Americans are Ready to Get Serious on Campus Sexual Assault

 Courtesy: SFGate

Courtesy: SFGate

The prosecution recommended a six-year sentence, but Brock Turner, the star swimmer at Stanford University got just six months. Presiding over the case was Judge Aaron Persky, himself a former captain of Stanford’s lacrosse team. Had Turner been black, or maybe not an All-American high school swimmer with a run at the Olympic team with a scholarship to Stanford, would the outcome of his three charges of sexual assault be different? The American public believes the answer is yes. The recent national discourse around this case seems to show we have come a long way in terms of openly recognizing and addressing the problem of campus sexual assault. But it’s cases like Turner’s that remind us just how much more needs be done.

 Brock Turner entering Santa Clara Superior Court with his parents. Courtesy:  Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group

Brock Turner entering Santa Clara Superior Court with his parents. Courtesy: Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group

The Turner case hit national headlines about a month ago, due in part to a harrowing letter written by the victim, which was shared widely on social media. However, Turner’s case is certainly not the first time campus sexual assault has been addressed in the media or recent popular culture. At the Oscars this past February, Lady Gaga stood hand-in-hand with victims of campus sexual violence in front of a national audience of 34 million people. College student Emma Sulkowicz raised awareness by carrying a mattress around the campus of Columbia University after the school’s administration had failed to prosecute Paul Nungesser, her accused rapist. Sulkowicz, along with the help of her peers, walked across the stage to receive her diploma last year – mattress in tow. A powerful visual symbol, her actions are part of a growing movement to address and prosecute cases of sexual assault, violence, and abuse on university campuses.  As depressing as these stories are, there is some hope. Indeed, according to our latest national survey, Americans are not only aware of the issue, but they are also ready for more fitting laws.

 Emily Sulkowicz.  Photo by: Kristina Budelis for the Guardian.

Emily Sulkowicz. Photo by: Kristina Budelis for the Guardian.

When it comes to the Turner case specifically, a vast majority of Americans are aware of the case and also disapprove of Turner’s six-month sentence. Indeed, our survey[1] shows that 86% of Americans have heard of the case and know enough to have an opinion on the outcome. Given the facts surrounding the case and its conclusion, it is not surprising that two-thirds of Americans (66%) disapprove of Turner’s six-month sentence, with women disapproving at a slightly higher level (69%) than men (63%).

Moving beyond just the overall feeling about the case, nearly two-thirds (63%) of all respondents think that if Turner had been an African-American male athlete, he would have received a longer sentence. Black respondents (79%) were more likely than white respondents (61%) to agree, including 86% of African American women. Interestingly, men who are of the Millennial Generation were two times as likely as millennial women (26% versus 13%) to feel that the sentence would have been the same regardless of his race. A majority of millennial men (56%) feel that a longer sentence would have been given out if Turner was not white, but this is much lower than any other generational cohort. The only demographic where there was anything close to an even split was among conservative men, where about one-third (30%) feel that Turner would have received the same sentence despite skin color, while 44% feel he would have been given a longer sentence.

This view that the sentence would have been different does not seem so outlandish, given similar incidents with minority athletes in other state. Indeed, a case that was brought to trial right after Turner’s hearing resulted in the same Judge Persky sentencing Salvadoran immigrant Paul Ramirez to a three-year prison term for a felony charge of penetration by force.

Stepping back a bit, Americans have a strong understanding of the pervasiveness of sexual assaults on college campuses.  According to the National Violence Resource Center, the number of college students who fall victim to sexual violence is around one-in-five women and one-in-sixteen men; this number is reported cases and the actual number is assumed to be higher. In our survey, 13% believe the number is more between 15% and 25%, around where the NVRC estimates the percentage of college students who face sexual assault. In contrast, four in ten (40%) believe half or more of college students are the victims of sexual assault at some point during their college career. Nearly all of respondents (92%) think that number consists of at least 10% of students.

 Brown University students entering their graduation ceremony with red tape on their caps to symbolize Title IX. Courtesy: ThinkProgress

Brown University students entering their graduation ceremony with red tape on their caps to symbolize Title IX. Courtesy: ThinkProgress

Given where public opinion is along with the shocking estimate that 90% of victims on college campuses do not report their assault, it is time to begin addressing this issue head on. College leaders should also be aware that this issue is likely to hit their bottom line as parents with kids under the age of 18 (i.e. future college students) are more likely to believe the percentage of students encountering sexual assault is higher than those without children. It is not unfathomable that parents will begin to include how a campus deals with this issue as a factor in deciding which schools to send their children to.

In large part due to the reaction to Turner’s case, California lawmakers have taken steps to close two loopholes in regards to sexual assault and the law. The Senate Public Safety Committee unanimously approved AB 2888, dealing with the distinction between conscious and unconscious victims, which is a factor that contributed to Turner’s light sentence. The second is AB 701, which seeks to broaden the definition of rape. That being said, there is much more that needs to be done, including oversight and legal protection in campus-lead investigations. It should not take a widely publicized case involving an elite university to finally change the law. The public agrees that campus sexual assault is a serious issue -and it’s time to treat it as one.


[1] Methodology: 1,000 interviews were conducted from June 17-21, 2016 by internet survey. The Bayesian confidence interval for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level.

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