The Professor Who Put Brock Turner's Face in a Textbook Definition of Rape

Criminology professor and author Callie Rennison explains why the definition of rape needs room to expand and evolve.

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Sep 18 2017, 4:07pm

Photos courtesy of University of Colorado

Most remember Brock Turner as the former Stanford student who served only three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Now, thanks to two University of Colorado Denver professors, Turner's face has been immortalized in a textbook section about rape.

In the 2017 edition of Introduction to Criminal Justice: Systems, Diversity, and Change, Turner's mugshot is included alongside an explanation of state and federal definitions of rape. The description of the picture includes the discussion question: "Some are shocked at how short [his] sentence is. Others who are more familiar with the way sexual violence has been handled in the criminal justice system are shocked that he was found guilty and served anytime at all. What do you think?" After a Facebook post of the section containing Turner's photograph went viral, the textbook's publisher SAGE Publishing released a statement saying that future reprints of the book would clarify that "Turner's actions, as determined by the California jury, fit the standards for the FBI definition of rape, as well as certain other state definitions, but not the California definition as of the time of the final book manuscript. "

Broadly spoke to one of the textbook's authors, Professor Callie Rennison, who teaches at the University of Colorado's School of Public Affairs and serves as the campus Title IX coordinator. Rennison told us about her decision to include Turner's image in the textbook, what the public response has been like, and why we need to reconsider and expand the definition of rape.

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Photo via Hannah Kendall Shuman

BROADLY: How did the opportunity to include Turner's image in this textbook arise?
CALLIE RENNISON: When we set out to write this textbook, we wanted to incorporate many things. We saw diversity, attention to victims, and contemporary topics [missing from existing texts]. We also wanted to present a view of the real criminal justice system versus the ideal that is discussed in most other books. To accomplish this, we included many contemporary topics and material that students routinely ask about. For example, students ask about human and sex trafficking, we included that. Students ask about careers such as being a crime analyst, we included that. Students ask about college student victimization [and] campus violence, we included that. And related to that topic, students ask about Mr. Brock Turner.

Mr. Turner received a great deal of media coverage following the acts he committed. There was widespread coverage in the media and discussion in classrooms about the fact that he served three months of a six-month sentence. Most viewed this sentence as too lenient. Others were shocked that Mr. Turner served three months because most perpetrators of sexual violence serve no jail or prison time. The media coverage, the fact that he is widely known among college students, and that there is general outrage of the sentence he served, is why Mr. Turner shows up in the text and this is why the discussion question below his photo is posed. It offers a real teaching moment for students to consider sexual violence and the criminal justice system.

What responses have you encountered so far from publishers, faculty, and administration?
Responses have been overwhelmingly positive. I think there is real support to keep the conversation going about how sexual violence is viewed and treated in the criminal justice system, and how it needs to improve.

Read more: Why So Many Rapists Don't Realize They're Rapists

Do you anticipate ample classroom discussion from this inclusion?
This edition was actually published in January (honestly, it may have come out in August, but I can't recall). The book has been in classrooms for some time already, and the discussion continues. Even when the first edition was used (before the inclusion of Mr. Turner and a discussion of campus violence in the last chapter), Mr. Turner's case would come up frequently in discussions with students. Students today are very in-tune to college student victimization and campus violence and they know about this case and have lots of questions and comments about it. In fact, it was that discussion that led us to put those particular case in the second edition.

What was your reaction to the Brock Turner case? The description of his image states that many were "shocked that he was found guilty and served any time at all"—was that how you, too, felt?
My own personal reaction was that I was surprised Mr. Turner served any time. Most who commit acts like these are never even brought before the criminal justice system, most of those are not convicted, and most of those serve no time. I also completely understand the feelings of those who are shocked he served three months for an act like this. Sexual violence should be dealt with seriously. The disparity between how sexual violence and non-sexual violence is treated in the criminal justice system is exactly why this conversation is so important, and it is why we posed the discussion question in this case.

What did we as a society learn from the Turner case, and what is there to do moving forward?
Great question. I hope we learned something! I still see cases in the criminal justice system, however, where some serve little to no time for sexual violence. Most of us don't have to look any further than our own communities for examples of that. One thing I think has happened is that people are more willing to speak up and share their dislike of lenient outcomes. Using our voice is important for policy changes of any kind. I hope another thing that happens to move it forward is for people to run for office and get elected so they can make needed policy changes.

Previously you've been quoted saying you disagree with the statistic that one in five (women are sexually assaulted during their time in college) and believe that rape is too vaguely defined. Can you expand on that?
My issue with the "one in five" [statistic] is that it is frequently misattributed as the number of students raped on campus. That is not what it refers to at all. Why does that matter? Because I have parents come to me and say, "Colleges are too dangerous now so we are not letting our daughter go off to university." This is terrible. Violence can occur anywhere, including a campus, but research shows that it is more likely off- versus on-campus (variations among campuses are also large). So we need to educate people about where risks are greater and lesser, so they can make wise decisions. Making women scared to go to the university is a terrible, terrible outcome.

I think two of the original authors describe some of the misuse of this statistic in this Time article. One issue with terms like rape and sexual assault is how they are not standardized even among researchers. I refer to rape as involving penetration (like the FBI does). Others refer to penetration as sexual assault (like the CA law used, among others). Others call it things like sexual battery or any other variety of things. It makes comparisons really hard across pieces of research. [The] one-in-five research is great, but unfortunately, it's been used to describe something it doesn't. And the result has to frighten people unnecessarily.

I clearly love research. However, when it comes to things like sexual violence, there will always be a group of folks (maybe really large groups) who won't tell any researcher or anyone about their sexual victimization. So any statistic focused on sexual violence is a conservative estimate in my opinion.

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How do you think rape should be defined? What does it mean to define rape, and how has that definition changed over time?
For me, sexual assault includes other things outside of penetration like nonconsensual sexual contact—grabbing, groping, etc. I don't use the terms "sexual battery" in my work so I can't offer anything about that. I hope that in the future, researchers can use more standardized language because it facilitates the building of knowledge and minimizes confusion among users of the findings.

The [definition of] rape [has] definitely changed and has expanded. At one time, only women could be raped which is weird because men can definitely be (and are) raped. It has been expanded to include penetration using any object (not just a penis), into any orifice (not just a vagina), by any person (not just a stranger). For example, it was not so long ago [that it was] "impossible" for a husband to rape a wife. That has happily changed.