How 2016 Changed The Way We Talk About Sexual Assault Forever

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When we look back at 2016, there will likely be several descriptions that come to mind. ("Dumpster fire" is one.) One label that may stick, however, is "watershed year for sexual assault" and the way in which we talk about it, treat it, and prosecute it. It's been an intriguing year for sexual violence survivors and their allies, with huge positives (new laws and rapid shifts in awareness) paired with gigantic lows (the new President-elect, and let's leave it there for now).

But either way, this will likely be a year that features heavily in academic discussions of our conceptions of consent, assault, the value of women's bodies, and how those beliefs ripple out into our culture and politics. On the surface, sexual violence isn't complicated: no means no, a huge number of women (and a proportion of men) will experience assault in their lifetimes, and perpetrators deserve to be prosecuted. But it's never just about the act itself; it's about the beliefs that led to it, the culture that receives the knowledge and reacts to the people involved, and what damage or healing can be created or achieved in that context.

Fixing sexual violence, 2016 has made very clear, isn't just a matter of chasing down rapists. It requires a grassroots shift in consciousness, and the work is just beginning. Here's evidence of that.

Sexual Assault Allegations Were No Longer A Disqualification For The Presidency

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The true watershed moment for sexual assault in the American consciousness was the race for the White House, and it was an astonishing one. Everybody knows the headlines: Trump caught on tape talking about grabbing women's vaginas without their consent, the 11 accusers who allege he sexually assaulted them, the Jane Doe who planned to take him to court on charges of sexually assaulting a minor before dropping the charges under the intensity of media scrutiny.

The bigger picture, if anything, was more chilling: America is now a country that does not require that its president at the very least steers clear of the grotesqueries of misogynistic language (or, as 2016 would have it, "locker room talk"). Once, perhaps, this would have been a scandal that could have wiped a candidate off the map. Commentators have pointed out that such a history for President Obama would have scuppered him early. That Trump survived it is not a testament to his own personal charms, but to the state of American culture and its continuing attitudes towards assault, women's bodies, and the power of rich, white men.

The Voices Of Sexual Assault Survivors Reached New Volume

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For every point there's a counterpoint, and this was also the year in which women who had experienced sexual assault found a powerful and often extraordinarily eloquent voice. The seminal one, of course, was the anonymous survivor of Brock Turner's sexual assault, whose letter to him about what he had done to her and what she felt about those "20 minutes of action" (as his father so memorably described them) was burned onto the public consciousness, read aloud on CNN, and in the U.S. House of Representatives in its full 12-page majesty. Of course, while Brock Turner's case gave voice to the victim and resonated worldwide, it was also an example of horrifically lenient sentencing — a fact that was also called out on social media and changed the conversation.

Survivors also attained legal protections in the U.S. for the first time, when the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act was signed into law in October, including protections around rape kits and their treatment (the rape kit backlog has been a scandal for some time). It's not a universal movement, however: a British MP attempted unsuccessfully to block the UK's ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which is aimed at stamping out violence against women and girls.

'Audrie & Daisy' Busted Rape Culture On Campus Wide Open

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Of all the documentaries to be released in 2016, one that came out with Netflix and shocked audiences at Sundance was perhaps the most important: Audrie & Daisy, which took three real-life cases of sexual assault on campuses in the U.S. and turned them into a wide ranging, brutal investigation of the rape culture that exists among America's youth. The survivors themselves were punished and harassed by their peers, with one later committing suicide as a result of her grotesque treatment. All of them were in their early- to mid-teens. As a demonstration of the work left to be done on dismantling rape culture (a matter that some of the people behind the documentary are tackling with the organization SafeBAE, which gives consent workshops at schools), it's a searing testament.

The International Criminal Court Made Its First Sexual Violence Conviction


Outside of the United States, the news for sexual violence against women was, in some places, positive. Human Rights Watch's annual assessment of women's rights worldwide makes special mention of the newest development at the International Criminal Court: Chad's ex-dictator, Hissene Habre, was convicted of crimes against humanity in ordering the rape and sexual assault of torture victims under his rule. It was the first ICC conviction of a dictator for the crimes of people under his command, and will change the legal landscape. It's a needed development, too, as the HRW assessment also included new instances of rape and assault as war tactics in various countries worldwide.

Sexual Violence Protests In Latin America Received Global Attention


America's women may have their own moment with the Million Woman March on January 21, but they'll be following in the outraged footsteps of Latina women, who took the spotlight in 2016 with protests across two nations in Latin America, fueled by anger against a culture of sexual violence and misogyny. The "Ni Una Menos" ("Not One Less") marches, which took place across Brazil and Argentina, were motivated by tragedies: horrific violence against two young women, one 14, one 16, and only one of whom survived. The Ni Una Menos protests coincided with widespread strikes by women who downed tools to get out on the street, and may mark a turning point in cultural attitudes towards female consent and shame.

Bill Cosby's Accusers Were Mostly Believed In The Court Of Public Opinion


The trial is still months away, but in 2016, we learned that actor and comedian Bill Cosby is being charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault, which allegedly took place in 2004, all of which he denies. A staggering 13 women are accusing Cosby of sexual assault, but the plaintiff in the key case is Andrea Constand, who claims that Cosby sexually assaulted her after drugging her, a claim which Cosby also denies. Prior testimony that Cosby gave, admitting that he had given women drugs before having sex with them, will be allowed at the trial, which will certainly dominate headlines next year.

Crosby's lawyers spent months trying to get the judge to throw out the charges, but their efforts failed — and public opinion largely sided against the beloved actor, something that might not have been seen in the past. That such a high-profile case is in the spotlight — and that public opinion seems to be siding with Cosby's accusers, rather than writing them off as simply "money hungry" — is a small step in the right direction.

Malawi's Culture Of Sexual "Cleansing" Was Put On Trial For The First Time

The year 2016's massive conversation-changing moments were often ambiguous. One of the most notable cases occurred in Malawi, where a conviction marked both a massive step forward and a worrying precedent for attitudes towards rape and consent. A man known as a "hyena," who had sex with over 100 women and girls to "cleanse" them and remove their sexual desire before marriage, despite being HIV-positive, was sentenced under the new charge of "harmful practices" in Malawi's criminal court. His sentence, however, drew condemnation: it was only two years long.

"Hyena" culture is deeply embedded in rural Malawian consciousness, with men being paid to have sex with women after abortions, once they hit puberty, and at other seminal moments, even if they themselves don't consent. The new "harmful practices" laws are aimed at rooting them out, but this isn't exactly a promising start.

Famous Women Shared Their Stories More Than Ever


Visibility, when it comes to sexual assault and its survivors, matters. And 2016 was a year in which more and more women used their fame and power to discuss their own experiences and support those with fewer resources. From Gabrielle Union, who published an op-ed about her role in the film of Nate Parker (the director accused of assaulting a woman while at college), to Lady Gaga's admission that she had PTSD as a result of her own rape, to Madonna's discussion of her own assault while accepting the Woman Of The Year gong at the Billboard Awards, no less, any survivor out there has had the knowledge that being famous or rich or pretty does not protect against the violation of their fundamental human rights about the use of their bodies. The list is almost endless (Evan Rachel Wood and Amber Tamblyn each opened up in new, vulnerable ways about their experiences), and it's powerful.