Speaking Out with Carrie N. Baker: #MeToo’s influence paying off in Congress

  • In this Jan. 12, 2016 file photo, Alyssa Milano arrives at the Sixth Biennial UNICEF Ball in Beverly Hills, Calif. Since a tweet by Milano in October of 2017 went viral, advocates have fought hard for new protections and services for survivors of sexual assault and harassment as well as prevention measures. Just this month, these advocates have won several important victories. Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP File

Published: 3/23/2022 1:58:03 PM

One out of every six American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (the number for men is one in 33). Sixty percent of women report experiencing unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct or sexist comments in the workplace. Women face sexual coercion and abuse in housing, online, in politics and on the street. Rates of sexualized violence are particularly high among young women, women of color, low-income women, disabled women and trans women. But change may soon be coming.

Since Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet went viral in October of 2017, advocates have fought hard for new protections and services for survivors of sexual assault and harassment as well as prevention measures. Just this month, these advocates have won several important victories.

On March 16, President Joe Biden signed into law the long-delayed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which passed Congress as part of the 2022 fiscal year appropriations package. VAWA was last reauthorized in 2013, but expired in December 2018 due to Republican efforts to block the measure.

VAWA funds crisis lines, counseling, victim assistance, emergency shelters and legal services for survivors throughout the country. Locally, VAWA funds Safe Passage in Northampton and the Center for Women and Community in Amherst. VAWA increases services and support for survivors from underserved and marginalized communities — including for LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual assault — and funds survivor-centered, community-based restorative practice services.

To help address the particularly high rates of sexual assault of Indigenous women, VAWA expands criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault on tribal lands. According to the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes and 56% experience sexual violence. An astounding 97% are victimized by non-Native perpetrators. One reason for this is that federal law has traditionally limited the power of tribal courts to address violence against women. VAWA strengthens tribal courts’ ability to hold non-Native perpetrators accountable.

VAWA also addresses the widespread phenomenon of police sexual abuse of women under their control, which disproportionately impacts young women, low-income women and women of color. In a notorious 2015 case, a jury convicted police officer Daniel Hortzclaw on five counts of rape and 13 other counts of sexual assault against eight Black women.

The new VAWA includes the Closing the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole Act, which makes it a crime for a federal law enforcement officer to engage in a sexual act with anyone in their custody or while exercising their authority, regardless of consent. The legislation incentivizes states to adopt similar laws.

For students, VAWA includes the HALT on Campus Sexual Violence Act, which requires climate surveys of college and university students to assess how well the institutions are addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking and dating violence. Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. The law also establishes an interagency task force on sexual violence to provide better information to the public about prevention and response efforts on campuses.

Another important provision of the new VAWA targets “revenge porn” — the distribution of sexually explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, online image-based sexual abuse is widespread: one in eight adult social media users have been targets of non-consensual pornography (mostly women). VAWA for the first time creates the right to sue individuals who disclose intimate visual images without consent, allowing victims to recover damages and legal fees.

In addition to VAWA, President Biden on March 2 signed the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021. For years, employers have been able to preemptively silence workers through forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which today prevent more than 60 million workers from filing complaints in open court. In forced arbitration, a company may limit discovery of evidence, skew rules in their favor, block access to counsel and bar similar claims. Employers choose the arbitrators who decide the cases and pay them. If they like the results, they hire them again.

The new law voids forced arbitration agreements for sexual harassment and assault claims in employment contracts. The law also prohibits collective action waiver clauses that require employees to forfeit their rights to join together in class-action lawsuits, effectively preventing them from proving the pervasive nature of workplace harassment. In these ways, the law prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign away their rights to sue for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. This law also applies to property leases, ride-share app terms, maintenance service agreements and any other contract

We have a long way to go to ending violence against women in America. But this month, the U.S. has taken several important steps toward achieving that goal.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.

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