Sweeping changes have been made to sexual assault statutes since the 1970s that shift the focus from victims to perpetrators. The reforms have
- Modified statutory definitions of rape.
- Discontinued the need for victims to prove resistance.
- Eliminated the need for corroboration.
- Enhanced penalties when drugs or alcohol are used to facilitate sexual assault.
- Extended confidentiality privileges to community-based advocates and counselors.
- Prohibited housing and employment discrimination or retaliation following sexual assault.
- Created national sex offender registries to promote public safety.
- Repealed marital rape exceptions.
Although these reforms are significant, the concrete outcomes for victims and society have been disappointing.1 In short, criminal rape reform laws do not appear to have deterred sexual assault, enhanced its prosecution, or increased conviction rates.2
Much of the information in this section is adapted with permission from Jessica E. Mindlin and Susan H. Vickers, 2007, Beyond the Criminal Justice System: Using the Law to Help Restore the Lives of Sexual Assault Victims, Victim Rights Law Center, which was adapting material from I. Seidman and S. Vickers, 2005, "The Second Wave: An Agenda for the Next Thirty Years of Rape Law Reform," Suffolk University Law Review 38(2): 467492 (2005).
Research indicates that societal attitudes haven't kept pace with statutory reform.3 Many are confused about what constitutes consensual sex, ambivalent about criminal sanctions for sexual assault not involving physical injuries, and unclear about the boundary between sex and rape.4
Unfortunately, some in the criminal justice system continue to rely on outdated and erroneous notions of sexual assault victims and perpetrators. For example, they may view vulnerable or marginalized victims (e.g., victims with a history of substance abuse, intellectual disabilities, or undocumented immigration status) as less credible.
As a result, sexual assault victims often face the same hurdles that they did before the advent of rape law reform.5 Jurors still expect immediate complaints by victims and expect them to show signs of a struggle, even though "resistance" has been eliminated as a statutory element of the crime.6 In addition, trial, appellate, and state supreme courts are still arguing over the same issues: the meaning of consent, degrees of force, the victim's role as an active or passive participant, and a survivor's right to privacy.7
To be successful in championing sexual assault victims' rights in both the criminal and civil arenas, the outcomes from the past 30 years of rape law reform in the criminal system cannot be ignored. Those advocating for sexual assault victims must learn from the failures as well as the successes. Although statutory reforms have not produced significant changes in outcomes within the criminal justice process to date, the law can serve as a tool for victim healing and recovery.
Rape reform laws, by themselves, do not persuade victims to report or to seek services. Victims need to know that when they disclose their sexual assaultswhen they reach out for helpthey will be met with timely, compassionate, and competent responses for as long they need them. To turn statutory breakthroughs into practical applications, many communities form SARTs to monitor and evaluate interagency responses, address criminal justice objectives, and make victims' medical, legal, and advocacy needs a priority.