By Sarah Davin
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives, and this national statistic doesn’t even begin to address the additional effects of race, sexuality, disability, and nontraditional gender identities. There is no evidence to suggest that the situation in Vermont differs at all from this statistic.
In 2017, 1,376 sexual violence victims were served by the Vermont Network Coalition, a collection of organizations that provide services to individuals who have experienced domestic and sexual violence. These services have always been important, but the rise of the #MeToo movement catapulted conversation about sexual violence into the mainstream, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings highlighted the adversity victims face after coming forward and the complex nature of trauma.
Of 1,000 rapes, only six rapists will be incarcerated, says the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. When faced with abysmal results like this and a cultural drive for change, has the Vermont Legislature been keeping up? Laws surrounding sexual violence received a big upgrade last year. In 2017, the state’s statute for sexual assault was updated from having a statute of limitations of six years to no time limit.
This is an important change when dealing with trauma. “We did that because the criminal legal system functions on a timeline, but trauma does not,” said Auburn Watersong, Public Policy Director of the Vermont Network. “Those stories can be hung on to for a long while until there is some event or some reason that a victim would want to bring that story forward.” In May 2017, Vermont passed a piece of legislation known as the Sexual Violence Survivors Bill of Rights. Last year, the statute of limitations for “lewd and lascivious conduct against a child” and “sexual exploitation of a child” was also changed from 6 to 40 years.
Making laws around sexual violence isn’t always easy or straightforward. While other states have “sexual battery” or “non-consensual sexual contact” statutes, Vermont has a very old statute for “lewd and lascivious conduct,” which covers “all things sexual and improper.” This statute also addresses prostitution and indecent exposure. Last year, stakeholders met to look at the lascivious conduct statute in depth and considered creating a new statute to address sexual violence that is not considered sexual assault—in this case, legally defined as rape. However, rewriting a statute also eliminates valuable prior case law.
Ultimately, the stakeholders decided to leave the lascivious conduct statute alone. Cara Cookson, Public Policy Director and Victim Assistance Program Coordinator for the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, explained, “The answer to [the] question ‘would it better’ doesn’t have an easy answer—there are pluses and minuses. Ultimately, though, I’m not hearing that we have a problem along the lines of conduct that should be criminal isn’t covered, at least not until the conversation starts to move toward the fine line between protected speech/expressive conduct that is protected by the First Amendment and conduct that is threatening and/or involves a physical component.”
While it is essential to address potential legal weaknesses, change must also be made culturally. A good example of this is problems preventing sexual harassment. Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect against sexual harassment in workplace and educational settings as a matter of gender discrimination. However, outside of those settings, things get more challenging. Unless it carries a threat or involves stalking, sexual harassment that is purely speech cannot be prosecuted because it is protected by the First Amendment. Although acts such as catcalling are socially condemnable, it is harder to create legal repercussions without overstepping boundaries.
Although Vermont made progress last year, activists believe there is a much more that still needs to be done. Currently, there are multiple state bills listed on the Vermont Network’s 2018 Policy Agenda intended to benefit victims of domestic and sexual assault. One such bill would “include psychological abuse as a factor in applying for a Relief from Abuse Order.” Another bill in progress would help “prevent retraumatization of child and vulnerable adult victims in court proceedings.”
As November 6 approaches, Vermonters will have an opportunity to further support victims of sexual and domestic violence. When asked what kind of changes he would like to see, Keith Goslant, sexual violence survivor, responded, “I hope people are asking candidates when they go to do the door-to-door and the open forum about supporting victims. One of the concerns I have always had, and get from doing advocacy work with other survivors of sexual violence is, if you look at how our judicial system is structured, there’s a public defender who represents the interest of the alleged perpetrator, and then there’s the state’s attorney who is representing the interest of the state. The state’s attorney doesn’t represent the interest or the rights necessarily of the victim of the crime.”
Anna Nasset is the owner of Stand Up Resources, which provides marketing, design, and communications services to victims services centers and agencies. Recently, she has also begun publicly speaking about her own experience as a victim and survivor. Nasset recounted,
“Recently a friend said to me, ‘I feel like the mountain we’re climbing keeps getting bigger and bigger.’ I said to her, ‘No, the mountain isn’t getting bigger and bigger, we’re just seeing it clearer. The clouds are rolling away, and we’re seeing how big it’s always been.’”