This week, the Internet has been abuzz with controversy surrounding Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who received a light prison sentence for a brutal rape. After forcing himself on an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and running from the scene after two passersby intervened, Turner still insists that, at most, he is guilty of drinking too much and partying too hard. His father and a friend also maintain his innocence, minimizing his criminal actions as a “Steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Even after unanimous conviction for sexual assault in a criminal court, why can so many people, including Turner himself, not understand that he is a rapist?
Because his actions are far too common to seem criminal.
We’re sociologists, and our talk about current events remains purely scientific, but as we discussed this case, our conversation turned into an exchange of stories of sexual aggression that seemed so painstakingly ordinary that we had never told each other about them before. For Nicole, there was the guy who refused to leave her apartment until she had sex with him, even after she told him at least six times that she didn’t have any interest. He used to intern for Bernie Sanders and now works at a non-profit in DC. There was also the guy who claimed he was too drunk to drive home after a second date and asked to sleep over, promising he wouldn’t try anything. He pinned her down and humped her for half an hour as he tried to get hard, and as she repeatedly told him that she wanted him to stop. That guy is a sex educator at a middle school. And she couldn’t forget the guy whose Hail Mary for a bad date was forced kisses, grabbing at her shirt, and then pulling down his pants and repeating, “You can’t leave because I really want to have sex with you.” He works for CNN.
For Saswathi, there was the guy who complained that he drove a long way to see her and insisted that “[she] would be lucky to have [his] babies” when she refused to have unprotected sex with him. He graduated near the top of his class and now works for Ford. And there was the guy who blurted out, “Why don’t you just kiss me?” after she refused his physical advances and then went in for the kiss anyway after she still said no. He’s a Duke graduate. Most recently, there was the guy who followed her from an event at an alumni weekend, grabbed her, and only stopped forcibly kissing her after she said, “You need to learn how to take NO for an answer” in front of someone passing by. He’s also an Ivy Leaguer, but he never introduced himself before making his physical advances, so Saswathi doesn’t know anything else about him.
For both of us, all of these events took place within the past six months.
Neither of us would call any of these individual encounters particularly traumatizing. It’s not because they aren’t terrifying or didn’t leave us feeling violated, but because they’re so common that the easiest response is to take a shower, grab a glass of wine, and binge Netflix while trying to summon up the courage to go on another first date. We don’t have the time to go to the police with each gross encounter. And if we did try, we know we would get a reputation as women who cried wolf. Besides, we’ve seen worse and—as disgusting as it is—we feel lucky that this is all of what we’ve had to face.
But what we should point out is that all of these encounters include a completed sexual assault. It is illegal to expose yourself, rub your naked genitalia against someone, pressure someone into sex, or force someone to make out with you without consent. And in all cases, we made it perfectly clear that these actions were unwanted. If we hadn’t been hyper-vigilant, had maybe a couple more drinks, or been somewhere more secluded, these encounters could have escalated further. But since these encounters aren’t rapes, and these are allegedly nice guys with promising futures, we know what happened to us wouldn’t be taken seriously– so we try to let everyday sexual abuse roll off our backs.
We aren’t alone in feeling this way—and this is where we can put our sociology hats back on to understand our own experiences. Researchers have found that it’s exceedingly common for women to mislabel their sexual assaults as “bad dates” or other types of unfortunate experiences, especially if they have some relationship with the perpetrator, as most victims do. The phenomenon is especially pervasive among teenage girls who are extremely likely to normalize illegal sexual abuse as a typical part of dating or flirting. As the title of one study suggests, managing men’s gross attempts at sexual contact is “Just How It Is” and women have become used to fending off unwanted and often illegal sexual advances.
What Brock Turner did isn’t actually that different from what all of the “nice guys” have done to us on “bad dates.” He just took things one step further. Instead of finally accepting “no” as an answer or reacting to physical resistance before forcing vaginal penetration, he hid his unconscious victim behind a dumpster and completed a rape.
If Brock Turner’s actions stopped at kissing and groping his victim, she still would have been incapacitated by alcohol, and he still would have committed a crime, but no one would have batted an eyelash. He probably even could have gotten away with raping her if he’d chosen somewhere more private like a bedroom. Turner’s intention to initiate a hook up with a woman while disregarding her wishes is (unfortunately) perfectly normal. His friends probably do it every weekend. The latest research suggests that as many as 10% of college men and 50% of male college athletes admit to acts of sexual violence.
Turner doesn’t think he should go to prison because the real injustice is that he is the only one he knows held accountable for illegal sexual actions that usually go unpunished.
For rapists like Brock Turner to take responsibility for their actions, we need to take all sexual assault seriously, not just the sensational cases that end in a bystander chasing down the rapist. The men in our lives need to reflect on their own behaviors and recognize that they have almost certainly crossed at least one romantic partner’s boundaries in a way that could have left them feeling scared and violated. Instead of minimizing experiences like ours as “bad dates” or blaming women like us for picking “bad guys,” it’s time to believe the victims, call out the aggressors, and set a higher standard for acceptable sexual behavior.
Nicole Bedera is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Michigan who studies gender and sexuality with a research emphasis on college sexual violence and masculinity. Saswathi Natta is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland who studies social stratification and demography with a focus on factors like race, caste, and gender.
 Schwartz, Martin D., and Molly S. Leggett. 1999. “Bad Dates or Emotional Trauma? The Aftermath of Campus Sexual Assault.” Violence Against Women 5(3): 251-271. http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/5/3/251.abstract
 Boyle, Kaitlin M., and Ashleigh E. McKinzie. 2015.”Resolving Negative Affect and Restoring Meaning: Responses to Deflection Produced by Unwanted Sexual Experiences.” Social Psychology Quarterly 78(2): 151-172. http://spq.sagepub.com/content/78/2/151
 Tolman, Deborah L., Brian R. Davis, and Christin P. Bowman. 2016. “‘That’s Just How It Is’: A Gendered Analysis of Masculinity and Femininity Ideologies in Adolescent Girls’ and Boys Heterosexual Relationships.” Journal of Adolescent Research 31(1): 3-31. http://jar.sagepub.com/content/31/1/3.abstract
 Swartout, Kevin M., Mary P. Koss, Jacquelyn W. White, Martie P. Thompson, Antonia Abbey, and Alexandra L. Bellis. 2015. JAMA Pediatrics 169(12). http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2375127
 Young, Belinda-Rose, Sarah L. Desmarais, Julie A. Baldwin, and Rasheeta Chandler. 2016. “Sexual Coercion Practices Among Undergraduate Male Recreational Athletes, Intercollegiate Athletes, and Non-Athletes.” Violence Against Women 30 May. http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/05/30/1077801216651339.abstract