Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)


Gender, Sexuality & Women's Studies


Claire McKinney

Committee Members

Victoria Castillo

Jackson Sasser


This thesis uses the 2016 sexual assault case The People vs. Brock Turner to argue that there is no clear path for justice for sexual violence in the current criminal justice system while incarceration remains the primary form of punishment. I draw on court documents and the victim Chanel Miller's 2019 memoir Know My Name to inform my analysis.

I briefly review, as a necessary backdrop, how rape has historically been ignored in the criminal legal system as a serious crime and large-scale social problem and how this history is tied to anti-Black racism in the United States. I am primarily interested in the tension between anti-sexual violence activism and the violence of the carceral state. The tension I identify pervades the majority of sexual assault criminal cases as well as social justice advocacy and activism.

Sexual harm presents a “specific challenge” (Ilea 2018) for an abolitionist framework, particularly because of the historical relationship between anti-rape activism and the carceral state. So long as there are no sound abolitionist arguments for responses to sexual harm, abolition will remain a “marginal theoretical axis” (Ilea 2018). Further, carceral solutions will be further entrenched as the only possible response to sexual harm. It is within this dilemma that I situate my research.

The Brock Turner case presents a unique challenge and opportunity for investigating this dilemma. The perceived injustice in this sentencing was the relatively short period of incarceration given to Turner—six months—and Judge Aaron Persky’s justifications for said sentence. In a system that relates harshness to length, the sentence seemed particularly lenient given the facts of the case. For anti-violence activists, moving to outrage was not a difficult leap, and with that outrage came demands for a harsher punishment and outcries at the slap-on-the-wrist level of punishment that six months constituted. The Recall Judge Persky campaign and subsequent rhetoric reinforced this logic of measuring injustice against sentence length. But for prison abolitionists, or those against mass incarceration, the outcome presented a greater challenge for articulating what went wrong. To recompense Turner’s crimes against time spent in jail would not comport with a prison abolitionist ideology; and yet, there was little space to say that the sentence was unjust, but that he shouldn’t be sentenced to more prison time.