Drugs

The Story of the Stanford Rape Is Also the Story of a Drug Overdose

Brock Turner's victim wasn't just drunk—she was at risk of coma or death when he attacked her behind a dumpster.

by Maia Szalavitz
Jun 16 2016, 8:03pm

A young girl with no relation to the Stanford rape case but suffering an overdose of alcohol gets treated on July 29, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images)

When Brock Turner sexually assaulted the woman now famous for her seething court statement about the crime, at least two other men had also seen her lying unnaturally still behind a dumpster near a fraternity house on the Stanford University campus. But while much has been said in recent weeks about the lax sentence Turner received, little attention has been paid to the fact that what he did was way worse than a sexual attack on a drunk woman unable to consent. It was actually an assault on an overdose victim, one who was at risk of serious medical problems and even death if she didn't get help fast.

According to the police report about the January 2015 incident, one man who saw the woman lying on the ground immediately called 911, reporting an unconscious person in need of medical attention. A second witness said he saw Turner trying to photograph the woman's uncovered body, apparently using the flash on his cellphone.

That man reportedly told him to stop, checked the woman's pulse, and asked for help in turning her on her side to make it easier for her to breathe. Turner apparently responded by walking away. Since the victim, who is known as "Emily Doe" in the press, was breathing, the two men both left. (It is not entirely clear if they were present at the same time.)

The actual sexual assault seems to have occurred when Turner returned shortly thereafter. Fortunately, the former swimmer was interrupted by two more men, Swedish graduate students who happened to be biking past. After taking a second look, they suspected that what they were seeing was not consensual sex, and, as is now well known, chased and held down the perp until cops arrived.

With the obvious exception of Turner, these men are examples of how and why bystander intervention matters. One might even argue (some of) their actions suggest educating college students to stand up against sexual violence may be having an impact.

Still, an important part of the story continues to be overlooked: This wasn't any kind of ambiguous case where two drunk people disagreed about whether sex was consensual. Instead, it was an assault on a completely unconscious and unresponsive overdose victim who could have died or been seriously brain injured while Turner used her as a sexual object.

There is absolutely no doubt Doe was in medical danger: According to the police report, her blood/alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, in a range that is often linked with stupor and coma. In fact, she has no memory of the crime taking place. Police and medical personnel were unable to rouse her for three full hours after the attack, even though they attempted to do so every 15 minutes once she got to the hospital.

Research shows that blood/alcohol concentrations of .250 or higher can be associated with loss of breathing function, coma, and even death. Worse, the lethal dose can vary widely between individuals, in either direction depending on factors like genetics, the person's tolerance, if they've taken any other drugs, and even how tired they are. The victim's BAC was estimated at trial to be between .24 and .249.

"It really is a serious problem when get above 0.2 on average," says George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "There's the potential for lethality."

Koob notes that before modern anesthesia was developed, alcohol was used to do that job. But the dose that produces coma and unresponsiveness is too close to the fatal dose to make it a safe anesthetic.

Turner used his own drunkenness as an excuse for his actions, but none of the other men who saw her, two of whom were also visibly drunk when they spoke with the cops, reacted the way he did.

Given how common alcohol overdose is—there are six deaths every day in America, according to the CDC, and around 59,000 annual hospitalizations of people between 18-24—being able to recognize it and act appropriately is important, particularly on college campuses.

If someone is drunk to the point of unconsciousness and can't be awakened by any means—especially if there is any chance he or she might have used other drugs—it is a medical emergency and help should be sought, rather than trying to let them "sleep it off," Koob says.

While calling 911 is critical, the victim should not be left alone, the grave error made by some of the bystanders in this case.

Depressant drugs like alcohol and opioids (heroin, painkillers) kill by slowly stopping breathing or by making it more likely that people will choke to death if they vomit—if you leave the victim alone, this becomes more likely. Placing the person in the " recovery position"—on his or her side—and doing rescue breathing can be lifesaving. (Chest compressions alone, which are now recommended in some emergencies, may not be appropriate in a potential overdose situation.)

If there is any chance someone you know has taken an opioid in addition to alcohol, there is an antidote, naloxone, that can now be obtained over the counter in many states from drug stores. (Click here for information on local sources and on training in how to use it.) It will not do harm if used in a pure alcohol overdose, but it also will not help. Medical attention is still essential.

In this case, Turner may not have known how much alcohol his unconscious victim had consumed. He also presumably had no idea if she'd taken opioids, benzodiazepines, or any other drugs that can make alcohol far more deadly at lower doses. He didn't even know her name, he claimed, and told police that he would probably be unable to identify her if he saw her again.

Turner used his own drunkenness as an excuse for his actions, but none of the other men who saw her, two of whom were also visibly drunk when they spoke with the cops, reacted the way he did. Turner's BAC was estimated to be .171 at the time—far less than that of his victim. And in any event, alcohol tends to exaggerate existing tendencies, not create them. It shuts down brain regions involved with good judgment—the same ones that normally inhibits peoples' worst impulses.

In fact, some research suggests that in cultures where alcohol drinking tends to occur with meals and with family—as in Italy or France—violence is less associated with drunkenness than it is in places like the United States. Here, drinking to excess is culturally linked with aggression and manhood, and may be more deliberately pursued outside the family at bars.

So while Turner outrageously tried to blame campus drinking culture for his crime, it's more accurate to say America's cultural associations between alcohol, masculinity, and violence are at least part of the problem.

Nonetheless, four other men—including two who were intoxicated—managed to do the right thing, or some version of it. They knew that when you meet or come across an overdose victim, you don't prey on her. You try to help.

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