Criminologist Callie Marie Rennison put former Stanford student Brock Turner — who served a three-month sentence after his conviction for assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old — alongside the legal definition of rape in her textbook. Now, she charts a path forward in the post-Harvey Weinstein age.
The college professor who cast Stanford swimmer Brock Turner in her criminal justice textbook recently got a shred of hope from some eighth graders.
The kids she spoke with easily saw that “sexual violence is violence” and understood victim-blaming was wrong, University of Colorado Denver criminologist Callie Marie Rennison told Moneyish; they struggled to comprehend why survivors wouldn’t be believed. “I’ll tell you what: If you ever need to feel inspired and uplifted, go talk to some eighth graders,” she said. “If this is what the future looks like, things are going to be a lot better.”
Rennison’s textbook attracted national eyeballs in September following a student’s viral Facebook photo of one of its pages: a mugshot of Turner, the ex-Stanford University student whose three months’ jail time for a sexual assault conviction spawned national outrage last year, nestled next to the legal definition of rape. (Turner last week sought to appeal his conviction.)
He may have been able to get out of prison time but in my Criminal Justice 101 textbook, Brock Turner is the definition…
Though Rennison maintains she didn’t “set out to make (Turner) the face of rape,” the sheer volume of students asking about Turner and his controversial sentence made his inclusion “a no-brainer” when it came time to produce the book’s second edition. “We see that most people who perpetrate any kind of sexual violence rarely even get into the system … I was shocked that (Turner) served any time,” she said. “But it’s a perfect opportunity to talk to students about that and ask them why that is, and why the criminal justice system treats violence experienced primarily by women differently than other violence.”
In fact, the reality that so few sexual violence perpetrators ever wind up answering for their actions — just six rapists out of every 1,000 rapes will be incarcerated, per the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — tends to be what “shocks people the most,” Rennison said. “In essence, for the majority of perpetrators, they can commit these sorts of crimes and actions with impunity,” she said. “And that’s got to stop.”
Rennison hopes the still-salient #MeToo phenomenon can help turn the tide on whether perpetrators face criminal charges. But first, she said, people need to acknowledge and address inequity: Minority and marginalized communities are disproportionately victimized by acts of sexual violence, and people of color tend to serve time more often than their white, privileged counterparts for the same crime. Second, people who care about the issue — predominantly women right now, by Rennison’s appraisal — need to land in policymaking positions.
She’s pulling her weight. Nursing sadness the day after the 2016 election, Rennison signed up with Emerge Colorado, a training program aimed at upping the number of Democrat women in public office. “I did the training, and I’m ready when the time comes. I’m not just telling people run for office and win — I intend to do the same,” she said. “Nothing is going to change until we do it.” She relates that rallying cry back to the #MeToo movement: “We’ve been quiet; we’ve been nice, and that hasn’t changed. So I think it’s about time that we stop being quiet and nice, and we start speaking out together, and we start believing each other, and start naming names.” (Name names “carefully” after consulting a lawyer, she cautioned, citing an uptick in accusers being slapped with lawsuits.)
“I would like people to understand that sexual violence isn’t a woman’s issue; it is a people’s issue,” Rennison said. “So until it becomes a full ‘people’s issue’ in people’s minds, then I think women need to get out there and run for office, they need to win office, and they need to make policies that are fair to everybody.”
Men, of course, should be part of the solution. A few days ago, the researcher got a heartening email from a male reader asking what he could do personally. “I was so touched by the actual question,” she said. “Other than the obvious things — don’t engage in it, call people out — I talked about donating money to places that deal with sexual violence incidents.” She also encouraged the man, an engineer, to author an op-ed for his professional magazine and connect with colleagues on the topic.
Going forward, Rennison said, the most productive direction for the national reckoning on sexual assault is “to maintain the momentum.” And while several titans of Hollywood, politics and media have toppled under allegations of misconduct and assault, she added, businesses — and people in everyday life — must also hold perpetrators accountable. “We can do it every day in the way we interact with people at work, the way we interact with people in school, people on the street, all of it,” she said. “I would like to see everybody think it’s important enough to do that.”
Rennison understands the fight can seem fruitless — and says that sometimes, it’s OK to feel sad and admit, “Today is f—in’ bad.” “But tomorrow, we get up and keep fighting,” she said. “The people who don’t care about this topic want us to shut up and go home. And we can’t. We just can’t.”
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