The Value of Our Daughters

The Stanford University sexual assault case raises crucial issues about gender, class and race, writes Marybeth Gasman.

June 9, 2016
Brock Turner's mug shot

Yesterday I took my 17-year-old daughter out for dinner, and our conversation led to the young white man who attended Stanford University and who raped a woman in January 2015. His name is Brock Turner. As I will send my daughter off to college soon, I asked her how she felt about the fact that the judge sentenced this man, found guilty of sexual assault, to only six months of jail time. Her response: “Terrified.” How did I feel about her response? Terrified. Terrified that my daughter lives in fear of both her body being violated and of the legal system not valuing her life and pain.

Our dinner conversation focused on gender, class and race -- because, while perhaps not apparent to most white people, this case is also about race. I am proud to have a daughter with the ability to tease out all of these issues, mainly due to her public school experience in the city of Philadelphia.

First, my daughter and I talked about how women are not respected across the world and here in the United States. Women’s bodies are not considered their own, and women -- especially those of color -- are often under attack. Why do men feel that they can take from, use and abuse our bodies? Why did Brock Turner’s father, Dan Turner, refer to the crime perpetuated by his son as “20 minutes of action”? How is it that a man who rapes an unconscious woman only receives six months of jail time and three years of probation?

Unfortunately, my daughter knows the answers to these questions already: women are not valued. It’s clear to us that the judge in this case, Aaron Persky, valued the bodies and livelihoods of men over women, because he was more concerned with the “severe impact” of jail time on Turner’s life than he was about the lifelong damage the assault has done to the victim. All one needs to do is read the victim’s statement to the court and it is apparent that his violation of her body will have a lasting and life-altering impact.

Second, we talked about the class issues involved in this case. Brock Turner had the means to hire a high-powered attorney to represent him. Of course, he has this right. We wondered, however, what would have happened to him if he had not had the resources to represent himself in this way. What happens to those who must rely on legal aid, whether guilty or not? We were certain that he would have been given the full sentence, as any rapist should.

Third, we discussed the racial issues in the case. Given the racism permeating our country as well as college campuses right now (nothing new, just more vile), my daughter is astute enough to realize that it wasn’t only Turner’s gender and class that helped him to escape the jail time he deserved. It was his race -- his whiteness. If he had been an African-American or Latino man, given the entrenched racism in our criminal justice system, he would be in jail for at least a decade and, most likely, would have been presumed guilty long before the jury’s verdict. My daughter understands that the very same people who are hailing Turner as innocent, framed and too young to suffer through jail time would be calling him an “animal” and a “thug” and demanding justice for the victim had Turner been a man of color -- regardless of the jury’s decision.

But Turner is an upper-middle-class white man, and he is benefiting from all that middle-class and affluent white men benefit from on a daily basis. His father has apparently received the same advantages, as evidenced by his firm dismissal of his son’s sexual assault of a woman and reference to it as “20 minutes of action” in his letter to Judge Persky. Rather than acknowledge that his son is a rapist and needs rehabilitation, he puts the blame squarely on the drinking culture at colleges and universities. Instead of encouraging his son to speak out about the wrongs of raping a woman, he is urging Brock to talk to young people about alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity on college campuses. But sexually assaulting a woman is not sexual promiscuity; it is sexual assault.

The best way for men to understand that women have value, and that men do not have a right to women’s bodies, is for other men to stand up, speak out and take the lead in educating young men. Only then will we begin to create an atmosphere where young women like my daughter will not be terrified to go to college. We also need men, especially white men, to take a good long look at the systems that privilege them and oppress women -- whether higher education, the legal system, the news media, fraternal organizations or the family -- and work to change these systems.

Until men are willing to take on these systems that oppress women and to confront people in their lives who violate women, women will not be valued. So I ask the men who are reading this essay, are you ready to tell your own daughters that you don’t value them?


Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.


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