Brock Turner Case: Is It More Nuanced Than You Think?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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The Brock Turner case outraged many. Should Brock Turner have received a harsher penalty for sexual assault? More time behind bars? Were there any nuances to the Brock Turner case?

While many people have strong opinions about the Brock Turner case, Malcolm Gladwell thinks it’s not so simple. Learn the many ambiguities in the Brock Turner case, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers.

The Brock Turner Case

On January 18, 2015, two graduate students witnessed a young man, Brock Turner, lying on top of a young woman (referred to here as Emily Doe) on the ground near a dumpster. The two men observed that Turner was thrusting on top and Emily was completely still underneath. Alarmed, they asked Turner what was going on. Turner turned and ran. The two men followed Turner and tackled him. This was the start of the Brock Turner case.

Emily Doe was lying near the dumpster, unconscious, with one breast revealed. Her skirt was around her waist and her underwear had been removed. She woke up in the hospital oblivious to what had happened. She was told that she had been the victim of sexual assault. 

Nuances of the Brock Turner Case

Most sexual assault cases rely on witnesses to help solidify the victim’s allegations. But in Brock Turner’s case, there were no available witnesses other than the two graduate students who tackled Turner. All of Emily’s friends at the party had gotten too drunk and had to leave. Turner’s friend was too drunk to even make it to the party. So Turner’s account was the only one heard in the case. By his account, Emily Doe had consented to their encounter by the dumpster.

But California law states that someone cannot be considered to have given consent if that person was unconscious or so intoxicated that they couldn’t adequately resist. This means that the person must’ve been so intoxicated that they couldn’t make a reasonable judgment or make sense of their surroundings. 

So really, the case against Brock Turner would be determined by the degree of Emily Doe’s intoxication. Was Doe a consensual partner in the sexual activity, or was she incapable of consent based on her level of drunkness? Gladwell sees this as a critical question in the Brock Turner case.

How Intoxicated Was Emily Doe?

When she arrived at the party that night, Emily Doe was already drunk. She left a voicemail for her boyfriend just after midnight, in which she sounds incoherent. Her voice certainly didn’t sound like the voice of someone capable of making reasonable judgments. By the time of the incident, Emily Doe had a blood alcohol level of .249—nearly four times the legal limit. She has no memory of even meeting Brock Turner.

Brock Turner’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit at the time of the incident—enough to be considered blackout. At trial, he claimed to remember everything that happened between him and Emily Doe that night. But on the night of his arrest, his memory wasn’t at all clear. When asked why he ran away from the scene, Turner said that he didn’t remember running or being tackled. He said, “I think I was kind of blacked out.”

So everything about the story that Turner told in his trial was made up—it was wishful thinking. This is a huge problem for the Brock Turner case. It is impossible to know what actually happened that night because Brock Turner, Emily Doe, and almost everyone they knew at that party was in a state of blackout. 

In the end, Brock Turner was convicted of three felonies associated with sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison. For the rest of his life, he will be a registered sex offender. This was the outcome of the Brock Turner case.

You might wonder how a seemingly harmless interaction on the dance floor ended in such a horrible crime. The answer is that alcohol and assumption of transparency is a dangerous combination when interacting with a stranger. Remember, drunk people are in a state of myopia in which their behavior is directly influenced by their environment. That night, Emily Doe and Brock Turner’s environment was a fraternity party dedicated to binge-drinking and sexual dancing. And both Emily Doe and Brock Turner were in a state of blackout, meaning that they were completely out of touch with the consequences of their actions. 

The Brock Turner Case: What Is the Solution?

The night that he met Emily Doe, Brock Turner had to make sense of a stranger’s sexual desires. He assumed that her behavior was transparent, which is an incredibly flawed system to begin with. But when both parties are young, immature, and drunk, it is impossible. That’s why there is such a prevalent pattern of sexual assault on college campuses. But how do we stop it? 

In a letter to Brock Turner, Emily Doe expressed that she wanted to see programs set up to raise awareness of sexual assault and teach men how to respect women to prevent sexual assault in the future. 

In his own statement, Brock Turner said that he hoped to set up a program to speak out against the college culture of binge-drinking and sexual promiscuity to prevent sexual assault in the future. 

But in reality, shouldn’t we hope for both? It is important to teach young people how to respect each other and how to drink less. The two problems are connected.

Brock Turner Case: Is It More Nuanced Than You Think?

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  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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