Tag Archives: Rape

Stop Sexual Assault in the Military

By Hillary Scrivani, WLP Law Intern

When a woman signs up to serve her country in the U.S. military, she should expect to be honored and thanked for her service.  What she should not expect is to become part of the enormous group of women who are sexually assaulted in the military each year.  According to a survey released by the Pentagon, there has been a significant increase in the number of servicewomen who were sexually assaulted in 2012 from 2010.  The survey estimates that 6.1% of servicewomen were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 4.4% in 2010.

This systematic atrocity that is taking place in the U.S. military has captured the attention of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held a hearing regarding these issues on Tuesday, June 4, 2013.  At the hearing, senators–including female senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Kay Hagan (D-NC)—questioned U.S. military chiefs about the military’s inadequate handling of sexual assault cases.

In response to this problem, Senator Gillibrand introduced a measure that would require the more serious assault prosecutions in the military to be taken out of the chain of military command.  However, many military leaders do not think that the decision to prosecute and the handling of these cases should be taken out of the military chain of command.  Many senators agree with this line of thinking, as the bill was recently rejected by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It is expected that Senator Gillibrand will attempt to revive her measure in the fall.

A bill written by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, which would require a review if the commanders entrusted with prosecuting sexual assault cases elect not to prosecute them, and would make retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault a crime.

Additionally, the House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday, June 14, 2013, that would “strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial, establish minimum sentences for sexual assault convictions, permit victims of sexual assault to apply for a permanent change of station or unit transfer, and ensure that convicted offenders leave the military.”

The problem of sexual assault in the military, and the military’s poor handling of sexual assault cases, is not getting better: indeed, measured by survey released by the Pentagon, it is getting significantly worse. A bold new policy is needed to eradicate the culture that tolerates the sexual abuse of servicemen and servicewomen. There is no excuse for maintaining the status quo when the number of assaults of men and women who risk their lives to defend our country keeps increasing each year.

Comments Off

Filed under Military, military women, Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

The Steubenville Rape Case: When Will We Learn?

By Jody Raphael, Guest Blogger

On March 17, 2013 a judge found two Steubenville high school football players guilty of raping a 16 year old girl. The 17-year-old, convicted of rape and of photographing the underage girl naked, was sentenced to two years in the state juvenile prison system, while the 16-year-old was sentenced to a year in juvenile prison.

But it was the aftermath that illustrates all the elements of rape denial in America. In early May, 2013 two teen girls were sentenced to probation after guilty pleas in a case of threatening tweets after the guilty verdict was announced.  According to news reports, one tweet threatened homicide and another bodily harm to the victim. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office has been involved in the investigation and prosecution of the football players as well as the arrest of the two teen girls, has also undertaken a broader investigation of the rape and called for the convening of a grand jury to determine if other individuals committed crimes.  DeWine’s news release on March 17, 2013 stated that his investigators had identified individuals who attended the parties at which the sexual assaults occurred and had interviewed many of them as well as the principal, superintendent, and football coaches from Steubenville High School.

In the Steubenville case, the actions of the Ohio State Attorney General have been appropriate and responsible. DeWine was accurate when he said in response to the rape that “there seems to be an unbelievable casualness about rape and about sex. It is a cavalier attitude — a belief that somehow there isn’t anything wrong with any of this. Rape is not a recreational activity.” Yet, as I document in my book Rape is Rape, our society continues to deny rape, accusing girls and women of lying about rape and blaming them for being victimized. All too often the media, instead of playing a leadership role, mirrors societal attitudes. On Sunday morning, March 17th, an entire CNN panel focused on what a tragedy this was for the boys and how their lives had been ruined, without any mention of the effects on the 16-year-old-girl who had received so many threats that additional police were assigned to patrol her neighborhood.

Blaming victims and supporting convicted rapists send a message to victims of rape that we don’t care. Recently, students in colleges across the country have filed complaints with the federal government, alleging college failures to include rapes in their annual Clery Act reports and to properly respond to rape complaints. They say that instead of support, they hear rape denial and blame and that administrators try to dissuade them from making formal complaints. Institutional inaction supports rapists and encourages them to believe they can get away with rape.  A well-spring of activism from Amherst, the University of North Carolina, Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Occidental, and others is sending a message that it is time to start caring.

The Centers for Disease Control released data from 2010, finding that 12.3% of its very large sample of women had been the victims of forcible penetration during their lifetime-a whopping 14.6 million women. This methodologically sound research indicates a serious rape problem in the United States. Recent data about rapes in the military reveal surprisingly large numbers as well, indicating that for too long we have been blind to this serious problem in our midst. But what to do about it?

One important aspect of rape prevention is swift action to hold rapists accountable. Support for rapists is one thing that prevents us from eliminating rape in America. The cultural scaffolding that keeps rapists from being held accountable in our communities needs to crumble. How many more cases and how many girls and women injured will it take?

Jody Raphael is Visiting Professor at DePaul University College of Law and the author of the newly released book, Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling A Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis (published in paperback by Chicago Review Press).

Comments Off

Filed under Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Violence Against Women

UPDATE RE: H.B. 2718 Would Penalize Women on TANF for Having Children Unless They Are Survivors of “Legitimate” Rape

UPDATE (10/26/12):  Within three days of the publication of this blog post, three of the six house sponsors of H.B. 2718 have removed their names from the sponsorship of the bill.  The prime sponsor, Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, defended the bill initially, but reversed her position three hours later, saying that she did not check the language of the three-page bill.  She has informed the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill will not go forward in its current form.

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney (10/23/12)

Led by State Representative RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are targeting poor women and children with the introduction of House Bill 2718, which would prevent women who receive benefits under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) from receiving an incremental increase in benefits due to the birth of a child.  As of October 17, 2012, the bill is in the Human Services Committee.

As the Women’s Law Project discussed in its report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, less than 2% of Pennsylvania’s residents receive TANF, and only 17.6% of Pennsylvania’s residents living below the official poverty line receive cash assistance benefits.  That latter percentage will be even lower now that Governor Tom Corbett has eliminated General Assistance, the welfare benefit program for individuals who were ineligible for TANF.  Most of the families who receive cash assistance through TANF live in counties where the monthly benefit is $403 for a family of three, often not enough for most families to meet their daily expenses.

Instead of helping these families who are struggling to make ends meet, H.B. 2718 seeks to reduce the assistance families receive by preventing a family from receiving additional TANF benefits if that family has a child while receiving benefits or while on a temporary period of ineligibility for TANF.  The result is a denial of assistance to the most needy and vulnerable, the newborn children themselves and their families.  This harmful bill serves as yet another example  of how hypocritical many of Pennsylvania’s politicians are in caring only about “life” before birth and not afterwards.

The bill contains a narrow exception for survivors of rape and incest that is so fraught with conditions that it is unlikely that many survivors will be able to avail themselves of it.  It is largely an empty gesture grounded in insulting beliefs about survivors of sexual violence.  H.B. 2718 does not use the term “legitimate rape” explicitly, the term used by Republican Todd Akin in support of his inaccurate and ignorant argument that women cannot become pregnant as the result of a rape, but it is built upon similar stereotypes of rape survivors.

In essence, this legislation creates a “legitimate rape” test based on misconceptions of how “real” rape victims behave, a test that determines whether a family may receive the incremental increase in benefits after the birth of a child.  If this legislation passes, a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape must send a signed statement to the Department of Public Welfare stating:

 [1] that she was a victim of rape or incest… [2] that she reported the crime, including the identity of the offender, if known, to a law enforcement agency or [3] in the case of incest where a pregnant minor is the victim, to the county child protective service agency… stating the name of the law enforcement agency or child protective service agency to which the report was made and the date such report was made.

This bill presumes that “real” rape victims report the crime to police and will have no trouble disclosing the details of the crime to the Department of Public Welfare, when research shows us that many victims never inform the police for a wide variety of reasons.  For example, as the Women’s Law Project wrote in its amicus brief in Reedy v. Evanson:

Decades of research has documented the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police… Some of the most common reasons that victims give for not reporting are their fears that their report will not be taken seriously, they will not be believed, or they will be seen as responsible for their own assault. (internal citations omitted).

H.B. 2718 fails to reflect this reality of sexual assault, resulting in harm to survivors who become pregnant as a result of violence.

Pennsylvania’s women and children need laws that do not penalize and stereotype them.  H.B. 2718 must be defeated.

4 Comments

Filed under PA Law, PA Legislature, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pregnancy, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, TANF, Welfare, Women's health, Working poor

Women have the power – why aren’t more of them using it?

Co-chairs of WomenVote PA, Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project, and Kate Michelman, President Emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America

AT A RECENT meeting a colleague of ours presented us with a challenge and posed the following questions:  Imagine if every woman of voting age participated in this upcoming presidential election? How would that determine the outcome of the election and the legislation and policy coming out of Washington?  What would happen – would anything really change?

The implications of such a reality are staggering.

For one, you would never hear any politician utter the phrase “legitimate rape” nor would a “transvaginal ultrasound” be prescribed by anyone other than a woman’s doctor; equal pay for equal work would be obvious; our reproductive rights would be championed by politicians, not jeopardized; support for efforts to end violence against women would be expanded; Social Security and Medicare would be stabilized and strengthened, not privatized and minimized.

Sadly, the question is hypothetical and the reality is quite the opposite – but we believe it doesn’t have to be. And we believe we can start by increasing the political participation of women here in Pennsylvania. In 2004, the Women’s Law Project, based in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, began an initiative called WomenVote PA. The goal was and is straightforward: Increase the participation of women in the electoral process. We are focused on making WomenVote PA a resource for voters to learn more about legislative and policy initiatives and, equally important, a community both in the real world and the digital world, a place that uses education, collaboration and information-sharing to mobilize women voters.

The focus on the November election all but guarantees more Americans will vote this November than in any election since 2008 (assuming voter-ID requirements don’t deprive them of their right to vote). In 2008, 6 million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential race and yet just two years later, 4 million voted in the U.S. Senate race – a staggering 2 million Pennsylvanians who voted in 2008 failed to do so in 2010. That is likely over 1 million women not voting in off-year elections – and each of these off-year elections determine who sits in the Pennsylvania General Assembly as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Increasing that off-year participation number even slightly has real policy implications and real-world effects on women.

A reason behind WomenVote PA’s re-emergence has been what we will generously describe as politicians simply “not getting it.” Whether it is using the phrase “legitimate rape,” attempting to define rape only as “forcible rape,” blocking legislation in support of equal pay for equal work, rolling back our reproductive rights or limiting protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence, WomenVote PA is active in educating our network on the federal, state and local legislation that affects their lives. We believe in assisting our elected officials and policy makers in “getting it.”

And we have the data to back it up. WomenVote PA is an initiative of the Women’s Law Project, which has just published a remarkable study titled Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, which will inform our education and outreach efforts. The study provides important research and data about how ongoing bias against women – in the home, in the workplace, in the classroom, and in the community – negatively impacts women’s health. We see it as a necessity that women’s voices are informed and are heard on issues that are essential to their health and well-being and that of their families.

The question “What if all women voted?” really does set the mind reeling – but in Pennsylvania WomenVote PA will focus our efforts on seeing what happens when more women vote. We believe much will.

This opinion piece appeared in many newspapers throughout Pennsylvania.  Please share this with your friends and remember to vote!

Comments Off

Filed under 2012 Election, Abortion, Equal pay, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, Women's health, WomenVote PA

Rape is never legitimate; neither is the control of a uterus by anyone other than its owner.

By Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, Women’s Law Project

Republican Todd Akin’s astounding remark — inaccurate and insensitive on SO many levels — that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” is only the latest evidence of the twisted beliefs about rape, pregnancy, and abortion held by right-wing so-called pro-life legislators.

First, these truly are just beliefs.  They are accepted and asserted without factual basis, proof, or even examination by any rational thought process, much less any rudimentary knowledge of human biology.

Second, Akin’s comment goes far toward explaining attitudes held by him and his ilk.  This is interesting because there is a strong correlation between rape laws and laws restricting abortion.

Laws about rape and abortion originated with men for the benefit of men, collectively and personally.   Women had no say in these laws, and therefore had no say over their own bodies and powers of reproduction.   Motivated to assure male social dominance in all realms, the men behind these laws paid lip service to the need to protect women—as they continue to do now—but have no genuine concern for women, the lives they lead, the responsibilities they bear, and the decisions they need to make in their own interests.

Rape laws have an ignominious history.  They were developed to protect male property interests.  What property, you ask?   An unmarried woman’s virginity.   A woman’s virginity was considered the property of her father, which he then was permitted to give (sell?) to the man who would become her husband.  Giving a daughter in marriage was a transfer of inheritance rights and property.  Rape was the theft of that property.   It was not an assault crime; the victim’s bodily integrity was irrelevant.  The essential element was controlling female reproductive capacity to protect male property interests.

Rape was defined only as penal penetration of the vagina by force of an unmarried virgin.  Penetration of any other orifice by any other body part or object and penetration of a married woman or a man was not rape.   While vestiges of these archaic notions continue to exist in some of our state laws, massive law reform has largely criminalized behavior that involves unwanted penetration of body parts, without consent and without force, and regardless of gender.  Significantly, within the last year, the FBI updated the definition of rape in its Uniform Crime Reporting system to reflect the broader definition of rape reflected both in current state laws and in public understanding of this heinous crime.

Restrictive abortion laws in America were similarly born of men for men.  In colonial America and at the time that our constitution was written, abortion was perfectly legal until “quickening”, much to the chagrin of today’s strict constructionists.  This was true until the last third of the nineteenth century.   Restrictions developed out of two campaigns, both male-led and for male benefit.  At that time, women’s gynecological and obstetric care was provided by other women who were midwives and homeopathic healers.  In order to ensure their domination of the practice of medicine, doctors (almost entirely male at that time) began to push women out.  As part of this effort, the doctors claimed that abortion was unsafe.  While there was some truth to that—sanitary conditions in many kinds of medical procedures being haphazard and some concoctions sold to induce abortions being nothing less than poison – safety was not the doctors’ real motivation.

The second front was led by U.S. Postmaster General, Anthony Comstock, a fanatical latter-day puritan, whose personal religious convictions caused him to lead an anti-obscenity campaign against the transmission through the U.S. mail service of information about abortion and contraception.  The efforts by the doctors and Comstock led to the enactment of laws criminalizing both the performance of abortions and the dissemination of information about contraception and abortion.  In essence, men were controlling women by keeping them pregnant.

Todd Akin represents the ongoing drive to control women.  He is ignorant and dangerous, and he is not alone.  The 2012 Republican National Convention platform outlaws abortion entirely, without even mentioning rape.  Make no mistake about it, people who have archaic ideas about rape and restrictive views about abortion are in fact motivated to control women’s lives and health.

You can learn more about changes in the definition of Rape and WLP’s work here.

4 Comments

Filed under Abortion, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

DOJ Issues Ground-breaking Consent Decree Addressing Gender Bias

By Carol E. Tracy, Esq. and Terry L. Fromson, Esq.

The Women’s Law Project (WLP) commends the Department of Justice (DOJ) on its ground-breaking consent decree with the City of New Orleans, which addresses gender bias in the police response to and investigation of reports of sexual assault and domestic violence.  This consent decree followed the March 2011 publication of the DOJ’s report on its investigation of the NOPD.  The WLP identified the NOPD as one of the many police departments which have chronically failed to respond to rape complaints when WLP testified before a Congressional committee in September, 2010. 

In March 2011, the DOJ released a report (pdf) of its investigation of the NOPD. The report addressed many areas of policing but, for women, the most dramatic component was its landmark finding of gender bias in police practice.    

Specifically, the DOJ found that:

NOPD has systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes. We find that in situations where the Department pursues sexual assault complaints, the investigations are seriously deficient, marked by poor victim interviewing skills, missing or inadequate documentation, and minimal efforts to contact witnesses or interrogate suspects. The documentation we reviewed was replete with stereotypical assumptions and judgments about sex crimes and victims of sex crimes, including misguided commentary about the victims’ perceived credibility, sexual history, or delay in contacting the police.

The consent decree, announced by DOJ on July 24, 2012 includes significant steps towards reforming the NOPD’s response to rape complaints. New Orleans has agreed to clarify its procedures for responding to sexual assault, train officers to appropriately classify crimes and conduct interviews in a sensitive manner, increase supervision, and most significantly, establish a committee that includes community advocates to annually review all sexual crimes classified as unfounded or miscellaneous, as well as a random sample of open investigations of sexual assaults.

Both the report and the consent decree establish benchmarks which other cities with similar entrenched practices should take note of and implement. For over a decade, the Women’s Law Project has effectively advocated or improved police response to sexual and domestic violence in Philadelphia and led the reform effort that resulted in the FBI’s recent expansion of the definition of rape for the Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Following the issuance of its report, the DOJ invited the WLP to share with its staff the strategies that it helped to implement in Philadelphia to bring about reform. WLP is gratified to see that the consent decree incorporates several of these reforms. To read more about gender bias in law enforcement and WLP’s continuing work in this area, please see WLP’s 2012 report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women (pdf).

Comments Off

Filed under Gender Discrimination, Government, Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

And Then There Were None: Pennsylvania Bill to Permit Expert Testimony in Sexual Assault Cases Lands on the Governor’s Desk

Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

House Bill 1264, which provides for expert testimony in certain criminal proceedings, has passed the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and is now on Governor Corbett’s desk. Until this legislation is signed by the Governor and goes into effect, Pennsylvania remains the only state in the country that does not permit juries in criminal trials to hear expert testimony explaining the dynamics of sexual assault. The bill, sponsored by Representative Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) and 61 representatives from both sides of the aisle, will allow expert testimony in criminal cases involving sexual offenses. This legislation permits the prosecution or the defense to call experts who, because of their “experience with, or specialized training or education in, criminal justice, behavioral sciences or victim services,” can help juries and judges understand “the dynamics of sexual violence, victim responses to sexual violence and the impact of sexual violence on victims during and after being assaulted.”

This legislation will help counter the misconceptions juries and judges have repeatedly applied in the past to sexual assault cases. These misconceptions, known as rape myths, “are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” Kimberly A. Lonsway & Louise F. Fitzgerald, Rape Myths in Review, 18 Psych. of Women Quarterly 133, 133-134 (1994). These myths are connected to sexist attitudes about women and distort the dynamics of sexual assault.

Two rape myths, for example, are the belief that rape is rare and that women often lie about its occurrence. Other rape myths include the beliefs that sexual assault victims will actively resist their assailants throughout the assault and that they will report the crime as soon as possible.  Adherence to these myths may make jurors and judges more inclined to believe that a victim’s delay in reporting the assault, her lack of visible physical injuries, or perceived inadequate resistance to the attack indicate that she is lying about what happened.

In reality, research shows that many rape victims cannot or do not fight back during an assault for a variety of reasons, including fear, immobilization due to being physically restrained, or immobilization due to their own psychological responses to trauma. Thus, many victims do not have visible physical injuries and do not actively resist their attackers during the assault. Furthermore, a delay in reporting an assault is very common, as victims dealing with the immediate aftermath of an assault are in the process of making sense of what happened to them and are figuring out what steps to take. Contrary to a common misconception, there is no “right” or “normal” way for a victim of sexual assault to behave.

Pennsylvania’s enactment of HB 1264 will promote justice for victims of sexual assault by giving lawyers such as prosecutors the tools they need to address these commonly held misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual assault. To learn more about rape myths in the criminal justice system, see the Women’s Law Project’s amicus brief in Commonwealth v. Claybrook and our chapter on sexual violence in our report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

Comments Off

Filed under Government, PA Law, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Rape, Sexual Assault