at least not in the real world.

But this behavior doesn’t come from nowhere. In the world of porn, this type of sex is depicted as being normal. Not only is today’s abundant Internet pornography filled with aggression and violence against women, but it’s also filled with imagery of women appearing to enjoy these very things.

Author Peggy Orenstein cited these studies when she wrote in her recent book Girls & Sex: “In the study of behaviors in popular porn, nearly 90 percent of 304 random scenes contained physical aggression toward women, while close to half contained verbal humiliation ... women would sometimes initially resist abuse, begging their partners to stop; when that didn’t happen, they acquiesced and began to enjoy the activity.” For men who consume porn regularly, this kind of behavior is perceived to be not only OK but also sexy and desirable for women.

And that was the logic used by the defense. She had no memory of the event and was covered in abrasions, but she was informed by the rapist, and it seems to have rung true to some, including the judge, that she climaxed after one minute and enjoyed herself.

Let me break it to you: Only in the world of porn is it commonplace for a woman to climax after one minute.

Only in the world of porn is an encounter that creates numerous abrasions considered enjoyable for a woman.

Only in the world of porn is lack of consent sexy.

Indeed, the highly profitable porn industry is largely based on a premise that women are treated as objects for swift male pleasure. The Stanford rape survivor was treated as an object—she was, quite literally, inanimate at the time.

But for men who watch porn a lot and climax while doing so, something funny happens to their brains. After repeated exposure, porn effectively creates new neurological pathways; yes, even to the point of changing one’s perception of reality. Research shows that after watching porn, users are more likely to believe rape myths and less likely upon hearing a description of a rape to call it a rape.

The judge of the Stanford rape case felt that if the rapist were given the six-year sentence he deserved, he would somehow be cheated out of living his life to the fullest. The perpetrator’s father thought similarly.

I believe he was cheated. I believe the woman he raped was cheated far worse, but I believe he was cheated as well. A sentence of several years isn’t what would have cheated him, though; that would have been just. It’s a society that views porn as OK—this is, until it is reenacted in real life—that cheats everyone.

The porn that college-age men, and even younger boys watch from as early as age 12, are consuming these days, images of women being mistreated and looking like they’re enjoying it, and all the hypersexualized imagery that surrounds us all the time—all of this is by and large treated as harmless fun. Porn is even lauded by some as a safer alternative to sex.

But, when Brock Turner was drunk that fateful night, where had he gotten the idea that, when in the company of an incapacitated girl, he could force himself on her? If he watched porn like his many male college-age peers, it’s very likely that porn provided the script. Only in a porn paradigm do these conflicting ideas make sense: She didn’t look fully there, but I’m sure she liked it.

But as we often see—when fantasy meets reality, usually the two don’t mix. When everything you were sold as being kosher onscreen turns out to be criminal in real life, you might feel a little cheated. What you thought was harmless consumption was actually rewriting the script in your head to tell you that women are objects for sexual pleasure and that they enjoy painful things. Countless dopamine rushes to your brain made those falsehoods appear very real.

To think it’s excusable behavior for any person, let alone a drunk one, to rape a woman is false and dangerous. To think porn has nothing to do with selling these scripts is, at best, naive.

Let Turner’s lesson be a lesson for all of us: Porn doesn’t sell a harmless fantasy. Porn sells lies. And the results have untold negative effects on our society. The latest evidence is the humiliation and six-month sentence experienced by a young man with a promising future. Far worse is the traumatic fallout experienced by an innocent woman who, as it turns out, wasn’t a fantasy and wasn’t an object. She’s real—a human being who lives and breathes and feels like the rest of us—and she will carry this undeserved sentence with her for the rest of her promising life.

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