Alcohol is never an excuse for sexual assault — period

This weekend, millions of people read a long, heartrending and incisive letter. Written by the victim in the high-profile Stanford rape case, it was brutally critical of both Brock Turner — the accused rapist in the case — and of the culture and judicial system that allowed him to be sentenced to just six months in prison for his crime. It’s long and necessarily graphic in places, but if you haven’t read it, you should.

Then, in the wake of that statement and the shock of Turner’s gentle punishment — he was convicted of three felonies and could have faced 14 years in prison — another letter hit the internet: Turner’s father’s plea for leniency on his son, a deeply offensive missive that asked the judge to not let his son’s “20 minutes of action” wreck his life. Dan Turner argues that alcohol, and not Brock, bears the sole responsibility for the crimes he committed. It’s a tired, ugly argument that is as wrong as it is hypocritical.

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There’s a lot to unpack in the Stanford case and a lot of facts and details to parse in order to understand what happened. And yes, it is a fact that both Turner and his victim were drunk at a party one night in January 2015.

It’s also a fact that while Turner’s victim was unconscious, he took her behind a Dumpster, pulled her dress up and her underclothes off and raped her. When two men happened upon the rape, Turner ran away, and they chased him. Nearly 18 months and three felony convictions later, Brock and rape apologists like his father still insist that his greatest mistake was getting drunk.

To hear Brock and his defenders tell it, the assault was just an unpleasant side effect of the drinking, like double vision or slurring your way through an offensive joke at the office party. In fact, Turner’s father still refuses to even call it an assault. It was nothing more than a drunken mistake.

People are happy to pick up where Dan Turner lies down. Op-eds and entire comment sections read like a litany of Brock Turner’s greatest characteristics. He was a star swimmer. He feels so worried he can barely eat the steak his father makes him. He was drunk. She was drunk. People get drunk and do dumb stuff all the time, so can’t we just let that in and of itself be Turner’s punishment? Now he’ll be more careful when he drinks. He’ll urge others to be more careful when they drink too, which is mighty big of him.

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These arguments would be laughable if they weren’t so stomach-roiling and insidious. They miss the point entirely, and no one articulates that better than Turner’s victim, who pointed out that, “Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked.”

Alcohol has long been a tidy little scapegoat for our appalling apathy when it comes to assault. Typically it has a punitive quality, as long as we’re talking about or to women. Women who drink and are subsequently victims of sexual assault are naive at best and ignorant whores at worst, failing to understand that if they drink to the point of incapacitation, rape is the punishment they deserve for that.

What, after all, do we expect to happen? If we didn’t want to be raped, we should not have drunk any alcohol. We should not have been at a party. You can’t just go about your life expecting you won’t be raped. If you do, you deserve what you get. In some cases, where the victim is underage, people will counter that her underage drinking is also a crime and one on par with violating another’s bodily autonomy.

But now we get to see alcohol turn a neat little trick. Not only is it to blame for women getting their just deserts, but it further enforces the narrative that men simply cannot help themselves. A drunken rapist has fallen victim to alcohol’s tendencies to facilitate mistakes. Can we really blame him? Come now, he was drinking. Must we wreck his entire life for an innocent mistake for which he bears no real responsibility?

Every single woman has likely been told from a very young age that the way to avoid being raped is to remain vigilant and sober at all times. Will we now tell boys that the way to avoid becoming a rapist is to do the same? “Remember, Johnny, you could potentially rape someone at any time, especially if you drink. Better safe than sorry!”

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The hypocrisy of this isn’t just astounding; it turns women into little more than collateral damage. If we truly think that sending a man to prison for raping someone unjustly affects his life detrimentally, then we must also admit that we do not value his victim’s life the same way.

A prison sentence is supposed to affect you, just as your crime leaves an indelible mark on your victim. That’s why it’s called justice. That Turner will get such a diluted serving of it is insulting to his victim and further reinforces the narrative that rape isn’t that serious. If we allow ourselves to buy in to the idea that alcohol has a power so great that it can both absolve rapists and hold their victims responsible for their own assaults, we will continue to give rapists the approval and safety net they need to commit hideous crimes. They will continue to rely on us to write them off as youthful mistakes or a bout of bad sex.

The debate surrounding how seriously we should take a rape case when one or both people are drunk shouldn’t even be called a debate. That suggests two opposing logical arguments of equal veracity and worth, and Brock Turner’s cowardly refusal to accept that he alone — and not the contents of his cup — is responsible for what happened on Jan. 17 of last year is worthless.

Meanwhile, his victim’s ability to speak plainly when she says, “We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference,” has value beyond measure.


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