Recently, I was forwarded a letter and petition from the co-founders of the Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention, Stephanie Pham and Matthew Baiza. While I do appreciate that Stephanie and Matt have their hearts in the right place to help victims of sexual assault, their enthusiastic advocacy for locking Brock Turner, a former Stanford undergraduate, in prison for a mandatory minimum sentence of two years has been weighing heavily on my heart. I feel that their petition reflects neither the values of the Stanford student body nor the vast amount of university research concerning the detrimental effects of incarceration.
It seems that Stephanie and Matt believe that a harsh sentence for Turner will set a precedent allowing more women to report sexual assault in the future. Their stated position is that “The concern becomes one about helping survivors feel that they can come forward. Our concern is that when a sanction doesn’t correspond with the action, it will deter victims from reporting because they feel that the system did not adequately provide justice. This case has larger implications for this campus and students views on sexual assault.”
Unfortunately, their point of view does not hold up against the academic body of research concerning sexual assault reporting and prevention. There is no research to suggest that harsh sentences increase reporting rates of sexual assault. There are many reasons why someone would choose not to report, and harsh sentences may actually deter victims from reporting in the first place, in cases where the victim does not want to impose harm upon another individual. On the other hand, the research does show that long prison sentences are debilitating and extremely cruel to the incarcerated and their loved ones. Locking people up does not rehabilitate them and too often causes massive trauma and psychological damage. If we are not absolutely confident that incarcerating Brock Turner for a minimum of two years (and up to 10 years) will help victims or increase reporting rates, then we are advocating for hurting another individual with dubious benefit for anyone. This is very concerning.
The facts of the case have already been pored over by a jury, and Turner has been declared guilty. Brock Turner fingered a girl while she was passed out from alcohol intoxication. This type of behavior is not acceptable and should be condemned without qualification. Sexual assault is an insidious crime that robs an individual of their dignity, sense of self worth and faith in others. As a Stanford community, we must reject this type of behavior and work tirelessly to change the culture from which it stems.
And we have done as much with this case so far. Brock Turner has been expelled from Stanford. He has been convicted of felony crimes. Turner’s face has been painted across social media and national headlines as the epitome of rape culture and campus sexual violence. With his felony conviction, Turner will effectively become a second-class citizen with restricted access to education, employment, housing, adoption, loans and credit, voting, professional licensing, not to mention the huge blow to his reputation, which will haunt him for the rest of his life. He will experience significant psychological suffering and overwhelming isolation from the rest of society. His guilt and regret will surely follow him forever.
Stephanie and Matt claim that we need to incarcerate Turner in order to “affirm the dignity of survivors.” Let me be clear: Incarceration neither heals a victim’s trauma nor affirms their dignity. Justice is not served in vengeance. We do not help the cause of anti-violence by putting humans in cages. As a sexual assault activist, when you start to advocate for harsh punishment, you lose the moral high ground of protecting victims and become a perpetrator of violence yourself. While it is true that much of the time, people who commit sexual assault go completely unnoticed and unpunished, we must not overcompensate by scapegoating guilty individuals with sentences that break them. In the great empire of mass incarceration, the United States, we often ignore the realities of state-sanctioned human suffering. We forget that all of us are extremely fallible. Those who break the law are redeemable. Those who hurt others can be forgiven.
I call on all Stanford students to direct their efforts towards empathy and love. We must help victims of sexual assault, not destroy the souls of young men who commit crimes. We must lead the nation against campus rape culture and transform our own community, but not lose sight of the higher values that define who we are as individuals. There are numerous ways to get involved in preventing sexual violence that do not hurt other people and I hope that we can adopt many of these principles within the activist community on campus.
Hoping for peace, love, and compassion, even when that may be difficult and unpopular,
Saunders Hayes ’16
If you have gotten this far, thank you for reading. I have always been afraid to speak out at Stanford in particular because of the brutality of criticism that comes with voicing your opinion publicly. All too often, we are trained to find flaws in others’ arguments and attack them relentlessly for their mistakes. I hope that we are all able to keep an open mind and care for others, even in the face of disagreement.
Contact Saunders Hayes at sbdhayes ‘at’ stanford.edu.