Spotlight: Changing Rape Culture with Michele Dauber

This week, Rachel Birnam, a United State of Women Intern, sat down with Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor, to talk about the epidemic of rape culture on college campuses. Rachel is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego, where she raised awareness as a student activist around sexual assault on campus, and wrote her senior thesis on Violence, Sexuality, and Women of Color.

Professor Michele Dauber is pushing to change the culture of sexual assault on college campuses by leading the recall campaign against Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Brock Turner to a mere 6 months in jail after he raped an unconscious woman on Stanford’s campus. Prior to the Turner case, Professor Dauber co-chaired the Board on Judicial Affairs and helped to lead the process that revised Stanford’s policy on sexual assault. She is a long-time advocate for improving university policies on sexual assault, increasing compliance with Title IX, and ensuring that survivor’s voices are heard and believed.

Rachel: How did your past experiences in law and policy equip you to lead this charge? I’m sure you face harassment everyday for advocating for the Judge’s recall – Did you ever second-guess yourself when you were starting this campaign?

Michele: My background as a faculty member at Stanford really gave me some insight into how sexual violence on college campuses is minimized and normalized in our society. That is particularly true where alcohol is involved, and alcohol is involved in the vast majority of campus sexual assault cases. What we see is that sexual assault is extremely prevalent on college campuses. 43% of undergraduate senior women at Stanford are going to experience serious sexual misconduct during their four years with us. So, my background of supporting survivors, working with survivors, and reforming Stanford’s policy, is helping to inform my work with the recall campaign.

This work, additionally, has made me aware of the glaring need to treat these crimes like crimes. Not every victim wants to have their offender prosecuted, but for those who do, and there are many more that do than we see in the criminal system, they deserve to have these crimes taken seriously. It is especially disappointing that in a case, like the Turner case, in which we had every kind of evidence (eye witnesses, forensics, and a perpetrator apprehended in the act), he was convicted by a jury of three serious sex felonies, and he was sentenced, essentially, for a misdemeanor. So, no, I’ve never questioned the correctness of the course that we have decided to take because women deserve justice from the courts of law and they deserve to have their cases adjudicated fairly and without bias.

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You mentioned that I’ve been criticized for the recall campaign, and one of those criticisms that I think is particularly pernicious is that somehow this is going to have a negative effect on judicial independence. I think it’s very important to clarify that judges in California are elected, not appointed. Judge Aaron Persky is an elected official. He is subject to the accountability we have come to expect from our elected officials.

There are other ways of selecting judges that put them outside of that system but that’s not what we have under the California Constitution. The recall election is part of our system of holding elected officials accountable in California. To be honest, there is nothing more American and more democratic than petitioning and voting. Quite to the contrary of having a negative impact on the judicial system, we are giving people the opportunity to vote in an important case of a judge who is biased.

When people say “what about judicial independence?” I say back to that, “what about judicial bias?” Independence is important, but it depends on a lack of bias, and where you have any kind of bias in the system – racial bias, gender bias, religious bias – that negatively impacts a certain class of litigants, criminal defendants, or victims, that is a threat to the rule of law. When people do not believe that they can get justice by going to court, they lose faith in the entire legal system. Ultimately that kind of bias is very corrosive and can erode support for the legitimacy of the entire justice system.

I am confident that we’re going to be successful and nothing bad will happen as a result. What will happen as a result of our campaign is that Judge Persky will no longer be a judge and someone better will have that job. In addition, we will send a message that violent crimes against women are serious and perhaps judges need training in order to correctly decide these cases.

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Rachel: Speaking of Brock Turner, his case isn’t the first of its kind. Why do you think this case, everything from the victim’s story to his shortened sentence, resonated with people and angered people more than ever before?

Michele: First of all, I think it’s the power of the statement that the survivor wrote; I think that’s an extraordinarily significant piece of political writing, of literature. She really opened a window, I think, into what the experience of being a sexual assault survivor is like. For survivors, she put into words what many of them have been feeling for a long time and didn’t necessarily have the words for. And for people who haven’t been assaulted – friends, family members, and other people in general – it really opened their eyes to what that experience is like, as any good piece of literature should do. It took them inside that experience and elicited a compassionate response. The vast majority of the credit for the uproar has to go to her writing.

In addition to that, I think there’s a second reason that we’re seeing a renewed surge of interest in this topic. There is a set of people who have criticized colleges and universities, claiming that colleges shouldn’t be involved in these cases, or if they do, they shouldn’t make an aggressive response because supposedly these are “he said she said” situations, often involving alcohol. The argument is that supposedly colleges can’t really decide who to believe, and it’s just too hard for colleges and universities to tell what’s happening, and you know, a lot of these cases might not even really be an assault. That has been a narrative that has many adherents. Not me, but some people have believed that.

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The Turner case has none of those elements. We have a so-called, “perfect victim,” who did “everything right,” and still, didn’t get justice. She went to the police, she had a rape kit done within hours of the assault, there were eyewitnesses, there was DNA, there was forensic and photographic evidence, and he was apprehended at the scene. The jury heard the evidence and convicted him of three serious felony sex crimes. Then at the end of the day, she still didn’t get justice. I think that that is the thing that really, in part, provoked the outrage. I think many women felt that the message Judge Persky sent was: “even when we do ‘everything right,’ we still can’t win.”

To me the problem with that is the message that the judge sent, other than being utterly enraging, is that if you get sexually assaulted at Stanford, don’t bother to call the police. In many communities, that is already what people do. In campus communities, women almost never go to the police. Less than 3% of Stanford students who were sexually assaulted reported their assault to the campus authorities, let alone the police. When people don’t believe that they are going to be treated fairly, when they believe that they are going to get biased treatment, they lose hope and faith in the law enforcement system and in the justice system more generally.

The message that this judge sent to women on college campuses in Santa Clara County, and all over the state, and in fact, all over the country because of the amplification of the message, was if you get sexually assaulted, you’re on your own. Judge Persky’s message is that campus rape, at least when it’s committed by an athlete, is not a serious crime, it’s basically treated like a misdemeanor, so it’s not really worth your trouble to come forward. And to perpetrators, Judge Persky said don’t worry, we got your back. And that is a message that actively puts women on our college campuses in danger. That is why I feel like it has attracted the attention that it did because I think that people really perceived that; that this message is “if this happens to you, don’t come to the authorities because you won’t get help.”                           

Rachel: How can young people, both on and off campus, get involved with the movement to end sexual violence?

Michele: There are a lot of ways that people can get involved. First of all, on campuses, there will often be a women’s organization or an anti-sexual violence organization that is doing programming and activities around this. Almost every campus has something like this, and if yours doesn’t, you should start one. If your campus has something like a Take Back the Night rally, you can find out which organization is hosting it and volunteer, or try to add some programming. One thing that I think is useful is for people to run for student government and also sign up to be on a university committee that focuses on this topic. There’s almost always a way that you can get involved as a student in the mechanisms themselves on your campus by being the student delegate to the faculty senate or being the student delegate to the judicial committee or by being the undergraduate government president or vice president. Those trajectories can actually put you in a position where you can take up that issue and help to make change. At Stanford, we have seen elected student government leaders really push this issue forward in a very positive way.

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Outside of college campuses, there are  different community organizations, such as battered women’s shelters, that are looking for volunteers, and the women who are served by those organizations are often victims of sexual violence because those two issues go hand in hand. There’s the YWCA, which does a lot of programming for victims of sexual violence. There are millennial women’s organizations, in terms of more activist spaces, like Grlcvlt, an intersectional feminist organization that is supporting the recall campaign. There are a whole host of young people’s organizations that are being founded all the time that are dedicated to stopping sexual violence and doing that from an intersectional perspective that takes into account class, race, sexual orientation, and gender status. Let’s remember this is primarily but not exclusively a women’s issue. LGBTQ individuals are sexually victimized at higher rates than the straight community. Communities of color have particularly high rates of sexual assault, especially the Native American community, and transgender individuals have high rates of sexual violence as well, so it is certainly not the issue of any one gender or one race or one class. However, if you’re asking what organizations people can join, or how they can get involved in a formal movement, often time sexual violence programming is pushed forward by women’s organizations. So if you’re looking for a way to get involved, that is a place to start.