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What America Learned About Sexual Assault in 2016

The same country that elected a man accused by many women of sexual assault seemed to cross a critical threshold in discussing it.

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Dec 28 2016, 9:03pm

DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

For years, we have been fumbling for how to talk about sexual violence in America. In 2016, it seems like we finally found the words.

This year, we saw a 60th woman accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault. We saw Stanford swimmer Brock Turner walk free three months into a six-month jail sentence. We saw the soon-to-be leader of the free world brush off his hot-mic boasts of sexual assault as "locker-room talk" and the voters who carried him to the White House cheer the death of political correctness, where "political correctness" is the social barrier between America's 156 million vulvas and Donald Trump's tiny hands.  

But somewhere in the Texas-size trash vortex of the last 12 months, we also saw a tidal shift in the way our culture understands sexual violence, and the degree to which we as a society are willing to accept things as they are. The misogynist tsunami that swept a handsy Cheeto to power left #notOK and the Women's March on Washington in its wake, with more fights sure to follow inauguration day.

It "was a crazy year in many ways, but it was also a year that presented a tremendous opportunity for us in the field," said Rebecca O'Connor, vice president of public policy for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). "Honestly, when it comes to sexual violence, America's at a tipping point."

Yes, if 2016 taught us anything, it's that even acid rain clouds sometimes have silver linings. What follows is a non-exhaustive review of the state of sexual assault awareness in America, with thoughts on what's to come and how to get involved in the new year.


Among the least celebrated of this spring's Supreme Court decisions was Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which (thanks to an equally divided court) upheld damages awarded by a Tribal Court against a non-Indian alleged to have sexually assaulted a Native teen in a store on treaty land. While the court's split decision had more to do with legal sovereignty than sexual assault, it carries important implications for Native survivors of domestic violence, whose ability to prosecute (some) non-Native abusers in Tribal Court was only established in 2013, and whose rights were threatened by the suit.

Native survivors will be among those who benefit from the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, which President Obama signed into law in October—although to fully appreciate its impact, you have to reckon with just how lousy victims' legal protections were before. The new law eliminates fees for collecting and storing rape kits and gives survivors broad rights to access the information in their case files, among other protections so basic it's shocking they didn't exist until now. But the new law only covers federal court.  

"Our theory was that we have to do this on the federal level so that it would be visible," said Amanda Nguyen, the founder of Rise, a nonprofit dedicated to codifying civil rights for survivors like her. "The majority of the rights need to be passed on the state level."

Some of the most egregious abuses happen in the states and localities you might least expect: Women in Chicago have been hounded over the cost of their rape kits, while some jurisdictions in New York destroy untested evidence in just 30 days, according to Nguyen. If she and her allies succeed in their 2017 state house campaign, targeting legislatures in "key battleground states" across the country, authorities would be forbidden from tossing that forensic evidence for 20 years, or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is shorter. 

That latter technicality—the statute of limitations—itself became a topic of intense mainstream debate this year, and ironically, we owe change on that front to Bill Cosby. Or rather, we owe it to to the courageous women who have come forward to accuse him of rape and sexual abuse. Their stories have upended not only how Americans talk about sexual violence, but how it's reported and handled by police. To wit: Several major cities saw a spike in rape reports since 2014, many of them years and even decades old, a phenomenon former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton dubbed "the Bill Cosby effect."   

A secondary "Cosby effect" is now being felt in state legislatures, several of which have enacted dramatic extensions, and even the outright elimination of the statute of limitations for sex crimes. Colorado and Nevada both stretched their statutes by a decade or more this year, both partially in response to Cosby accusers. California, meanwhile, scrapped its statute of limitations entirely, and several more states seem poised to follow in 2017.

"In Washington State, they're having very serious conversations about this topic," said RAINN's O'Connor. Like Rise, the network plans to spend next year pushing nationally modeled reforms in state legislatures, which figures to be where most of the action is given the history of the man who will soon occupy the Oval Office. "Everybody wants to have the strongest law, but in some states, the political climate may dictate that they take on a piecemeal approach," O'Connor said.

There are lots of simple ways for supporters to help their efforts, from urging state and local representatives to support survivor civil rights and statute of limitations reform to taking action against the rape kit backlog.

In that fight and others, the stories of everyday survivors have become a critical tool. Brooklyn's Black Women's Blueprint brought them to bear during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on black women and sexual assault at the UN this spring, an effort they have pushed to see recognized by President Obama before he leaves office. Both Rise and RAINN are collecting stories for their legislative campaigns. And Emily Doe, Brock Turner's victim, moved the world when she shouted her story from a California courtroom.

Without Doe, there would likely have been no public outrage over the "soft timeout" for convicted felon Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who served just three months of a six-month jail sentence after he was found guilty of assaulting her behind a campus dumpster while she was unconscious. Her 12 page victim-impact statement was published in its entirety by several news outlets and read aloud in its entirety on the House floor by 18 members of Congress, spurring a petition to recall Judge Aaron Persky and a new mandatory prison sentence law covering sexual assault of an unconscious person in California.

Meanwhile, San Diego rapist Alex Smith was sentenced to eight years in prison by a judge in California. Smith was convicted of a 2013 gang assault largely on the basis of his own sick boasts on the internet, which his victim dredged from PUA websites after police failed to act on her report.

"If I could give you more time I would," San Diego Superior Court judge Jeffrey Fraser told Smith at his December sentencing, according to the Daily Beast. 

Not everyone sees these legal developments as victories, of course, and opponents aren't confined to men's rights activists. For example, those fighting mass incarceration generally oppose mandatory sentences and lengthy prison stays, and some fear that a recall effort could scare judges into handing down excessive punishment. Nor are all laws purporting to protect against sexual violence necessarily good ones, as the transfolk victimized by North Carolina's infamous HB2 and its many copycat "bathroom bills" can attest. But the past year has inarguably seen a subtler, more nuanced and more survivor-centered conversation.

Consider ex-Oklahoma City police officer and convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, who was sentenced this February to 263 years in prison for assaults on 13 black women, many of whom had criminal records and feared they would never be believed if they sought help from police. That sentence was recommended by a jury comprised almost solely of white men — undoubtedly a testament to the extreme nature of the case, but also evidence that the myth of the perfect victim may be losing its stranglehold on the American imagination.

So too with the pernicious fiction of women who "cry rape." Movie star and rape survivor Gabrielle Union wrote movingly about the struggle to reconcile her role in the critically acclaimed Birth of a Nation with allegations against the film's auteur, Nate Parker. The filmmaker claimed that he and his then-roommate/now-writing partner Jean Celestin had consensual sex with an 18-year-old woman who accused them of assault in 1999 and later took her own life. While Parker was acquitted and Celestin's conviction later vacated, many have openly questioned whether the result would have been different if the trial were held today.

"The Birth of a Nation controversy surrounding Nate Parker did not come as a surprise to us," said Sevonna Brown, gender justice and human rights project manager for the Black Women's Blueprint, who called the episode "a classic case of victim blaming." But she also said organizations like her's are looking beyond the criminal justice system in the year to come.

"We're talking about what does justice actually look like?" she said of their 2017 agenda. "Survivorship is one thing, but how does survivorship intersect with reproductive health? How does it intersect with economic justice? Survivors are not just survivors."

Or, as Emily Doe put it in Glamour, "Survivors are going to be doing a hell of a lot more than surviving."  

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