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On a Stanford Man Who Alleged a Sexual Assault - The Atlantic

On a Stanford Man Who Alleged a Sexual Assault The Atlantic


Earlier this month, Stanford University senior Justin Brown published an opinion article in The Stanford Daily claiming that he was sexually assaulted by a female classmate. His account came amid an ongoing debate at Stanford about how best to handle allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Those who hold that perpetrators of sexual assault escape with too little punishment have rallied around Leah Francis, who protested when a classmate she accused of "forcible rape" was found responsible in a disciplinary process, but permitted to return to campus upon completing "a five-quarter suspension, 40 hours of community service and completion of a sexual assault awareness program." She declared in an open letter, "Stanford did not expel the man who raped me.”

Emily Bazelon of Slate later reported that from 2005 to 2011, nine Stanford students were found responsible for sexual assault. One was expelled. "The other eight received suspensions ranging from one quarter to eight quarters," she wrote. "The average sanction for sexual assault at Stanford is a four-quarter suspension."

At the same time, Stanford has been faulted by a largely different group of critics for offering inadequate due-process to students accused of sexual misconduct. "In 2011, a male student was found guilty of sexual assault and suspended for two years after Stanford determined that his accuser had been intoxicated during a sexual encounter, violating Stanford’s sexual assault policy which states that one cannot consent to sex if 'intoxicated' to any degree," the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported. The organization objected that the burden of proof needed to find guilt was changed in the middle of that student's case.

The op-ed that Justin Brown wrote describing an encounter with a female classmate does not fit neatly into either camp. He believes that Stanford has handled his allegation poorly and failed to properly discipline the accused. But he also insists that though she assaulted him, he does not want her expelled or suspended.

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What would happen if the woman in this case decided to file a complaint, arguing that her intoxication rendered her unable to consent to kissing and groping sessions during the early part of the walk when he, too, was an initiator? If Brown's account of that night is accurate, it would seem perverse if both of these students were ultimately found guilty of sexually assaulting one another. But given how the rules are written at Stanford and how they've at times been applied, it seems that such an outcome is plausible, even if not the likeliest scenario. Were I Brown's father or big brother I'd have urged him to weigh that risk.


His personal testimony is a confounding case study. So many people, myself included, tend to conceive of sexual assault as a very serious crime committed by a predatory perpetrator who victimizes a devastated survivor. The outpouring of passionate support for anti-sexual assault campaigns is premised on that understanding. But here is a man citing his experience as a victim—a status that inclines many to avoid questioning his narrative—to argue that his sexual assault proves it can be a non-catastrophic act carried out by a non-dangerous person with no malicious intent, and that the victim's reaction might be, "the whole situation seemed laughable."   

How we ultimately define sexual assault is a choice–one that combines elements of prevailing culture and law, of connotation and denotation. Insofar as a community adheres around a notion of sexual assault that tends to involve high degrees of predation and trauma, the stigma against it will remain relatively powerful. As "sexual assault" is broadened to encompass gray areas that combine low degrees of predation with victims who aren't traumatized, the stigma may diminish. Expelling the woman in this case would cause even her accuser to object.

What's most striking to me, as someone from an earlier generation of college students, is not this student's aversion to a punishment for the accused. One commenter observed that since, "there was no great or permanent harm done to him and as she did not act with malice, he reasonably concludes that he, in turn, should cause no great or permanent harm to her... Instead, he looks at the event, recognizes where bad decisions were made, accepts responsibility for his actions and decisions that contributed to the situation, and seeks to use the unfortunate as a learning experience to enlighten and not as a legal club with which to punish."  

That's an understandable reaction.

More remarkable is the extent to which even this heterodox thinker, who offers a forthright, unsparing critique of his university and of its disciplinary norms, was simultaneously so eager to resolve problems through official channels. At a time of confusion, he turned to campus administrators to help understand his own experience. What he wanted most of all was an administrator who would validate his understanding of what happened during a traumatic moment. How many older readers would've thought, as undergrads, to cast an administrator in those roles?

Although Brown didn't want administrators to punish the woman who stuck her hands down his pants after he said no, he did want them to explain to her why it wasn't okay, because he wanted that done and didn't feel that it was his job to do it. His generation's notion of normal involves college administrators—people paid to safeguard the interests of multi-billion-dollar institutions—intervening in the sexual lives of students to a much greater extent than they did in the recent past, even as the normative judgments of administrators are both policed and exalted.

There is no telling how this will turn out.

Geez. What is wrong with people that they even think about treating each other this way?

That is really serious. I've heard of this occurring way too much, especially with (and I hate to say it) black guys. When I was 18 in college I had several friends confide in me about sexual assaults they've received from women, usually in the form of them groping their genitalia. It's emotionally damaging and objectifying. Flirting with someone doesn't say "stick your hand down my pants". 


What's the solution? Teach more empathy to people as they're growing up so they realize that it's not right to give aggressive unwanted attention?