Callie Rennison, the Professor Using Brock Turner to Educate About Rape

We spoke to the professor and Title IX coordinator about the #MeToo movement's effect on discussions about sexual assault, and how we can keep the momentum in the new year.

by Linda Yang
Dec 2 2017, 4:19pm

Photo courtesy of Callie Rennison

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

Earlier this year, Brock Turner, the former Stanford student who served only three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, was immortalized in a textbook section about rape.

Professor Callie Rennison, who teaches at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs and serves as the campus Title IX coordinator, was one of two professors responsible for the inclusion of Turner’s mugshot alongside an explanation of the state and federal definitions of rape. The description of the picture includes the discussion question: "Some are shocked at how short [Turner’s 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."

Since Rennison’s decision to include Turner in the textbook, public awareness of sexual violence has ratcheted. As the end of the year approaches, Broadly caught up with Professor Rennison to discuss her work, the public discourse surrounding the many very sudden public reckonings of powerful men, and her plans for 2018.

BROADLY: Looking back at the past year, is there any work that you're particularly proud of?
CALLIE RENNISON: I like to think that all of the research I do, and all the interactions I have with students matters. I try to produce research that will benefit all in society. My interactions with students are geared to helping them succeed, and helping them realize they can be more than they ever dreamed of. I want them to know that they have much to offer society, and society needs their insights.

While I am proud of all of my work, I am most proud of the Introduction to Criminal Justice textbook that I wrote with Mary Dodge. I am incredibly proud of it because it has prompted attention and conversation about our criminal justice system beyond the classroom.

What attention and conversation about the criminal justice system have you seen since publishing the textbook?
When I set out to write the book, I wanted students to understand the reality of the criminal justice system—as ugly as it can be at times —because if they don’t understand the system as it actually operates, then how can we expect them to improve it? The book challenges students to consider the shortcomings of the system, and offer real solutions to address them.

The section of the book that has garnered the most attention includes a photo of Brock Turner. College students are keenly aware of Brock Turner and are outraged that he served three months of a six months sentence. Highlighting this well-known case offers the opportunity to inform students that most perpetrators of sexual violence—which is predominantly committed against women and girls—serve no time at all. Thinking about this case invites students to think about why violence perpetrated primarily against women (intimate partner violence, rape, and sexual assault) is treated differently than other violence in the criminal justice system. The book challenges students to identify ways the system could be improved to provide justice for all victims. And it challenges students to identify ways the system could be improved to provide just and proportional punishment for all perpetrators.

While our criminal justice system has many great qualities, it is far from perfect, and the least privileged among us bear the brunt of those imperfections. I want my students to grow and ultimately make the system a better one for everyone. I think the attention that the attention the book has received has helped to extend the conversation beyond college students and into the general public. This is good for all of us in society.

Since we last spoke, so much has happened—starting with Harvey Weinstein, it seems that a national floodgate has opened with women coming forward with experiences of sexual harassment and assault, to seemingly mixed results. What are you thoughts on what has happened so far?
I have great hope given what is happening in society. This includes the #MeToo movement, and the overdue toppling of "important" people who have predated on women (and men) without consequence. I think—I hope—this is just the beginning of real and permanent change. I firmly believe that we all need to use our voices, to speak up and to identify predators. In the past, victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment have kept quiet. They’ve recognized the price they would have to pay if they spoke up including losing their job and income. Although they were victims of harassment or violence, they have felt shame, they have been shamed, and they alone have carried the burden of the abuse and victimization. No other victims are treated like this. Why? We know that the past approach of being silent isn’t stopping predators. We all—victims, bystanders and anyone in the populace—must speak up against predators and hold them accountable.

I noted to friends at the beginning of the #MeToo movement that as shocking as our typing "me too" was to many, it is still us being nice. I stated that the next step is to name names. That has begun and I hope it continues. Just as we would all point out active burglars, thieves, or white collar criminals in our world, we must speak up and point out the sexual predators in our society. They, just like every other type of criminal must be held accountable versus being protected because they are "important" or "powerful."

Do you see any change in dialogue during your classes that focus on sexual violence?
I do see changes in terms of my interactions with students, staff, and faculty. I see victims and survivors who finally feel supported, believed, and empowered speak up. I also see a greater insistence that bad actors experience consequences for their actions.

Of course, some dialogue comes from those who are worried about false allegations and the feeling that men can only work with men now. I think these sorts of fears offer an opportunity to become more educated in at least three ways. First, false allegations of sexual violence are low, and no more likely than they are for other types of crime. The notion that women lie more about abuse and sexual violence is offensive and simply not factual. Second, the notion that the solution is for men to spend time only with other men to be “safe” fails to acknowledge the fact that men are victims of sexual violence and harassment too.

It is simple: The only way to protect oneself from allegations of sexual misconduct and violence is to not engage in sexual misconduct and violence. Finally, I encourage those who are concerned about others being caught up in the criminal justice system wrongfully to volunteer with the Innocence Project which helps those who have been wrongly convicted. Or this concern could be channeled into posting bail for innocent people who are kept in jails for long periods of time simply because they can’t afford what is at time small amounts of money.

Your work specializes on violence against marginalized groups, such as women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Do you think that marginalized groups are being included in this national discussion?
Not enough. We know that marginalized groups are victimized at greater rates than others. Not only that, marginalized groups have fewer resources to seek justice when they are victimized. Further, marginalized groups tend to enjoy less empathy from society when they are harmed. I want society to be as appalled and vocal when a victim is African American, an American Indian, poor, young, transgender, homeless, and any number of other characteristics. I want everyone to have access to justice regardless of what they look like, how they live their lives, and how many resources they have available. I can’t say I’ve seen this happening broadly to the benefit of many marginalized groups yet, but I have hope that it is coming.

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Relatedly, I don’t want only the powerful media-worthy predators falling. I hope society takes the opportunity to address and hold accountable the non-media-worthy predators who work in restaurants, banks, corporations, retail establishments, etc. Harassers and sexual predators are not found only in the media and political world, they are found everywhere, and they all need to be stopped.

What are you looking forward to in 2018?
I have great hope for the future! I am eager to continue my research and provide information to assist the public, and policy makers to improve society. This includes providing information in journal articles, the new edition of the Intro text, and in others books that will be published very soon. I intend to increase and enhance my relationships with policy makers to benefit all in society.

I really look forward to women and members of other marginalized running for and winning elected office in large numbers. It is only by becoming a policy maker that we can ensure that policy made benefits all people, versus the most advantaged among us.