In the past week, public outrage at Brock Turner—the former Stanford University student sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus—has skyrocketed. Part of this outrage stems from his statement in court, in which he said that that he was the "sole proprietor of what happened on that night" and acknowledged causing his victim "emotional and physical stress," but never used the words "sexual assault" to describe what he had done.
Instead, he blamed his actions on a culture of "binge drinking and sexual promiscuity," framing what took place that night as a destructive consequence of his own excessive alcohol consumption, rather than a sexual assault he had perpetrated. "In no way was I trying to rape anyone, in no way was I trying to harm anyone, and in no way was I trying to take advantage of anyone," he said.
According to Dr. Svend Aage Madsen, the vice president of the European Men's Health Forum and head of the Center for Victims of Sexual Assault at Copenhagen's Rigshospitalet—the city's most highly specialized hospital—this kind of self-denial is all too typical. "This type of reaction is very common among sex offenders," Dr. Madsen explains. "If you look at court cases, you'll see there are very few instances of sex offenders admitting to the offense. Instead, the phrase you constantly hear them say is, 'I thought she wanted it, too.'"
Dr. Madsen also categorizes this as part of a sex offender's process of trying to rationalize his or her behavior. "He wants to be a good guy and he thinks he is a good guy, so he doesn't want to admit the real problem: that he committed sexual assault," he explains.
Usually, it's understandable that people try to rationalize their behavior when they screw up—but sexual assault is far from your average mistake. Despite this, sex offender self-denial is well-documented; according to a 2004 study from the University of South Florida, "the presence of denial… routinely complicate[s]" their treatment. Leading researchers in the field, such as Jon A. Shaw, have specifically explored how offenders convince themselves and try to convince their victims their actions were consensual. For example, a case like this is currently taking Denmark by storm: Recently, three men were acquitted of sexually assaulting a woman at a party because they claim they thought their actions were consensual.
The phrase you constantly hear them say is, 'I thought she wanted it, too.'
"It's very difficult for people to cross the line in their heads to admit their actions to themselves—especially if the victim and perpetrator aren't in contact," explains Madsen. To get offenders to cross those mental barriers, Rigshospitalet's Center for Victims of Sexual Assault provides mediation services. In less serious cases of sexual assault, the Center will put the victim and the offender face-to-face and force them to discuss what happened. "It's fascinating to see that it's only when that happens that the perpetrator finally gets it," Madsen notes. "When directly faced with the victim and his or her feelings… it's a powerful way to develop the perpetrator's understanding."
Considering that about 80 percent of sex offenders know their victims, it's plausible that putting an offender and his or her victim in direct contact could lead to the offender developing feelings of guilt, empathy, or compassion he or she wouldn't have otherwise. However, according to Dr. Marie Bruvik Heinskou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Copenhagen, there's another feeling that plays a big part in driving sex offender denial.
"Shame is a hugely influential force in people's memories and feelings—more influential than you would think," she explains, noting that the shame associated with sexual assault has multiple layers. "First, it's really shameful to be a sex offender; second, there's a lot of shame attached to sexuality in general."
Studies have shown that emotions associated to events can strengthen, shape, or alter your memories, and Dr. Heinskou feels that shame could be a strong enough emotional catalyst to shape the narratives in offenders' heads. "If you think about how many difficulties shame creates for many people—whether it's aggression, silence, depression, mental issues—it becomes obvious that shame is quite a powerful force," she says.
Turner's self-denial may be a classic example of an offender rationalizing his behavior, or it simply be the result of a group of lawyers and attorneys crafting a statement to get him the least possible jail time. Regardless, his inability to acknowledge that what he did was sexual assault is far from an isolated incident—and that's what's most shameful of all.