Tag Archives: Sexual assault

OCR’s Title IX Review of Penn State Comes Two Years after Advocates’ Request

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

Two years ago, the Women’s Law Project and nine other organizations committed to the enforcement of Title IX sent a letter to then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali requesting that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) perform a compliance review of Penn State under Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to take steps to prevent and remedy the effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault so that students are not denied access to an education. Last week, on January 23, 2014, Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, announced in a letter to Rodney Erickson, the President of Penn State, that OCR will finally examine the University’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints.

The advocates’ letter, dated December 12, 2011, was signed by the Women’s Law Project, California Women’s Law Center, Legal Voice, Equal Rights Advocates, Equity Legal, National Women’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Southwest Women’s Law Center. The advocates’ request came in response to reports that the University had failed to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The advocates specifically requested a review of Penn State’s policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and violence and its handling of past student complaints of such misconduct by student athletes in light of evidence that Penn State, like other universities, has applied a double-standard in its disciplinary process that unduly favors student athletes who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

In making this request, these ten organizations explained that “based upon our work and experience, we are concerned that many schools do not have adequate procedures in place or ignore these procedures when athletes or other athletic department personnel are involved.” The request was consistent with OCR’s “Dear Colleague Letter” of April 4, 2011, which stated that school sexual harassment and sexual assault policies and procedures “must apply to all students, including athletes” and that complaints implicating student athletes “must not be addressed solely by athletics department procedures.”

As explained in the December 12, 2011 letter, and further discussed in the Women’s Law Project’s report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, research has shown that a disproportionately high percentage of perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses are male student-athletes, who may be benefitting from school disciplinary systems that are skewed in their favor. The advocates attached to their request a statement by Vicky L. Triponey, the Former Vice President for Student Affairs at Penn State University (2003-2007), in which she explains that the President of the University and the Head Football coach participated in discussions about how to handle complaints against football players, ultimately resulting in “accommodations that put us in the position of treating football players more favorably than other students accused of violating the community standards as defined by the student code of conduct.”

OCR must hold Penn State accountable for any deviation from its obligations under Title IX to address and prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, including harassment and violence perpetrated by student-athletes. Hopefully, OCR’s scrutiny of Penn State’s policies and practices will improve the safety of the campus and ensure that its students will receive the educational opportunities that brought them to Penn State in the first place.

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Filed under college campuses, Education, Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Title IX

Helping make campuses safer

By Carol E. Tracy, WLP Executive Director and
Terry L. Fromson, Managing Attorney

Sexual assault and harassment on college campuses have finally gotten the attention of federal authorities charged with monitoring compliance with Title’s IX sex-discrimination prohibition.

The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines for how schools must respond to sexual harassment, including sexual assault. In addition, along with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints of noncompliance, issuing findings of discrimination, and entering into resolutions with schools. College students are also filing challenges to inadequate campus responses to complaints of sexual assault and harassment.

With students heading back to colleges and universities this month, now is the time to heed the Department of Education’s call to action to address the serious issue of campus sexual misconduct.

Recent studies estimate that 20 percent of young women and 6 percent of young men will experience a completed or attempted rape during their college career. In addition, almost two-thirds of students report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, with nearly a third reporting being touched, grabbed, or forced to do something sexual. Such victimization can cause physical, emotional, and educational consequences that may be life-long. Many promising students are unable to complete their education and achieve their goals. Some victims are so traumatized that they become suicidal.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Although more generally known for its provisions related to female participation in athletics, it also prohibits discrimination in other areas, including sexual harassment. When an institution knows, or reasonably should know, of sexual harassment that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from its educational program, Title IX requires it to take immediate, effective action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.

By accepting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from the federal government, educational institutions agree to conform to federal antidiscrimination laws. However, compliance with the 41-year-old Title IX is sparse at best.

The federal government is finally taking corrective action, but recent criticism of its actions are misinformed and undermine the purpose of Title IX. Throughout its guidance to schools, the Education Department repeatedly emphasizes the importance of impartiality. The guidelines do not broaden the definition of sexual harassment. They require clear, accessible policies and procedures to encourage reporting and prevent more severe or pervasive misconduct. They have not weakened the standard for evaluating sexual misconduct or denied the accused fair treatment. They have confirmed an appropriate standard that was already used on 80 percent of campuses and given victims the same rights accorded the accused. They require interim measures necessary to eliminate a hostile environment, make campuses safer, and help victimized students stay in school and complete their education.

The government is not encouraging schools to mete out inappropriate discipline. Instead, it seeks to ensure that colleges and universities provide students with clear messages to discourage sexual misconduct. Recent criticism that suggests that simply asking someone for a date would amount to sexual harassment — and would subject a student to discipline or a college to a Title IX violation — is absurd and trivializes the severity of campus sexual assault and harassment.

For too long, campus victims of sexual misconduct have suffered in unresponsive environments embedded with victim-blaming myths. Much like women in the military, they have struggled through confusing policies and systems while seeking justice. Instead, they are often re-traumatized and wind up experiencing adverse academic and career consequences. However, finally, much like women in the military, college women are raising their voices in protest over these conditions.

Our schools need to do more, not less, to prevent sexual harassment, deter sexual predators on campus, and respond appropriately to the troubling frequency of sexual misconduct. Indeed, institutions of higher education should be striving to create model communities that are free of discrimination, sexual misconduct, and violence.

We welcome the federal government’s willingness to flex its muscle to make this happen.


Note: This piece appeared as an Op-Ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 2013.

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Filed under college campuses, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Title IX, Violence Against Women

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.

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

Spousal rape is illegal, yet jurors still struggle to convict

By Emily Temple, WLP Law Intern

As a juror in a spousal rape case, Lisa Yumi Mitchell was thinking “How do you prosecute spousal rape? I was thinking, rape you can prosecute but, for the most part, you would think within a married couple sex is at least somewhat regular in that it would be difficult to try to make a case against your spouse.” This is how Mitchell recalled her thoughts when she was interviewed on NBC’s television show Dateline Mitchell’s reaction was influenced by a common misconception that only strangers commit “real rape” even though, under the law, rape by a spouse is rape.

Spousal rape survivor Crystal Harris reported that her husband, Shawn Harris, raped her three times before she could escape their home. Following death threats and violent behavior, Crystal Harris planted a tape recorder in their bedroom with the hope of catching the threats on tape. Instead, Harris ended up recording her own brutal rape. Taped evidence of forced sexual penetration is extremely rare in rape cases; and yet, prosecuting her rapist was more difficult than Harris expected.

Juror Mitchell remembered being horrified hearing Crystal on the recording: “she was crying, and she kept saying no, don’t do this, stop . . . she must have said stop like 50 times.” Yet, the defense depicted the recording as consensual rape role play. Defendant Shawn Harris testified that this was “just another opportunity to yell and scream and get our adrenaline pumping during sex.” In the end, the jury convicted Shawn Harris of only one charge – oral copulation – and deadlocked on the spousal rape and sodomy charges.*

When the Dateline NBC interviewer asked Mitchell if she thought the jury would have similarly struggled to convict if it had been a stranger who raped Crystal Harris after dragging her into an alley.  Mitchell answered “no, I think it would have been more clear cut had it been a stranger, or had it been anybody else, her boss, a friend, parent, sibling. I think the fact that it was her husband made it more difficult.”

The false belief that rape is committed by strangers when in fact the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, is a rape myth that impacts the reaction of people to sexual assault, including jurors.  People view rape by a stranger differently than rape by someone the victim knows.  Research demonstrates that when a victim is raped by someone she knows, particularly someone with whom she has had consensual sex, she is viewed more harshly and as less truthful. Schuller & Klippenstine, The Impact of Complainant Sexual History Evidence on Jurors’ Decisions: Considerations from a Psychological Perspective, Psychology, 10 Public Policy, and Law 321-341, 327.  The more intimate the relation, the more likely the victim is perceived as having the intent to have sex and being less sincere in her protests. Id.at 328. According to one study, “as the level of intimacy between the victim and the perpetrator increased, perceptions of the seriousness of the assault decreased, and the level of blame that [study] participants attributed to the victim increased.” Id.

Although the jury in this case struggled with the idea of rape within marriage, marital rape is unequivocally illegal in all 50 states. Early rape laws included a marital exception which permitted men to have non-consensual sex with their wives and escape prosecution. Consent was presumed in marriage; once a woman became a wife, she also became her husband’s property. Historically, rape was only rape if a male assailant forced sex upon a woman who was not his wife.

Spousal rape is illegal, yet the law provides little protection if potential jurors harbor the misconception that rape cannot exist in marriage. Crystal Harris’s experience demonstrates that laws re-victimizing survivors and barriers to marital rape convictions still exist. The greatest challenge facing marital rape survivors is the pervasive myth that rape is impossible between spouses. In order to truly leave the marital exception behind, Americans must understand that spousal rape is indeed rape.


*People v. Harris (http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/D059126.PDF), D059126, 2012 WL 1651015 (Cal. Ct. App. May 11, 2012), review denied (July 18, 2012), unpublished/noncitable (May 11, 2012).


Filed under Marital rape, 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).

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

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!

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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.


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