Tag Archives: 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

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

Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence Need Paid Leave

Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, WLP

Victims of domestic and sexual violence need paid sick leavePromoting Healthy Families and Workplaces would require employers with six or more employees to provide up to seven paid days of leave for employees to use when they are sick, receive preventive care, address needs related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, or take care of a family members.  This important legislation provides domestic and sexual violence victims the opportunity to take steps to protect themselves from further domestic violence without risking loss of employment.

The Women’s Law Project stands firmly in support of this legislation.  We have made great progress with the Nutter administration to improve the response of law enforcement to domestic and sexual  violence as well as to expand social and health services.  This bill is a significant component of what needs to be a multifaceted response to a complex problem.  With the enactment of this bill, Philadelphia will take the lead in helping Pennsylvania victims of abuse achieve economic and personal independence.

We know firsthand how important adoption of this bill is to victims of abuse.  Through both our telephone counseling service and policy initiatives, we hear from women who are unable to obtain protection orders or seek the assistance of other social services to help them address the abuse to which they are subjected because their jobs do not give them time off for such activities.  Unable to risk losing their ability to support their families, these individuals continue to live in fear and suffer abuse without legal protection or other support.  Those who take time off from work to address the domestic violence even though they lack leave time, risk loss of employment, destitution, and homelessness.

Except for the domestic abuse hotline and emergency services in Philadelphia, the courts and most social services operate on a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule.  While someone faced with imminent danger may call 911 or file a petition for an Emergency Protection From Abuse order at any time, anyone seeking a final order of protection or relief from the criminal justice system must ultimately appear in court during the work week, typically for many hours, and often on a repeated basis.  Women seeking such orders have told us they simply could not take more time off from work to return to court again.  If the plaintiff does not appear for a hearing, the court dismisses the petition and no relief is granted. This bill, if adopted, will enable victims of abuse to seek legal and other protection.

We anticipate that the business community may assert concerns about misuse or overuse of the leave provided by this legislation.  This concern has been raised in other venues in which we have worked to confront discrimination against and achieve accommodation for battered women: insurance discrimination and waivers of welfare work requirements.  We have seen no abuse in those arenas.  In conversations with state insurance departments around the country, we have been assured that the number of individuals seeking relief under statutes prohibiting insurance discrimination against battered individuals has been extremely low.  In our work in Pennsylvania on implementation of the Family Violence Option, which allows domestic violence victims to be excused from work requirements if domestic violence impedes their ability to comply, we have also seen no abuse.  Despite estimates that domestic violence victims make up 40-60% of the TANF population, the number of TANF recipients in Pennsylvania seeking to be excused from work requirements is very small, only approximately 2 % or less of the TANF adult population statewide.  Philadelphia’s numbers are even lower, with the percentage of the city’s welfare population seeking work waivers consistently below 1% (Department of Public Welfare, unpublished data April -August, 2007).  Just as fears of false allegations of domestic violence have not been realized in these situations, we do not anticipate false claims in this one.

The reasons are the same:  battered women want to work and need to work to support themselves and their families.  In addition, victims of domestic violence do not easily disclose domestic violence to anyone, let alone their employer: shame and fear of loss of benefits and employment are a strong deterrent to disclosure of domestic violence.  Because requesting domestic violence leave requires such a disclosure, we do not expect domestic violence victims to request leave unless it is absolutely necessary for them to be excused from work.

See more information at:  http://www.phillyearnedsickdays.com/

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Filed under Domestic violence, Earned Sick Leave, Economic Justice, Family Violence, Paid Leave, Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Council, Violence Against Women

Urge Congress to Reauthorize VAWA

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

On January 23, 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID) introduced S. 47, a bill that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In the U.S. House, Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced H.R. 11, which is identical to S. 47. If passed, these bills will continue vital programs and services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, VAWA is a monumental piece of legislation. In 2011-2012, a strong VAWA reauthorization bill passed the Senate, but the House passed a substantially different bill that limited protection for immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBT victims of domestic and sexual violence. The partisan politics at the time derailed VAWA’s reauthorization.

This session, it is vital that Congress reauthorizes VAWA by passing a comprehensive bill that includes protection for all victims of domestic and sexual violence. The bipartisan Leahy-Crapo bill is similar to the bill that passed the Senate in the last session in that it includes enhanced protection and services for tribal, LGBT, and immigrant victims. The current Leahy-Crapo bill does not, however, include a provision that would increase the number of U visas available to immigrant victims of sexual, domestic, and other violence (A U visa offers temporary legal status to victims of certain crimes who assist law enforcement).  Senator Leahy’s office has stated that it hopes the concession will “better ensure passage of the Senate VAWA” and has indicated that the Senator is planning to include the U visa provision in separate immigration reform legislation.

Please contact your Senators and Congressional Representative to urge them to support the bipartisan S. 47 and H.R. 11. The health and safety of sexual and domestic violence victims is a high priority and should not be subjected to partisan politics.  To call your Senator or Representative, dial 202-224-3121.

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Filed under Congress, Domestic violence, Violence Against Women

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

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).

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

New York Times Reports on Dating Violence in Young Teenagers

Nikki Ditto, WLP Intern

An article published last week in the New York Times addresses the problem of dating violence among young teenagers, including those who have not yet entered high school. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, teen dating violence remains a significant problem, and the behaviors can begin to appear in teens as young as eleven and twelve.  

Studies that emerged over a decade ago showed that the group most at risk for dating violence and sexual assault was girls age 16 to 24. This report helped to increase funding and prevalence of programs aimed to educate teenagers about healthy relationships. While these programs have made an impact, reports show that they may not be starting early enough to catch the dangerous behaviors before they start.

A study conducted in 2010 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed 1,430 seventh graders from eight middle schools across the country. The study found that three-quarters of the students had been in a relationship. One in three had already experienced psychological dating violence, and one in six had experienced physical violence.

Thankfully, this information has encouraged the development of new programs and resources that provide early intervention and instruction. These programs target middle school students, as well as their parents, in the hope that they can teach warning signs and good decision making early. While the reports and the new early intervention programs recognize that males and females can be both the abuser and the abused, women and girls are still disproportionately the victims of dating violence.

Psychologically and physically abusive relationships that begin in the early teenage years can cause long-term patterns of abuse that continue into adulthood.We discussed the adverse health effects of intimate partner violence in our report, Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women. While the report focuses on adult women, teenagers are at risk as well.

The New York Times article was released as Congress debates reauthorizing VAWA. This is the first time since the bill was passed in 1994 that reauthorization has been challenged, and support has been divided along party lines. In this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the age limit for participants in programs funded with federal grant money has been lowered to eleven. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also given $1 million grants to each of 11 schools nation-wide in order to establish programs in middle schools that educate students about healthy teen relationships. More than ever, funding and education are needed to help to stop intimate partner violence, and protect and provide services for victims.

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Filed under Girls, Violence Against Women

Report: Female Farm Workers Face Sexual Violence, Harassment

On May 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report detailing the results of interviews with over 160 farmworkers, police, attorneys, and other members of the agricultural industry about sexual violence and harassment endured by female migrant farmworkers. Women make up 630,000 of the approximately 3 million people who perform migrant and seasonal farm work and 50% of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. Lily Kuo describes how “nearly all of 52 farmworkers interviewed said they had suffered sexual violence or harassment or knew others who had.” The report found that people in positions of power, such as “foremen, supervisors, farm labor contractors, and company owners were abusing multiple women and often over long periods of time.”

HRW found that most women and girls who work in the agricultural industry and suffer abuse do not report it because they are undocumented and do not want to risk getting deported if they do. Even the relatively small percentage of workers with guest worker visas are unlikely to report abuse because they are dependent on their employers in order to keep their legal status.

While there are U visas, which provide temporary legal status to victims of certain serious crimes if they suffer substantial physical or mental abuse and if they cooperate with the investigation, Huffington Post reports that

even this limited protection could soon be eviscerated. As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, proposed provisions to strengthen the U visa have come under attack, while

Even if proposed provisions to strengthen U visas were passed there would still be significant obstacles to obtaining them, since “to apply for a U visa the victim must get a certification that he or she cooperated with a law enforcement investigation. But law enforcement officials vary widely in their willingness to certify victims, due to a mistaken belief that they are helping unauthorized immigrants ‘get green cards.’”

The HRW report, while detailing troubling realities of the abuse many migrant farmworkers face, does offer hope that their situations can be bettered; it lists ways to improve and expand victims’ access to justice. The report proposes, among other things, that the U.S. Congress pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill, enact immigration legislation that would reduce the incidence of serious abuse of immigrant workers’ rights, and that the exclusion of farmworkers from important laws providing labor protections like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act be eliminated.

To learn more about this issue and what you can do to help, you can read the entire HRW report here. You can also watch a video that includes an interview with an HRW official as well as with farmworkers below.


Filed under Immigrants, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Uncategorized, Violence Against Women

Urge Your Representative in Congress to Oppose H.R. 4970 to Protect the Safety of Domestic and Sexual Violence Victims

As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), domestic and sexual violence victims are in danger of losing important protections under the law.   Unlike previous reauthorizations of VAWA, a law originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, reauthorization this year has been a largely partisan process in both the Senate and the House.  As we have written previously, the Senate’s bill to reauthorize VAWA had bipartisan sponsorship, but passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on only a party-line vote of 10-8 without a single committee Republican voting in favor of reauthorization.  The bill ultimately passed the Senate in a 68-31 vote, with several Republicans supporting it. 

In the House, partisanship has resulted in a maneuver by Republicans that will undermine previously enacted protections under VAWA.  On May 8, 2012, the House Judiciary Committee approved a marked up version of H.R. 4970 introduced by House Republicans to reauthorize VAWA and to reduce protections for victims.  It passed out of committee in a 17-15 vote, with only one Republican voting against the harmful bill. 

Among its harmful provisions, H.R. 4970 targets immigrant domestic and sexual violence victims, who are among the most vulnerable victims because of language and cultural barriers to accessing services and, for some, undocumented status.  Sections 802 and 806 of the bill are particularly harmful.  Section 802 would limit the circumstances under which a victim qualifies for a “U” Visa, which provides an opportunity for undocumented victims of serious crimes to gain lawful status if they meet certain criteria.  Congress created the “U” Visa in 2000 to encourage immigrant victims to report crime and to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute crimes.  Section 802 of the bill would undermine these purposes of the “U” Visa in several ways, including by requiring that victims report the crime within 60 days, a burdensome obstacle for immigrant crime victims who have difficulty accessing services.  It would also require that the “U” Visa applicant provide information that assists in identifying the perpetrator of the crime, even though it is sometimes difficult for victims to be able to identify a perpetrator accurately.  Section 806 of the bill would further undermine the purpose behind “U” Visas by terminating the visa recipient’s eligibility for permanent residence.  

If passed into law, these provisions of H.R. 4970 will harm immigrant domestic and sexual violence victims, making it harder for these women to report and escape from violence in their lives.  The safety of these women should not be subject to partisan politics. 

Please tell your representative in the House that all domestic and sexual violence victims deserve protection.  Urge him or her to oppose H.R. 4970.  To call your representative, dial 202-224-3121 and tell the operator the name of your representative.

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Filed under Congress, Domestic violence, Immigrants, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

Decades after Reforms Erased Sexual Assault Myths from the Letter of the Law, Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice System Remains Infected

In the early morning hours in a college dorm room, three young men took turns physically restraining and vaginally, anally, and orally penetrating an eighteen-year-old woman student without her consent.  The victim had allowed the three men — who were friends of a friend — to hang out in her room after a party in the hall had ended, but said “no” when one tried to kiss her and then tried to move away when he made further sexual advances.  Afraid, embarrassed, and in shock, she was unable to take any further action to protect herself.  The district attorney brought charges against the men, and after a three day trial, the jury convicted the three men of sexual assault, indecent assault, and false imprisonment.  The trial court affirmed the sexual assault and indecent assault convictions when it denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial.  On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned these convictions.  The case, Commonwealth v. Claybrook, is now on appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In an Amicus (“friend of the court”) brief filed on March 2, 2012 on behalf of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) and forty-two Pennsylvania and national organizations dedicated to justice for victims of sexual assault, amici argue that the Superior Court overturned these convictions in reliance on sexual assault myths, including the myths that primarily strangers perpetrate sexual assault and that social interaction, absence of physical resistance, absence of severe physical injuries, and certain post-assault victim behaviors imply consent.  These myths have been discredited by social science research and eliminated by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws.  For example, the legislature eliminated the requirements of resistance, corroboration, and prompt complaint so that a victim’s lack of active resistance, lack of physical injuries, or delay in reporting the crime would not bar prosecution.  In 1995, the legislature revamped Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws again.  Recognizing the complexity of sexual assault, particularly when the parties know each other, the legislature adopted a broader definition of forcible compulsion, eliminated differential treatment of spousal rape, and recognized the crime of “sexual assault,” defined as sexual penetration without consent.  With these changes, as legislative history shows and as the amicus brief lays out, the legislature eliminated several sexual assault myths from the law.

Social science research supports the elimination of these myths.  Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows; rape often results in few, if any, physical injuries apart from the rape itself; and many victims do not physically resist their attackers for a variety of reasons, including fear of serious injury or death and trauma that causes some victims to become immobilized.  Furthermore, research shows that there is a wide range of reactions and behaviors that victims exhibit during and in the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is erroneous to assume that a victim should behave in any particular way.

The perpetuation of myths adopted by the Superior Court fuels distrust in the criminal justice system and contributes to the low reporting of sex offenses.  The vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police.  A recent discussion on twitter with the hashtag #ididnotreport illustrates how lack of confidence in the justice system silences victims of sexual assault and harassment.  One tweet explains, “[I did not report] because I have no faith in our justice system where so few rapists are jailed + victims are treated like perpetrators.”

To stop sexual assault and create a just society where perpetrators of sexual violence are punished for their crimes, the justice system must rid itself of the types of myths on which the Superior Court relied in Commonwealth v. Claybrook.

For more information on WLP’s work related to violence against women, click here and stay tuned for WLP’s forthcoming report, Through the Lens of Equality: Gender Bias, Health, and a New Vision for Pennsylvania’s Women, which details the pernicious impact of sexual assault and harassment on women’s health.

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Filed under PA Supreme Court, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women