Sexual violence is sickeningly commonplace. In the United States, federal data suggests a new sexual assault occurs every two minutes.
Despite the frequency of such crimes, they rarely prompt the intensity of outrage that’s emerged since last week’s sentencing of a former Stanford student who was convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault.
Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and put on probation, an outcome that critics have blasted as too lenient. Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law School professor, told me it sets a “dangerous precedent.” Dauber and others have advocated for the recall of Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner, and whose judicial position was elected. (Persky is running unopposed for re-election in November.) Others have called the vitriol directed at the judge alarming. Santa Clara County’s public defender described it as “hysteria,” according to The New York Times.
Regardless of Persky’s fate, there’s a larger question that the furor over Turner’s sentencing poses: If people’s anger doesn’t simply dissolve or burn up, what sorts of social and cultural changes might come from the outcry over the Stanford rape case?
A “national conversation” has long been the shorthand to describe discussion of subjects, positive and negative, that draw widespread public attention. But only in the internet age have national conversations—in which anyone with a web connection can participate—truly been possible. This is, technologically and culturally, something of a miracle. It can also create quite a mess. On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, any attempts at civil discourse, especially about matters as charged as rape, tend to quickly unravel. The tenor of national conversations, even among those who agree with one another, often crescendo to fever pitch—and not necessarily productively. Online, as my colleague Ian Bogost put it recently, “everyone is scrambling to make their voices louder than everyone else’s. The loudest, it turns out, get to be right.”
“Internet users, for the most part, publicly engage with public statements,” another colleague, Spencer Kornhaber, wrote in an essay last year. This kind of engagement, he said, is a characteristic of “a pluralistic and open society.” This may be a good thing, philosophically, but it’s hard to know what it means actually. Even in cases where utter indignation is merited, where does the outrage go? Once the outcry over Turner’s sentence fades, and you can be sure it will, there’s little compelling evidence to think anything substantial will change in our cultural and judicial responses to sexual assault. There’s also concern that the outcome in the Stanford case could have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assault in the first place.
“The big minus [of the attention on the Stanford case] is that it communicates to victims that even if you do everything right and you have the courage to go through this process, there’s not going to be justice in the end,” said Scott Berkowitz, the founder and CEO of RAINN, an anti-sexual violence advocacy group. “In a country where two-thirds of victims don’t report their attack to police, that’s a terrible message to be sending.”
Yet there are some signs that suggest the outcome of the case won’t necessarily be all bad. RAINN has seen a 35 percent increase in calls and online chats to its victim support line in a matter of days. Berkowitz is hopeful that people will channel their outrage into advocacy by contacting local lawmakers to demand better protections for victims—like longer statutes of limitations in cases of sexual assault. RAINN is also encouraging parents and educators to talk to kids about consent. “There’s a lot of great age-appropriate education out there, starting with preschool age,” Berkowitz said. “Obviously you calibrate the language and content carefully, but it’s part of teaching kids about safety in general.”
It’s difficult, arguably impossible, to measure what kind of impact the Turner case will have, for better and for worse—on victims of sexual assault, on adults teaching kids about consent, or in future criminal cases. In the past, many advocacy groups have argued that even token forms of digital activism—the retweets and Facebook likes that fuel any outrage cycle—eventual lead to more substantial involvement with various causes. “Their logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause,” Laura Seay wrote for The Washington Post in 2014, “and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.”
But there’s limited scholarship that explores how often that conversion takes place. In one study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that people are mostly likely to deepen their engagement with a cause after their initial show of support is made in private—not public. It’s worth noting that the Stanford rape case might never have garnered such widespread attention in the pre-internet era. Sexual assault is so common that, even at a prestigious school, criminal cases aren’t guaranteed to make national headlines. It’s likely that many Americans never knew about the case until BuzzFeed published a moving letter, written by the survivor in the Stanford case and addressed to her attacker, that has since been viewed more than 13.5 million times.
Real change comes down to reaching not just the most people, but the right people. “Public reaction has been so almost uniformly negative, and people seem so appalled at the sentence,” Berkowitz told me. “My hope is that survivors see that and realize, ‘The country’s on my side here, and it’s going to be a lot harder to not give us a fair a sentence in the next case.’”