The Power of Empathy: How Empathy Unfairly Benefited Brock Turner, but Can Save Us

In January, when most of us were still accidentally writing 2015 instead of 2016, and most of the Stanford students had recently arrived back on campus after winter break, two Stanford University students encountered a man having sex with an unconscious girl behind a trash dumpster. The girl’s hair was disheveled and full of pine needles, her long necklace was wrapped around her neck, her bra pulled out of her dress, which was pulled up above her waist, and her legs were spread apart.  A few months later Brock Turner was found guilty of 3 counts of sexual assault for raping this woman, a crime that can earn a sentence from a sentence of 6 months in jail to 14 years in prison.

Brock Turner was given the absolute minimum sentence of 6 months of jail by Judge Aaron Persky – and will be eligible for release after just 90 days. At most, Brock Turner will spend less than 200 days in a county jail because Judge Persky stated, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on Brock (notice that the judge said “Brock” . . . not “the Defendant”).  I think he will not be a danger to others.”

Judge Aaron Persky saw himself when he looked at Brock Turner. They were both blue-eyed, elite athletes who attended Stanford; so, Judge Persky didn’t see a convicted rapist before him; he saw his younger self — or maybe even his son.  He unconsciously or consciously thought, “I could’ve been in Brock’s position. I certainly had moments while I was at Stanford, where I drank too much and made a few poor decisions.”  Brock’s behavior and position were relatable to Judge Persky.  So when Judge Persky sentenced Brock to 6 months in jail, instead of 14 years in prison, he did so from a place of fondness and empathy.

03-brock-allen-turner-w245-h368-2x pic of judge aaron pesky

In contrast, much of the country – and White women in particular — have responded to the sentence with indignation and disgust, particularly after reading the victim’s letter:

My clothes were confiscated and I stood naked while the nurses held a ruler to various abrasions on my body and photographed them. The three of us worked to comb the pine needles out of my hair, six hands to fill one paper bag. To calm me down, they said it’s just the flora and fauna, flora and fauna.  I had multiple swabs inserted into my vagina and anus, needles for shots, pills, had a Nikon pointed right into my spread legs.  I had long, pointed beaks inside me and had my vagina smeared with cold, blue paint to check for abrasions.

After a few hours of this, they let me shower. I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.

They are, as I am, empathetic to her pain.  She could be us. She could be our daughter, our sister, our best friend (1 in 4 college women are raped).

Judge Persky actions clearly show that he valued Brock Turner’s life over the victim’s.  He was far more concerned with how a long sentence could possibly affect Brock than how the rape had already permanently damaged his victim’s life. Her life didn’t matter as much as his.

Devastating. A powerful person just told you that your life, your daughter’s lives are less valuable because you and they are a woman.

So, what do we do?

What if women (regardless of race) took a moment, sat in their anger and sadness over the devaluation of their lives, and made the decision to broaden their empathy to another devalued group?  What if we turned this “Oh no” moment into an “aha” moment?  Perhaps this experience Persky-Turner experience can be used to foster understanding.


Consider the following:

  • Odds are, we wouldn’t even have heard about this case if the victim had been Black. Even in missing person cases, non-White women who go missing receive 27 times less media coverage than White women.
  • Had the perpetrator been Black (and/or poor), he most likely would have been sentenced to more than the 6 months. Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Lastly, Black defendants who victimize whites tend to receive more severe sentences than both blacks who victimize other blacks (especially acquaintances), and whites who victimize whites.

Pain hurts, but it can also bond.  Common experiences can humanize.  Life can weaken judgment and strengthen compassion. I want someone to say, “ahhhh…now I get IT. I can understand why Black people have  become so frustrated.  I can finally relate to the Black Lives Matter movement.  They just want their lives to be as valued as much as a White man’s life.”  We ALL want our lives, our children’s lives, to matter.  We certainly matter and we surely can make a change.



One Response

  1. I enjoyed the article immensely. My question is why is the outrage mostly coming from white women? How do you feel the women of color are reacting? Are they together with her from the standpoint that she was a woman but other than that… shes on her own? Did they look at it as, “Now she and other white women know how it feels to be raped by a white man and get little to no repercussions for his actions?”

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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