What the Stanford Rape Case Reminds Us about Privilege
By Britney G Brinkman PhD, Louise Douce, PhD and Anneliese Singh PhD
After serving only 3 months in jail, Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student convicted of raping an unconscious woman, returned to his family home in Ohio. Turner became a nationally recognized name this summer when a judge sentenced him to only six months in jail, with eligibility for parole after only three.
The appallingly light sentence for this crime does not come as a surprise to anyone who works in sexual violence prevention. In fact, few sexual assault cases ever make it to trial, let alone result in a conviction or jail time for the assailant(s). The outrage expressed by many in this case reflects (perhaps) a changing tide in Americans’ acceptance of rape culture.
This case highlights ongoing concerns about the need for cultural change in order to truly address sexual violence on college campuses. It also reflects concerns about the many ways privilege (related to gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status) functions in our society.
Multiple Levels of Privilege
- Rape culture relies on male privilege
Many boys and young men are taught that they are entitled to sex. Women who experience sexual assault are frequently blamed, asked questions about their sex life, what they were wearing when the assault occurred, and whether they “said no enough.” The assumption often portrayed by rape culture is that women are responsible to prevent themselves from being assaulted, rather than that men are responsible for not committing assault.
- Social class privilege provides differential access to the justice system
Access can mean a variety of things—social class privilege can provide an individual with experienced legal teams as well as a feeling of being entitled to have a voice in the legal process. Could a father from a working class background or single parent (e.g., woman, trans man) without financial resources write the judge asking that “twenty minutes of action” not ruin the promising life of his son? Even if such a father felt he had the right to contact the judge directly, would he have been taken seriously?
- White privilege leads to more leniency
At every level of the judicial system, racial disparities exist in which people-of-color face longer sentences than white individuals. Recent reports have shown that in schools nationwide, Black boys are three times more likely than White boys to be suspended and Black girls are six times more likely than White girls to be suspended. Such differential punishment contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. This differential sentencing occurs among adults as well. Based on a 2014 ACLU report, Black males in the federal prison system serve sentences 20% longer than White males convicted of similar crimes.
What Counseling Psychologists Can Do
Talk about privilege. A lot. With Everyone.
Privilege is very hard for us to acknowledge and own. It is nearly impossible for us to see from the inside. We sometimes assume we deserve to have more rights or that we have earned any positive experiences in our lives (e.g., born on 3rd base and think they hit a triple). Oftentimes, those of us with privilege don’t see it because we don’t even know that others are being treated differently than we are. We can assume that everyone has the same rights and access to the same resources we have. Equalization of rights feels like loss or even discrimination.
– Model taking ownership of our own areas of privilege in non-defensive ways.
– Talk with our clients about privilege—where they experience it and where they do not.
– Teach our students about privilege and the systems that reinforce inequity
– Call in (rather than call out) our colleagues who ignore or dismiss privilege
Support alternatives to punitive forms of consequences.
In addition to being unjustly applied, punitive consequences rarely result in rehabilitation and may or may not benefit victims. Restorative justice is an alternative approach which emphasizes reconciliation between victims and offenders in a manner that relies on community decision making. Restorative justice approaches in schools have been linked to numerous benefits including academic and social achievements and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Participate in the justice system.
Whether you are involved in disciplinary systems (from schools to the court system) formally in your professional life or not, we all have a role to play in our justice system. Judge Aaron Persky, who gave Turner a six-month sentence instead of the six-year sentence asked for by prosecutors in this case, is facing a recall campaign in California after more than one million people signed a petition asking to remove him from the bench. As Counseling Psychologists we can offer research informed perspectives, sign petitions, work to train and educate members of the judicial system, speak out publicly about unfair treatment, and vote.Tags: Diversity and Social Justice, SCP Statement, Sexual Violence, Women