By Addie Mena

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It’s a nice childhood mantra, but the
recent case of a sexual assault against an unconscious young woman shows that the words we use to describe sexual assault can actually give cover to those who abuse human dignity in the worst way.



The case involves the assault of a woman while unconscious behind a dumpster. Brock Turner, a then-Stanford University student, was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault, but despite the conviction, he only received six months of county jail time. In a heart-wrenching letter read to Turner in court, the now-23-year-old victim detailed the effects the assault had on her, and challenged the suggestion that Turner’s loss of his swimming scholarship was punishment enough.

Yet, despite the conviction, the letter and eyewitness testimony of those who witnessed the assault, many  Catholics are rushing to find a reason, find an excuse, for Turner’s actions. Many have said that if the victim could not offer consent because she had alcohol in her system, Turner could not consent to or be morally culpable for what happened either, because he had been drinking too. Others have said that what happened isn’t different from what happens in a hookup, and that this case looks like a hookup gone wrong. Still others have said that the victim’s drunkenness and attendance at the party are the reasons she was assaulted.

If we wish to stop the harm suffered by victims of sexual assault, we, as Christians, must challenge any cultural habits that give cover to abusers. We need to stop seeing people’s vulnerability as an excuse for their victimization. We need to stop making excuses for sexual assault.


One of the most popular excuses for rapists’ behavior is that that alcohol leads to sexual assault. This is not true.

Scientific studies across different cultures have found that alcohol does not universally lead to sexual aggression or any other behavior while under the influence. While in English-speaking cultures, drinking is associated with aggressiveness and antisocial behavior, in other cultures drinking is associated with spiritual experiences or happiness. These studies find that that while alcohol lowers inhibitions, people act the same drunk as they do when they only think they’re drinking alcohol – even if what they’re really having is just juice. According to researchers, these studies also show that even while drunk, people remain in control of their behavior.


Reports also show that a predator’s belief that alcohol leads to promiscuity is what leads to the disregard of a victim’s boundaries- not the alcohol itself.  Furthermore, other studies suggest that wanting to commit assault may spark a predator’s drinking in the first place: some men drink in order to prepare themselves to commit an attack they’ve already considered.

Across cultures alcohol becomes an excuse to do what society expects them to do while drunk. This means that if a rapist already believes that a woman can be used for sex, regardless of consent, alcohol merely creates an excuse for predatory actions.

It’s not just researchers and theorists who say alcohol is not a motivating factor for assault but an excuse: the predators themselves say the same thing. In a 2012 Reddit thread, self-described serial rapists described how they targeted young women.

“I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls,” one commenter wrote. He said he looked for vulnerable girls and then manipulated their emotions and situations.  Alcohol was one of many tricks used to subdue his victims.


by Mark J. Sebastian via Flickr

Alcohol is not the only excuse given to explain rapists’ actions: our society uses many excuses to avoid admitting what sexual assault is.

This is what rape is: rape is a violent act. It is the use of force,against another human being. It is the abuse of power that uses act that should be one of the highest expressions of love- sex- as a weapon to wield power over the vulnerable.

Vulnerability exists in nearly infinite forms: drunkennes, sleep, trust, love, innocence, naivete. Humans by our very nature are vulnerable. There is no way to protect oneself from every vulnerability, and a victim cannot be held responsible for preventing his or her rape.

To take advantage of vulnerability is it to deny the dignity and integrity of a person- it is what Pope Francis calls “the throwaway culture.” With an act like sexual assault, a predator does not treat victims a person worthy of respect, but as someone to be used and then discarded. To make excuses for assault is to make excuses for this denial of human dignity.

How does our society make excuses for sexual assault? It describes an assault as “20 minutes of action” or dismisses it as mere promiscuity gone wrong.  It suggests victims of assault were “asking for it” by drinking or wearing a certain skirt or refusing to “put out.” It excuses the sexual exploitation so long as it comes with a contract: it accepts porn and human trafficking even though these industries victimize their targets. It doesn’t blink an eye when the presumed candidates for the two major presidential parties have either been accused of rape themselves or have been accused of helping an alleged rapist avoid consequences.

These words and actions give cover to those who violently hurt the vulnerable: they make it easier to pretend sexual assault is not the problem it is and turn a blind eye when someone powerful commits it.

Think about it: we wouldn’t accept these excuses if they were given for robbery. While someone can take some steps to protect a house from robbery, like installing a security system, or lock doors, don’t leave the house unattended, we don’t blame someone if they are robbed because they left the house alone to go to work. We don’t say they were careless and asking to be robbed if they put the television in view of the window. Correctly, we say that the robber is the one to blame.

Victims of sexual assault and rape -suffer a much more personal form of violence than theft of property. We shouldn’t make excuses for their offenders either.

Indeed, these excuses add insult to injury- they continue to deny human dignity even after the attack.

If we say that certain circumstances can explain or excuse the victims’ assault – that their human vulnerability is the reason for their attack; we say that the human dignity of the victim is conditional. If we, as a society excuse some predators actions – be it because of their potential because of who the victim is; we say that some people matter more than others.

As Christians, as Catholics we can’t stand for this. We can’t profess that every person, regardless of age or circumstance, is made in the image and likeness of God and accept excuses that deny that inherent human dignity for some people.