The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Stanford sex offender’s beliefs about sexual assault are surprisingly widespread

“You can put a college student rapist on a lie detector test and they will pass."

Students hold up a sign about rape during New Student Orientation at Stanford University in California in September of 2015. (Tessa Ormenyi via AP)

After former Stanford University student Brock Turner was found guilty of sexual assault, his childhood friend penned a letter to the California judge who would decide his fate. Leslie Rasmussen, 20, asked Judge Aaron Persky, “Where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists?”

Her remarks, which have faced criticism online, reflected a surprisingly widespread attitude on college campuses about sexual assault. The stereotypical predator is a stranger with a weapon, crouching in the bushes. Turner, however, is a freshman and all-American swimmer at a prestigious school.

When he was caught one January 2015 night on top of a half-naked, unconscious woman behind a dumpster — that wasn’t rape, Rasmussen argued. That was a consequence of party culture.

Ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexually assaulting a woman but was released from jail Sept. 2, after serving just 3 months. His light sentence has drawn harsh criticism. Here's what you need to know. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post) (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Five myths about rape

“This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot,” Rasmussen wrote. “That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement.”

Federal law says she is making a false distinction. The Justice Department defines rape as, “The 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.”

According to California law, Brock was not convicted of “rape” but rather three other counts: “assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.” (In this case, the “foreign object” was his finger.)

This difference between federal law and state law, however, is fundamentally about the wording of criminal statutes. What Brock’s friend was referring to was a conceptual difference between what it means to sexually assault someone and what it means to act inappropriate while intoxicated.

A surprisingly large number of college students also draw that distinction.

Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert, who designed his school’s rape prevention program, asked a group of first-year fraternity brothers in a 2007 study whether they’d ever raped someone. They all said no. Foubert changed the phrasing, however, and 10 percent of first-year brothers reported they’d penetrated a woman against her permission.

“They don’t see this behavior as rape, perhaps as a way to protect themselves, to not be responsible for their behavior if that happens,” Foubert said. “It’s not just college students. You hear these beliefs in broader society.”

These perceptions have endured even as the national conversation about sexual assault has grown.

University of Arizona professor Mary Koss, who coined the term “date rape” in the 1980s, found in a 1987 study that 7.7 percent of male students reported anonymously they had forced or tried to force someone to have sex with them. Almost none of them considered that to be rape.

Koss said she still hears these sentiments from her students. She said some young men think that, if they’re as intoxicated as a female partner, whatever happens can be blamed on the alcohol. She adds that others think young women secretly want to be pushed into a sexual encounter.

A 1994 study found that between 25 and 35 percent of men lack knowledge about what constitutes rape, and a 2010 report noted men are more likely than women to have these attitudes.

“You can put a college student rapist on a lie detector test and they will pass,” Koss said — not describing an actual experiment but the depth of the students’ beliefs. “They sincerely do not believe what they did is rape.”

She said Turner committed rape but that he does not think he did so. He did not apologize for sexual assault in a court statement to the judge. He apologized for drinking too much.

He was sentenced last week to six months in county jail, followed by three years probation. 

“I never want to have a drop of alcohol again,” Turner wrote. “I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed.

More from Wonkblog:

What a creepy Bloomingdale’s ad tells us about America’s understanding of rape

The rape myth that lives on in Idaho

The disturbing truth about college football and rape