11 Small Victories For Sexual Assault Survivors In 2017

by Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
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The road to justice for sexual assault and abuse survivors can sometimes seem like long and difficult, and oftentimes nearly impossible. But despite the obstacles and high-profile cases that reaffirm the challenges sexual assault survivors face, there have been small victories on that front this year.

If you read the news, it may not always seem like it. Ex-Stanford rapist Brock Turner had his sentence reduced. Americans saw and continue to see their neighbors defend President Trump's history of sexual assault allegations (allegations he has roundly denied). More recently, Bill Cosby's sexual assault retrial was set for November — because accusations from nearly 60 women spanning 50 years was not enough to convince the jury. (Cosby, too, denies all allegations.) International headlines don't seem to be much better at times: Last month, local authorities ordered a Pakistani teenage girl to be publicly raped in her village as punishment after her brother was accused of raping another girl.

Despite the bleak news, coupled with the tense and polarizing atmosphere the U.S. since last election year, there were also a few legal victories. In December, 2016 Americans saw former President Obama and Congress pass the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, a bipartisan effort to help prevent and respond to sexual assault. First signed in 2004, the law was enacted to protect crime victims' rights, eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits, and expand forensic technology in local, state and federal crime laboratories.

More than halfway through 2017 and sexual assault survivors have already collected some wins in everywhere from college campuses to Silicon Valley. Here are a few reminders to not lose hope:


Republican And Democrat Team Up To Support After-Care For Rape Victims

In a bipartisan effort, Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Carol Maloney (D-NY) sponsored the Megan Rondini Act to help give rape victims easier access to medical workers who are trained to support them while they are hospitalized. The bill is named after a University of Alabama student from Texas who committed suicide after a prominent local businessman allegedly raped her. The accused denied the claim, insisting that it was consensual, and ultimately was not charged. Video tapes obtained by Buzzfeed News show Tuscaloosa police questioning Rondini with disbelief. Rondini's parents claimed their daughter, who withdrew from school to return home, suffered depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder leading up to her suicide. The hospital also botched the rape kit test, Poe said.

Earlier this month the victim's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the alleged attacker and school officials. The suit claims university officials mishandled her allegations and that Rondini was treated as a crime suspect.

“We must ensure that victims of crime have access to assistance and can pursue justice, and this legislation helps to deliver both," Poe told Buzzfeed News in a statement.


Revenge Porn Became Illegal Under Navy And Marine Corps Law

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In April the Navy and Marine Corps changed regulations to order to ban members of military from sharing nude photos without consent. The change came after a Pentagon investigation into participants of a closed Facebook group who were sharing nude photographs of hundreds or more female service members and veterans. The photos included personal information about the women, such as name, rank, duty station and social media accounts.

"A Marine who directly participates in, encourages, or condones such actions could also be subjected to criminal proceedings or adverse administrative actions," the Marine Corps said in an official statement.


Congress Introduces A Bipartisan Bill To Protect Athletes From Sexual Abuse

It's not often we think of Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Todd Young on the same page as their Democratic colleagues, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. But members from both parties united for a bill led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to change the way sporting organizations respond to sexual abuse.

In spring 2016, a former gymnast stepped accused a USA Gymnastics doctor of sexually violating her. Since then, more than 100 women from USA Gymnastics have come forward with accusations and lawsuits against Larry Nassar, the doctor. Similar incidents unrelated to Nassar in USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo have also come to light. The new bill would require amateur athletics governing bodies to immediately report abuse allegations to local or federal law enforcement or a child-welfare agency designated by the Justice Department.

Since his accusations, Nassar resigned from USA Gymnastics, was fired from Michigan State University and was arrested on 28 criminal charges. He pleaded not guilty.


Women In Silicon Valley Are Speaking Out

Sexism in Silicon Valley isn't new. But perhaps for the first time, people all the way up to the high-profile members of the tech industry are being held accountable, whether for sexual harassment allegations or for ignoring the burgeoning culture of misogyny in their companies.

Investors successfully forced the resignation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, whose ride-hailing service company came under fire for its culture of sexual harassment. Former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler went viral with a blog post detailing her year of discrimination at Uber. In response, Kalanick called what she described "abhorrent" and instructed the new Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct an investigation into the allegations.

Kalanick wasn't the only one who came under fire. On July 3 the general partner of seed investment group 500 Startup, Dave McClure, resigned and apologized for putting multiple women at work in compromising and inappropriate situations. Of course, the apology only came after The New York Times reported his behavior. Kalanick and McClure are only a couple of the men in the startup and tech industry who have resigned following such scandals.

It seems that money doesn't always hold power. Institutional opposition, fueled by employees who are speaking out, are knocking the Silicon Valley elite off their thrones.


Ex-Vanderbilt Football Players Receive Jail Time For Rape

College campuses aren't always equipped to handle cases of sexual violence. In worse cases, schools like Baylor have reportedly tried to dismiss rape allegations altogether. Court records show ex-Baylor coach Art Briles tried to cover up misconduct. Star athletes in particular can receive preferential treatment from their community. It's no wonder then that victims might be deterred to take their sexual assaults to court — not if the process is an arduous and expensive journey that ends with slut shaming and justice denied.

So that's why the Vanderbilt rape case might be a turning point for how survivors feel about the criminal justice system. Four former football players were charged with gang raping an unconscious woman, who was allegedly friends with one of her attackers.

23-year-old Brandon Banks was found guilty in late June and faces at least 15 years in prison. Two others, Corey Batey and Brandon Vandenburg, were sentenced to 15 and 17 years in jail respectively. The men were convicted of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery and unlawful photography.


Texas Passes Measures That Target Sexual Assault On Campus

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Following the Baylor rape scandal, Texas legislators and Gov. Greg Abbott pushed through two measures to support students who report sexual assaults. The new bill allows students and employees to electronically and anonymously report sexual assaults to their universities. It will also grant amnesty to students if they were violating other laws during the incident. Victims who were underage drinking may stay silent out of fear of recrimination.

“One of the ways to change the culture on college campuses is to empower the survivors of sexual assault and to make it easier for victims to be able to report,” Watson told the Texas Tribune.


California Sexual Assault Laws Updated

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Inspired by the Bill Cosby allegations and ex-Stanford rapist Brock Turner's shortened sentence, California amended its sexual assault laws with three new changes. The statute of limitations has been removed for assaults committed from 2017 onward, meaning victims can report their assaults at any time after the incident.

Prison time is also mandatory now for perpetrators who assault someone who is unconscious or too intoxicated to give consent. Judges will not have the authority to grant probations. And lastly, people in possession of date rape drugs with the intent to commit an assault will now be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.


Nigerians Open Their Home To Boko Haram Kidnapping Survivors

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Nigeria's Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram caught worldwide attention in 2014 after kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls. They count themselves among thousands of others captured by the extremist group and then forced to endure sex slavery or be employed as suicide bombers. Some have escaped or been released since then, but some were horrified to see not everyone received a warm welcome. Some communities shunned Boko Haram survivors who returned home because they now carry the stigma of being a a Boko Haram "wife" and are accused of being sympathetic toward their captors.

Fortunately, not every survivor has faced ostracism. The militant group has ravaged cities and villages across Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad, displacing more than 2.6 million people. And now Nigerians are taking displaced Boko Haram survivors in, warmly welcoming the refugees and even sacrificing their houses and land for makeshift camps. One of the humanitarian hearts is Hauwa Ari, mother of three.

“Now I feel like I have 90 children!" Ari told The Guardian. "It’s the happiest feeling in the world. Even if these families go back to their own homes, towns and villages, I’ll visit them.”


PWR BTTM's Downfall Shows That The Music Industry Has No Time for Sexual Assault

Fans of indie band PWR BTTM were shocked to learn this spring that the supposedly queer-friendly band had a dark side. The PWR BTTM scandal broke when allegations against member Ben Hopkins surfaced on social media, detailing their history of sexual assault and harassment. In an anonymous interview with Jezebel, one woman said Hopkins made sexually aggressive advances on her after a show and tried to assault her. PWR BTTM said on Twitter that the news came as a shock, the alleged behavior was not representative of them, and that Hopkins had not been in contact with the accusers.

The backlash was still swift. The band canceled its album release show in NYC and four bands dropped out of their tour, which was later also canceled. PWR BTTM's label Polyvinyl has stopped selling and distributing PWR BTTM's music, and is offering refunds. Salty Artist Management announced they will no longer work with PWR BTTM and Hopscotch Festival dropped the band from the lineup.

Often we hear we should separate the artist from the artwork, which places power in the hands of the artists — at the expense of their victims. It was not the case this time, however.


Netflix TV Shows Give A Voice To Crime Victims

From the Black Dahlia victims to Making a Murderer, stories of true crime can sometimes focus mostly on the perpetrators and "whodunnit" part rather than the victims, especially if the victims are dead and unable to tell their side of the story. NPR's Serial is another example, engrossing as it was, that makes the perpetrator the star — and a sympathetic one, at that.

[Spoilers ahead] Two Netflix shows have found a way to give a voice back to the crime victims. From the creators of Making a Murderer, documentary series The Keepers looks at the unsolved murder of the nun Sister Cathy Cesnick. What starts off as a regular mystery of who killed Sister Cathy delves into another (alleged) crime: that a priest at the school sexually abused his students, Cesnik knew and authorities tried to cover it up. The Keepers features to several sexual abuse survivors and after the show's premiere, the Baltimore police created an online form for more sexual assault survivors to report related offenses.

In the fictional realm, 13 Reasons Why, a series based on a book of the same title, sets up arc of why a high school girl would kill herself. We see her encounters with sexual assault and consequent shaming that leads up to her suicide. While the content matter is dark, it's also helped viewers understand rape culture and process their own experiences.


Maryland's "No Means No" Law Redefines Rape

A previous interpretation of Maryland's rape law permitted that if a rape victim did not fight back, it technically wasn't rape — even if the victim was unconscious. This spring Maryland amended its rape definition with the "No Means No" law, which removes the requirement that victims must resist their assailant for it to be considered rape. Gov. Larry Hogan also signed two additional related laws to aid rape prosecution: police are no longer allowed to destroy rape kits for at least 20 years and that rape can include other types of sexual assault beyond vaginal penetration.

This is a victory for survivors who could now be more likely to come forward. After all, rapists commit rape, so it should be defined by the perpetrator's actions, not the victim's behavior.