The XX Factor

Should Music Venues Boycott a Band Because One of Its Members Defended Brock Turner?

R. Kelly is on tour this summer. Does anyone care?

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The wave of internet condemnation that’s crashed against Brock Turner, his father, and the judge that sentenced him in recent days has reached another player in his case: Leslie Rasmussen, a childhood friend from Turner’s Ohio hometown.

Turner, a former Stanford first-year student who was convicted on multiple felony charges for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster in January 2015, received a sentence of six months in county jail for his crime—maybe half that with good behavior—plus three years’ probation and a lifetime spot on the sex offender registry. Like Turner’s dad, 20-year-old Rasmussen wrote a letter to the Santa Clara County court to try to influence the judge’s sentencing decision.

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Her letter is full of damaging misinformation about rape and statements that normalize the circumstances of sexual assault, all without a single note of concern for the victim’s experience and continued suffering. Here’s a representative excerpt:

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There is absolutely no way Brock went out that night with rape on his mind. I think he went to a party and was drinking, like almost every student at a university does, and was flirting with this girl, like he said. The woman recalls how much alcohol she drank, which was a lot. She was no doubt about to black out if not already. I’m sure she and Brock had been flirting at this party and decided to leave together. Just as they did she passes out, which after that many drinks, anyone would. At the same time, Brock, having a few too many drinks himself, is not completely in control of his emotions. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that alcohol increases emotions and feelings. I think this is all a huge misunderstanding. …

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I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. I am not blaming her directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists. It is because these universities market themselves as the biggest party schools in the country. They encourage drinking. I think it is disgusting and I am so sick of hearing that these young men are monsters when really, you are throwing barely 20-somethings into these camp-like university environments, supporting partying, and then your mind is blown when things get out of hand. This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists. These are idiot boys and girls having too much to drink and not being aware of their surroundings and having clouded judgement. …

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Attached is a photo of Brock I took in high school. He has always had that huge, loving smile on his face. The caption is even “d’awwww” because he was always the sweetest to everyone. … I would not be writing this letter if I had any doubt in my mind that he is innocent.

Even if Rasmussen’s imagined account of Turner’s actions were correct, he wouldn’t be innocent: What she’s describing is sexual assault, which the Santa Clara County jury decided is what happened. Many who read Rasmussen’s statement agreed, and since New York magazine posted the full letter earlier this week, people have been pushing music venues to cancel shows that Rasmussen’s Ohio-based band, Good English, was scheduled to play on their Brooklyn tour. On Tuesday, Gothamist reported that five bars and performance spaces, including this week’s Northside Festival, have axed their scheduled Good English concerts in response to Rasmussen’s letter and pressure from those protesting its content.

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“When people choose to defend something, then I think they should be held accountable for it,” Northside head Daniel Stedman told the New York Times. “How does the average person who is really upset and troubled about the Brock story, how does somebody participate in that, making right of a wrong? We are really just one tiny, infinitesimal part of that puzzle, but I think [nixing Good English from the lineup] was a no-brainer for us.” A bar owner who canceled the band’s scheduled show after he got dozens of messages from people asking him to boycott Good English and threatening to “confront” the band if they did play said he “wanted to avoid an unsafe environment” and didn’t want to “be affiliated with anyone that’s going to try to victim-blame or even just downplay rape.” The band’s public relations firm dropped it from its roster and the Dayton Music, Art & Film Festival posted on its Facebook page that Good English would no longer play there, either. “We have been informed of the situation regarding a member of Good English and a letter written in support of Brock Turner, a convicted rapist,” the festival wrote. (Turner was convicted of sexual assault, not rape.) “We do not support any such action, and will be removing them from the festival. The safety and comfort of everyone who attends our festival is number one to us. Such actions should not be defended, friend or not.”

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Good English, comprised of Rasmussen and her two sisters, posted a now-deleted statement on Facebook in light of the show cancellations. In it, Rasmussen walks back a few parts of her initial letter. “I know that Brock Turner was tried and rightfully convicted of sexual assault,” she wrote on Facebook. “I realize that this crime caused enormous pain for the victim. I don’t condone, support, or sympathize with the offense or the offender.” She describes years playing in bars in her band, watching “friends, acquaintances and complete strangers transform before my eyes over the course of sometimes very short periods of time, into people I could barely recognize as a result of alcohol overconsumption,” and being told by her family and police officers to remain sober so she doesn’t fall prey to the risks of being a young woman playing music in places where people drink:

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I understand that this appeal has now provided an opportunity for people to misconstrue my ideas into a distortion that suggests I sympathize with sex offenses and those who commit them or that I blame the victim involved. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and I apologize for anything my statement has done to suggest that I don’t feel enormous sympathy for the victim and her suffering. … Unfortunately, due to the overzealous nature of social media and the lack of confidence and privacy in which my letter to the judge was held, I am now thrust into the public eye to defend my position on this matter in the court of public opinion. Now, my choices to defer college to write and play music, to finally introduce 10 years of hard work to a national audience while working consistently and intentionally on my own personal and professional integrity, has led to an uproar of judgement and hatred unleashed on me, my band and my family.

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It’s clear from her statement that Rasmussen believed the letter she wrote would remain private, but since it’s a document in a court case, it’s public record. Of course, that doesn’t excuse her disregard for the victim’s experience and point-blank justification of rape, and people should certainly boycott Good English if they disagree with Rasmussen’s perspective and no longer want to listen to her music. Some have commented on social media that cancelling a Good English show amounts to censorship, which is a thorough misunderstanding of the concept of freedom of speech: Withholding financial support from an entity that furthers an objectionable political or social position is one of the most basic forms of free speech. People have a right to demand that bars and music festivals divest, so to speak, from any business (in this case, a band) that takes a troubling stance on an important issue, and the people who run those bars and music festivals have a right to use their personal beliefs to inform their booking decisions.

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But if a 20-year-old’s burgeoning music career is shattered for a thoughtless, ill-informed letter, the punishment will not have fit the crime. Rasmussen never used her band to further her stance on rape culture, a complicated concept on which she is surely getting schooled, fast. No one should feel obligated to support Good English, whether through buying concert tickets or booking the band for a show, but actively harassing businesses who’ve decided to let the band play a scheduled concert because they don’t give a crap about what musicians say in court documents seems needlessly punitive and vindictive.

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Compare Rasmussen’s letter to the offenses committed by R. Kelly, who has drawn a long and well-documented pattern of strikingly similar sexual assault allegations and made a video of himself urinating on an allegedly 14-year-old girl. Late last year, when a Huffington Post reporter asked him in a live broadcast about how audiences should respond to these allegations, Kelly insulted her intelligence, called her beautiful, told her he loved her, and walked off the set. This summer, people are paying over $100 per ticket to see him perform on tour. The Columbus Civic Center and the Time Warner Cable Arena recently posted about his shows on their Facebook pages, and no one made a peep of protest.

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There’s also documented abuser Chris Brown, who’s performed at the Grammys, the BET Awards, the Soul Train Awards, and the iHeartRadio Music Awards in recent years. There’s Blake Shelton, who’s made jokes about assaulting gay people until they’re “beaten, bleedin’, heaving,” and now stars on The Voice. We’re all sad about the NFL, which continues to employ domestic abusers, excuse abuse if it occurs in a religious context, and say it has no tolerance for violence against women while keeping half a dozen alleged perpetrators on the payroll, but we watch football anyway. Even putting aside the child molestation allegations against him, Woody Allen says things that would get him booted from any Brooklyn music festival if he were a rando musician and committed those statements to Twitter. Instead, he gets posh spots at film festivals and cover stories in fancy magazines.

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These people have done far worse than be callous to survivors of rape in a letter supporting a longtime friend who turned out to be a despicable perpetrator of sexual assault. But they are wealthy, they are famous, and they are men. They are profitable, so they get more gigs. They are profitable because consumers buy their products, watch their shows, and slowly forget the details of their crimes. Rasmussen will undoubtedly learn a harsh lesson from the nationwide response to her letter. Let us learn one, too: It’s far easier to torpedo the career of a young woman who wrote a shameful thing than it is to hold a man who did a shameful thing accountable.

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