We should be able to call Brock Turner a rapist. But legally, we cannot.
We can call the former Stanford University swimmer, convicted this month of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, a felon. We can call him a sex offender, which he will be for the rest of his life. We can call him the perpetrator of a sexual assault.
But under California state law, Turner cannot be called what he should be called – a rapist.
Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in Santa Clara County Jail and three years of probation for digitally penetrating an intoxicated and unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Two Stanford graduate students tackled and detained the 20-year-old after seeing him running from the crime scene.
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The case has sparked an outpouring of support for the victim, with her heartbreaking letter to Turner making the rounds on social media and among elected officials. It also has fueled anger against Aaron Persky, the judge who issued the lenient sentence.
But, perhaps most importantly, this case has shed light on a long-ignored loophole in California law.
Unlike dozens of other states, California’s antiquated definition of rape only encompasses nonconsensual “sexual intercourse.” It leaves out all other forms of sexual penetration. So, although Turner was originally accused of rape, the charge was thrown out after DNA testing proved there had been no penile penetration.
Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, and Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, are pushing to close this loophole. Their Assembly Bill 701, which could get a hearing this week, would redefine any sexual penetration without consent as rape. We applaud their efforts.
Already the FBI recognizes rape as any “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
Twenty-five states also have broadened their definition, too, meaning if Turner had committed his crimes in Nevada or in his home state of Ohio, he would be a rapist.
In sentencing, this can make a difference. Turner isn’t the best example because he automatically qualified for a tougher, maximum sentence because his victim was unconscious. But, generally speaking, the maximum sentence for sexual assault is four years in California. That’s half as long as the maximum sentence for rape.
This discrepancy allows criminals to get lighter sentences simply because they committed their sex crimes in California.
It’s time for a unified stance against rape and the culture perpetuating it. Updating California’s definition of rape is the first step. It would go a long way toward clearing up the murky understanding of what constitutes consent and what is categorized as rape on college campuses.
Semantic distinctions in state laws take away the victim’s ability to define what happened to them. The woman in the Stanford case was violated in the most intimate of ways. Why are we allowing what happened to her to be categorized as somehow less invasive than rape?