Men who intervened in Stanford sex assault show we can all be heroes

But stopping sexual violence doesn’t have to mean a dramatic rescue.

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Peter Jonsson is one of the two men who intervened. Photo, LinkedIn.
Peter Jonsson is one of the two men who intervened. Photo, LinkedIn.

Late last week, Brock Turner was given a six-month sentence in a county jail for sexually assaulting a woman outside a frat party at Stanford University in January 2015. The assault, one of one of an estimated 290,000 that occurred in the U.S. last year, was interrupted when two graduate students on bikes came upon Turner raping the woman behind a dumpster, tackled him and called the police. The details and outcome of the trial are sadly familiar: the nominal sentence (Turner could have faced as many as 14 years in a state prison, and according to one report he may end up only serving half his sentence); the sympathetic portrayal of Turner as a great guy and champion swimmer; the suggestion that the victim, who was intoxicated and unconscious, enjoyed the assault.

What’s drawn global attention to the case is the statement released to BuzzFeed News by the victim. In 7,000 haunting words, she tells the story of the aftermath of her attack: the confusion, the physical and emotional trauma, and the utter loss of privacy, sense of safety and control. It’s a painful read, but a powerful one. Near the end, she thanks the friends and strangers who have supported her and the two men who saved her.

“I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story,” the victim wrote. “That we are looking out for one another.”


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Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Photo, Santa Clara County Sheriff/AP.
Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Photo, Santa Clara County Sheriff/AP.

We all need to remind ourselves that there are heroes out there and that each of us can be one, too. It’s an especially important message for boys and men to receive. While Turner has still not taken responsibility for his actions — he describes what happened that night as the product of a culture of drinking, peer pressure and “sexual promiscuity” — the two men on bikes saw it instantly for what it was: a criminal violation of another human being. The victim said she was later told that one of the men wept because he was so upset about the state he found her in.

There are plenty of men and boys who feel horror and sadness over what happened to the woman. But they may not realize that they can also play a role in stopping sexual violence. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic rescue. It can be challenging a hateful joke, sticking up for a colleague who’s being harassed or kicking a predatory drunk guy out of a party. “If anything is going to change the culture of rape in our society, it will be a turnaround led by men,” writes CNN’s Mel Robbins in a piece urging parents to show their sons the letter. “Every man has a choice. To rape or not. To rescue or ignore. To deliver justice or give someone a slap on the wrist.”

In April 2015, four young guys on skateboards at a Calgary mall made a choice to rescue a 15-year-old girl who was being raped by an older man. Three of the boys chased the man and held him until the police arrived, while the fourth kid stayed with the girl to protect her. “She needed help and we needed to be there for her,” one of the guys told the press. It was just the humane and ethical thing to do, he said.


Related: How to safely intervene if you witness a sex assault


And, of course, it’s not just men who step up. Just a few weeks ago, three women at a restaurant in Santa Monica witnessed a man pouring liquid from a small vial into his date’s drink while she was in the bathroom. They alerted the staff, told the woman and called the police, who arrested the man. (He had more vials of liquid in his home.)

All too often, women who are assaulted are made to feel that there is something they could have done to prevent what happened. They shouldn’t have drank that much, flirted with that guy, walked through that park, worn that outfit. It’s as though the rapist’s role in the assault was a reasonable reaction to a provocation rather than a violent and dehumanizing act. Consider Brock Turner’s father, who referred to the rape as “20 minutes of action” and argued that a jail sentence was unfair because it would ruin his son’s life.

This is why stories of interventions have such power. Not only did these strangers stop, and in one case prevent, an assault, they reminded the victims — and the rest of the world — that those women deserved to be safe from harm, that what happened to them was wrong and, most significantly, that they don’t have to fight back or deal with their pain on their own.

More columns by Rachel Giese:
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