By Alice Mutter

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, sexual violence, rape

This past summer, a sexual assault case out of Stanford University in California gained national attention when Buzz Feed News published a letter that the survivor of the assault read aloud during her attacker’s sentencing hearing.[1] Stanford student Brock Turner sexually assaulted the survivor while she was unconscious.

Public outcry occurred when Turner was released from California county jail this September after serving only three months, just half of his six-month sentence.[2] Turner’s maximum potential penalty was fourteen years in prison. While the prosecutor pushed for a six-year prison sentence, California Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to only six months in prison as well as probation and mandatory sex offender registration.[3] In California, inmates often receive early release for good behavior, thereby allowing Turner to serve only a small portion of his sentence.[4]

Unfortunately, the outcome of Turner’s case is not unique. Rape and sexual assault cases are vastly underreported. RAINN estimates that less than 35% of rapes are reported to the police.[5] Furthermore, RAINN cites that for every 1,000 rapes, just 6 rapists will be incarcerated.[6]

Despite the United States’ massive prison industrial complex, rapists are incarcerated for committing rape far less than perpetrators of other, often far less serious crimes. In contrast with the 6 in 1,000 rapists that are incarcerated, 22 robbers out of 1,000 robberies are incarcerated.[7] Furthermore, 33 perpetrators out of 1,000 assault and battery crimes are incarcerated.[8] Lawyers and sexual assault activists contend that underreporting contributes to the lack of rape convictions. However, Turner’s case demonstrates that even when a rape case proceeds to trial and a conviction is awarded, sentencing is not always reflective of the crime.

In direct response to Turner’s conviction, California’s legislature passed two bills this September changing both the definition of rape and sentencing procedures for those who are convicted.[9] Assembly Bill Number 701 (“AB 701”) states “that all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault may be considered rape for purposes of the gravity of the offense and the support of survivors.”[10] Prior to AB 701, the legal definition of rape involved sexual intercourse under a lack of consent, force, or duress.[11] Under this prior definition of rape, Turner’s acts failed to qualify as rape because he never penetrated the survivor with his penis and digital penetration is not included in the statute. Therefore, Turner was convicted of sexual assault which is a lesser crime.[12] Under the new AB 701 definition, subsequent defendants acting in a similar manner to Turner’s would legally qualify as rape in California.

In addition to changing the legal definition of rape, California’s legislature reformed sentencing laws with Assembly Bill Number 2888 (“AB 2888”). AB 2888 now prohibits a court from granting probation or suspending a sentence if a “person is convicted of rape, sodomy, penetration with a foreign object, or oral copulation if the victim was either unconscious or incapable of giving consent due to intoxication.”[13]  Under AB 2888, a court would not have been permitted to grant Turner an early release because of the nature of his convictions.[14]

California’s new laws, despite their inapplicability in Turner’s case outcome, are a necessary step in addressing the widespread issue of rape and sexual assault within the United States. Such changes are crucial in reforming rape culture both within and outside of the legal system as well as helping survivors achieve a sense of justice. As the system currently stands, survivors of rape and sexual assault feel not only silenced by the system but that pursing legal measures will have no effect.

By reforming rape and sexual assault laws, survivors are more likely to feel not only validated but also that they received justice through the criminal justice system. Similarly, redefining rape refocuses the conversation away from criminalizing specific acts and towards criminalizing the invasion of another’s bodily integrity. [15] Reforms such as California’s focus not on classifying types of sexual relations to determine criminality, but rather on the severity of invading a person’s body without consent.

Many states continue to have rape and sexual assault laws that fail to properly define rape. For example, in Maryland first degree rape is still defined as “[v]aginal intercourse with another by force, or threat of force, without the consent of the other”.[16] If Turner were tried in Maryland, he would likely be charged with felony sexual assault as opposed to felony rape, just as he was in California prior to AB 701 and 2888.

It is time that the laws reflect the real problems with rape. Rape convictions and appropriate sentencing should not be dependent on vaginal intercourse with a penis or whether the survivor was physically harmed. Rape is about a personal invasion. Thus, rape and sexual assault laws must begin reflect these dynamics like California’s new laws to ensure that survivors are heard and receive justice, not re-victimized and silenced.


[1] Katie J.M. Baker, Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker, Buzz Feed News (June 3, 2016)

[2] Lindsey Bever and Amy B Want, Brock Turner freed after serving half of his six-month jail sentence for sexual assault, Wash Post (Sept. 2, 2016)

[3] Matt Ford, How Brock Turner Changed California’s Rape Laws, The Atlantic (Oct. 3, 2016)

[4] Brittny Mejia Brock Turner released from jail after serving half of six-month sentence in Stanford sexual assault case, L.A. Times (Sept. 2, 2016)

[5] RAINN, The Criminal Justice System: Statistics,

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Supra note 3.

[10] Assemb. B. 701, 2015 Assemb., 2015-16 Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2016).

[11] Id.

[12] Kirsten Salyer, Why We Can’t Call Brock Turner a ‘Rapist’, Time Magazine (June 9, 2016)

[13] Assemb. B. 2888, 2015 Assemb., 2015-16 Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2016).

[14] Turner’s three sexual assault convictions included assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person. Supra note 10.

[15] Carol E. Tracy et al., Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System 6 (2012),

[16] Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-304.


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