Surviving rape fundamentally changed me. Four months before I was raped, held captive, and finally escaped, I graduated from Georgia State University’s prestigious Urban Studies and Nonprofit Administration program with a Master’s degree, a 4.0 GPA and the department’s highest award for academic achievement and professional promise. This was three years after I graduated from Emory University with a double major in economics and political science. I was working with my graduate advisor on a journal article based on my research into memorable city slogans and enduring boosterism imagery, hot topics as Atlanta prepared for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Instead of finishing that article, I was committed to the psych ward of the hospital for 18 days instead of getting treated for rape. On the day I was released from the hospital, the doctor told me I never again would be an independent, fully-functioning adult and I should find some kind of supported living situation and low-stress part-time job. He did a great job of trying to convince me I was mentally ill and unreliable.
You see, I broke down in the ob/gyn’s office, the first place I went for help the day after the attack. I was in shock and kept repeating “he hurt me, he hurt me, they always hurt me.” The ob/gyn called the psychiatrist upstairs and they conspired to have me declared mentally ill, diagnosed as having a psychotic break, and admitted to the psych ward. I can’t say for sure, but I think the doctor was afraid I was accusing him—I wasn’t. I was trying to remember what had happened to me, trying to find words to explain the terror and pain I felt. Despite repeatedly saying I was hurt, I wasn’t examined until three weeks later; the doctor noted signs of physical trauma but it was too late to collect any kind of evidence. I filed a police report once I got out of the hospital but was told it would be nearly impossible to prosecute without evidence and with my mental illness diagnosis there was more than reasonable doubt. I was declared mentally ill before I finally was believed and that rendered me ineligible for justice. This was in 1993.
Joe Biden co-authored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. It dealt with both sexual assault and domestic violence perpetrated by men on women. TIME magazine reported this at the time the legislation was being debated:
“Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, [VAWA] stipulates that gender-biased crimes violate a woman’s civil rights. The victims of such crimes would therefore be eligible for compensatory relief and punitive damages. Heightened awareness may also help add bite to laws that are on the books but are often underenforced…police often walk away if the victim refuses to press charges…of the 5,745 women murdered in 1991, 6 out of 10 were killed by someone they knew. Half were murdered by a spouse or someone with whom they had been intimate. And that does not even hint at the level of violence against women by loved ones: while only a tiny percentage of all assaults on women result in death, the violence often involves severe physical or psychological damage.”
Just like 79% of rape victims, I knew the guy who raped me. We had been on four dates. I knew his name, where he worked, where he lived. What I didn’t know until that fifth date was that he was a predator, someone who took great pleasure in inflicting pain and causing fear. Someone who said, “The look on your face is priceless, I love it!” while he assaulted me. I also found out that night that I wasn’t supposed to escape, that I was supposed to become one of the 6 out of 10 women who were killed by someone they knew. I escaped but I still became a statistic: one of six women are victims of attempted or completed rape and 81% of those survivors experience significant impacts like post-traumatic stress disorder and injury.
Before VAWA, there was little funding for rape crisis centers or domestic violence centers. Women had nowhere to go and no one to advocate for them. I know because there was no one there to advocate for me in October 1993.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, created in 1994 by VAWA as a national nonprofit providing direct support for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, notes, “VAWA fostered community-coordinated responses that brought together, for the first time, the criminal justice system, the social services system, and private nonprofit organizations responding to domestic violence and sexual assault.”
Since then, VAWA has been reauthorized and strengthened. It has provided funding to train law enforcement officers how to respond to domestic violence cases in ways that protected victims and the officers themselves. It has funded training for medical professionals about how to treat victims of violence and rape when they seek medical care–to believe and to support the victims while obtaining critical evidence to prosecute the perpetrator.
VAWA has helped fund the word of organizations like Partnership Against Domestic Violence and the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault, partners in advocating for women, girls, and even boys and men who were brutalized by family members, friends, dates, trusted guardians, and even clergy. I had the privilege of serving on the board of the GA Network to End Sexual Assault in the 2000s and to speak twice at the GA Capitol for Stop Violence Against Women Day so I know these organizations and many others like them made and still make a difference.
As TIME magazine noted in 2019, when VAWA was up for reauthorization: “Reauthorizations of the Act have included provisions to support particularly vulnerable groups, including Native Americans, the LGBT community and immigrant women. For instance, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 authorized Native American tribes to prosecute domestic violence crimes, required colleges to report to staff and students about dating violence and sexual-assault crimes, and provided grant funding for testing backlogged rape kits.”
Thanks to the federal government shutdown orchestrated by President Donald Trump, VAWA’s time and funding ran out Dec. 31, 2018. An emergency spending bill recovered some funding for two months but that ran out Feb. 15, 2019. A new bill reauthorizing VAWA passed in the House in April 2019 but was blocked in the Senate. As The Hill reported, “The House passed its VAWA bill over objections from the National Rifle Association and Republicans, who opposed the legislation because of a provision that eliminated the so-called boyfriend loophole by expanding a current ban on firearm purchases for spouses or formerly married partners convicted of abuse or under a restraining order to include dating partners who were never legally married.”
The firearms ban matters. As the Wisconsin Examiner explained in January of this year “Currently, those convicted of domestic abuse can be denied access to firearms only if they have been married to their victim, have a child with their victim, live with their victim or are the legal guardian of their victim. The measure does not extend to dating or intimate relationships, which account for a significant amount of abuse cases.”
VAWA remains lapsed and unfunded, although its statutory rules and authority remain intact, except not exactly. In April 2018, the Trump Administration quietly but substantially changed the definition of domestic violence. Here’s what’s now on the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women’s website, https://www.justice.gov/ovw/domestic-violence :
Here’s what was on that website in 2017:
As Slate pointed out eight months after the change was made, “Restoring nonphysical violence to the definition of domestic violence is critical. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, over one-third of U.S. women (43.5 million) have experienced “psychological aggression” at the hands of an intimate partner. Experts have long recognized that the manipulative behaviors identified in the Obama-era definition as restricting a victim’s liberty or freedom can cause greater and more lasting damage than physical harm. I know this from my experiences over a decade working with survivors of domestic violence. In nearly every case, the bruises and broken bones eventually heal, but the psychological scars can last a lifetime.”
This is not the only change the Trump administration has made to the detriment of women.
As the BBC reported, in the spring of 2019, the Trump administration demanded removal of this phrase from a UN resolution on ending sexual violence in war: “Recognizing the importance of providing timely assistance to survivors of sexual violence, urges United Nations entities and donors to provide non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, in line with Resolution 2106.” The Trump administration claimed it implied support for abortion.
The Trump administration also opposes a proposal to overhaul the military’s handling of sexual assault allegations while the number of reported sexual assaults has increased. Led by Protect Our Defenders, an organization devoted to ending rape and sexual assault in the military, the plan allows military personnel to report crimes of sexual assault and rape to a trained, independent military prosecutor rather than to their senior officers. The plan now is part of legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California).
Over in Trump’s Department of Education, helmed by Betsy DeVos, new rules went into effect this August that substantially change how sexual assault is treated on college campuses.
As NBC notes, “Now, under reworked federal rules, alleged student perpetrators will have added protections, including the presumption that they are innocent throughout the disciplinary process and the right to be provided all evidence collected against them. Those students can also cross-examine their accusers and vice versa during live hearings, although it must be done through a lawyer or representative.”
These may sound like reasonable ideas but I participated in two separate cases involving female students of mine who brought cases of sexual harassment against male classmates when I worked at a top 20 university in Atlanta between 2003 and 2005. The women had strong cases against the harassers and yet they were fearful that they would not be heard, not be taken seriously. I was a staff advisor for the program in which these students participated so I served as the women’s unofficial support person during the Conduct Council process. I also gave my own witness statement in both cases, having direct knowledge about the young men’s behavior. Both men were aggressive, abusive, and intimidating. That behavior escalated after they found out complaints had been filed against them. Had these two men or their representatives been allowed to directly cross-examine these two young women, or if the men even been in the same room when the women gave their statements and underwent cross-examination by the Conduct Council, the emotional pain and the damage inflicted on the women would have been significant. As it was, both men were found to have violated the Student Conduct Code but their punishments were mild: write a research paper about sexual harassment and stay away from their victims. The women persevered and earned their undergraduate degrees, but they were always fearful of running into their harassers, always looking over their shoulders. Sometimes they did find the perpetrator watching from a distance.
Yes, Joe Biden has his own record of inappropriate interactions with women, has made questionable statements about women and those sadden and anger me.
Donald Trump has an even more extensive record of denigrating women, paying people to keep quiet about his sexist behavior and even violating campaign finance laws to pay off women. He’s bragged about assaulting women and then dismissed it as “locker room talk.”
But unlike Trump, Joe Biden has a record of legislative action and advocacy to end violence against women. In addition to co-authoring the Violence Against Women Act, he campaigned hard for its passage. He’s supported subsequent reauthorizations and he has pledged to work to end violence against women. Unlike Trump, Joe Biden pledged his support for empowering independent military prosecutors and for doing more to stop sexual assault in the military. Biden has a campaign platform specifically about ending violence against women. His goal? Make women safer and protect their civil rights. Steps include ending the rape kit backlog; confronting online abuse, harassment, and stalking; and expanding the safety net for survivors.
No such commitment or plan appears in Trump’s campaign materials.
You asked what you can do to support women who have survived abuse and rape. You asked what you can do to end violence against women. You asked what you can do to support me. Here’s what you can do: vote for Joe Biden.