Sexual Violence Law Must Change

News coverage of horrific rapes associated with Stanford University and WPI helps the public understand victims’ suffering and the disproportionate injustices they endure as a cost for seeking justice, but the stories are missing critical information.

For example, the Stanford story nowhere notes that the rapist’s six-month sentence is far harsher than the punishments imposed on most rapists. Indeed, only 2% of rapists spend even one day behind bars; a statistic first noted by researchers in 1992, and that, as of 2012, had not changed.

In addition, the Stanford victim was clearly drugged, yet this fact appears in no news stories even though her total lack of consciousness is typical of a drug-induced rape, and one of the charges specifically states that she was incapacitated by alcohol “and” a controlled substance. Rape drugs such as benzodiazepam are commonly used by campus rapists to cause unconsciousness and memory loss. Offenders know that such drugs help them avoid prosecution because a victim with no memory cannot possibly provide sufficient evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, the Stanford case stands out for the heroic willingness of passersby to intervene, but the vast majority of such cases occur behind the closed doors of campus dorm rooms.

In the WPI case, stories correctly point out that it is both legally and morally repugnant to blame a rape victim for the criminal actions of another, and Attorney General Healey’s reiteration of this point makes clear that the public’s inclination to ask why a victim “put herself in harm’s way” is unacceptable.  However, Ms. Healey nowhere points out that violence against women is a civil rights issue in the Commonwealth, and on every college campus. As the chief law enforcement officer in Massachusetts, Healey ran the civil rights unit in her office before she became Attorney General, so she understands the law particularly well as is clear in her talks about civil rights when blacks, Muslims, gay, and transgender people suffer harassment and abuse. She should be framing the prolific sexual violence of women as a civil rights issue, too. This will send a powerful message that rape causes harm not only to victims but also to entire communities, which is why we all feel injured when racist violence happens. When society begins to feel injured by violence against women, incidence rates will plummet because all people of all colors, religions, ethnicities and genders will become invested in effective prevention. To that end, Healey should support a legislative amendment to add gender to the list of hate crimes because “gender” is the only category still missing in the extensive list of protected class categories, (she supported adding transgender several years ago). This explicit subjugation of women in black letter law contributes to gender-based violence by implying that women are not fully equal citizens entitled to truly equal protection of the law.

Rhetoric is fine – but equality is better.

Wendy Murphy

Wendy Murphy

Professor of sexual violence law

Wendy is adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston. An impact litigator whose work in state and federal courts around the country has changed the law to improve protections for women's and children's constitutional rights.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.