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Listening to Survivors: Ending Impunity for Sexual Violence in the US

What is the problem? 

According to RAINN, every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Women and girls are the most frequent victims and 1 out of every 6 women in the US has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape. However, despite this high prevalence of sexual violence, survivors often do not receive justice and perpetrators are too often granted impunity for their crimes. 

What are the laws on sexual violence in the United States?

Many states in the US fail sexual violence survivors by having inadeqate and outdated definitions of rape that require the use of additional violence, threat or the victim’s physical helplessness, incapacity or inability to resist as key elements of rape, as opposed to being based on lack of consent to the sexual act. For example:

  • In Maryland, the definition of rape is based on force, threats, or a person’s inability to provide consent
  • In Texas, the definition of rape is primarily based on the use of physical force, violence, coercion, or threats, or the victim’s incapacity to resist or consent, as the law defines nonconsensual sexual acts as acts that were compelled through such means
  • In Virginia, the definition of rape incorporates a requirement of violence or intimidation, mental incapacity or physical helplessness
  • In California, the definition of rape is based on it being a sexual act accomplished against a person’s will by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury; on the victim’s incapability of giving legal consent or of resisting; on other threats against the victim; or on deceiving the victim as to the perpetrator’s identity

Read more about sexual violence laws in the United States and across the Americas in our 2021 report, Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas

What is Equality Now doing to end impunity for sexual violence in the United States? 

In the US, as around the world, we believe in a survivor-centered approach to ending sexual and gender-based violence. To that end we partner with survivor activists as well as other organizations, artists, and projects that lift up survivor voices, to highlight the scope of the problem and develop trauma-informed policy and legal solutions. 

While every instance of sexual violence is unique and personal, structural inequality and embedded patriarchal norms mean that many survivors face common barriers when attempting to accessing justice. From women who have experienced abuse at the hands of high-profile individuals, such as Russell Simmons or Larry Nassar, to those that lived with intimate partner violence, survivors of sexual violence confront similar obstacles, including:

  • A culture of victim-blaming that holds survivors responsible for their own abuse;
  • A criminal justice system that frequently re-traumatizes rather than supports survivors;
  • Powerful individuals and institutions that shield perpetrators
  • Misogynistic beliefs that assume men deserve access to women’s bodies; 
  • Lack of accessible accountability mechanisms, including adequate legal recourse;
  • Stigma and shame that prevents survivors from speaking openly about their experiences.
  • Additional burdens for marginalized populations that must also contend with additional discrimination such as racism, transphobia, or xenaphobia. 

Equality Now works with our partners across the country to:

  • Provide recommendations to federal and state governments on improving sexual violence laws and policies;
  • Amplify the voices of survivors of color and other marginalized communities; 
  • Produce discussion guides for films like On The Record, social impact campaigns, and webinars to engage diverse audiences and stakeholders on ending sexual violence and stigma for survivors;