Op-Ed

Stanford rape case: How can Brock Turner accept responsibility for his actions if his father excuses them?

Last week, the ex-Stanford University swimmer Brock Allen Turner was given a six-month jail sentence and probation for committing three violent felonies, including assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman.

Since then, BuzzFeed News has published a powerful and painful 7,200-word statement written by the woman he assaulted. She read it to her attacker in court (and clearly also meant it for the judge, who gave Brock a lenient punishment because “a prison sentence … would have a severe impact” on the life of the 20-year-old, who had hoped to make it to the Olympics). The statement speaks eloquently for itself, and it’s worth taking the time to read every single word.

Also worth reading is a letter written by the attacker’s dad, Dan Turner­­ – a plea to the judge to give his son a probation-only sentence. There is so much wrong with the missive, including the way it conflates sex with rape. Throughout, the father reveals a “my child can do no wrong” mindset. It is an extreme example, but hardly an isolated one, of a much deeper societal problem.

“When parents overvalue their child, they see their child as ‘God’s gift to man,’” creating narcissists in the process, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Children raised this way, the researchers added, “feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes and believe they deserve special treatment.”

No doubt, many parents would do everything in their power to protect their children from going to prison, no matter what they’d done; some might argue that it’s their obligation as parents. And who knows? Given the contentious debate around sexual assault on campus, maybe Dan Turner even convinced himself that his son is not guilty.

But make no mistake. After a lengthy trial in which the defense tried to discredit the victim, a jury convicted Brock Turner of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated person; sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object; and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

Fully aware of the details, Turner’s father maintains in his letter that Brock “has never been violent to anyone including his actions” in this case. He does not acknowledge that his son has committed a crime, or seem to understand that his son’s victim is the one who has truly suffered. 

The father is only concerned that his son has “been deeply altered forever” by what he euphemistically calls “the events” of Jan. 17, 2015. Indeed, he cannot even bring himself to name what his son has actually done, grossly mischaracterizing the rape as “20 minutes of action.”

It was this sort of callous language that led Peggy Orenstein, author of the new book “Girls and Sex,” to tweet Monday: “I often wonder who raises the young men who assault their classmates on college campuses. Now I know. It's this guy.”

The father cites his son’s “worry, anxiety, fear and depression,” and seems particularly upset about the young man’s loss of his once-voracious appetite. As evidence, he explains that Brock can no longer enjoy a “big ribeye steak.”

He goes on to tell the judge that this verdict against his son is a “steep price to pay” and that it has “shattered him” (italics mine). Brock’s life, he says, “will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve.”

He then offers up an extraordinary proposal. Rather than sending Brock to jail, he suggests, why not have him educate “other college-age students about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity”?

Never mind that alcohol consumption (at least by Brock’s 23-year-old victim) and sexual promiscuity are not crimes. His son was not convicted of drinking and having sex. He was convicted of a violent sexual assault against an unconscious woman, as the victim stressed in her statement to the court.

How is the son supposed to accept responsibility for his actions when the father cannot?  How is the son supposed to learn the difference between sexual assault and sexual intimacy when his father cannot? How is the son supposed to learn that what he did was rape someone when his father insists that all his son did wrong was get caught up in the college party scene?

This is a young man who clearly cannot distinguish between right and wrong because his father cannot teach him the difference.

I am not arguing that the father should be held accountable for his son’s actions. I am simply arguing that he should hold his son to account. That is a big part of a parent’s job.

Randye Hoder is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. Follow her on Twitter @ranhoder

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