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What We Need To Do To Have a Real Watershed Moment About Rape

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few years, you may have heard references to several so-called “watershed” moments about how various societies treat the crimes of rape and sexual abuse:

  • The brutal gang rape of a woman on a bus in Dehli, India in December was supposed to be a watershed moment for how that country treats women. At least until a virtually identical crime happened in early January.
  • In Britain, the release of a report detailing six decades of sexual abuse by television celebrity Jimmy Savile is being called a watershed moment for how the UK police will handle sex crimes. Many aren’t convinced, though, since the report comes only four years after the police last questioned Savile about the many abuse allegations levied against him. The interview, according to the report, was “perfunctory” and Savile himself set the tone. Savile died without ever being charged with sexual abuse though police now admit that his offenses may number in the hundreds.
  • Back here in the U.S., the conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 charges of child sexual last year was hailed as a watershed moment for how our society views sex crimes against children. Yet large organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church still spend millions of dollars in legal fees fighting efforts to force open their records of abusers to law enforcement.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that it seems to take incidents of immense proportion or brutality to get a society’s attention about crimes that truly happen every day, let’s talk about watershed. A watershed moment is, by definition, a critical moment when a group of people changes course. They stop doing things one way and begin doing it a different way. For a watershed moment to occur in regards how rape and sexual abuse are discussed, prosecuted, and understood in a society, it can’t be because the media decided it should happen – things actually need to change. We can start with the following:

1. Stop Assigning Guilt to Victims:
“What was she doing on the bus alone?”
“Why would she wear that?”
“If she hadn’t had so much to drink…”
Victim-blaming takes many forms. Whether it’s calling a sixteen year-old Ohio girl who may have been gang-raped at a party while comatose a “slut” or telling an Indian woman that she must marry her rapist in order to preserve her honor, it transfers some or even all of the guilt for the crime from where it rightly belongs – the perpetrator – to the victim. Why does it happen? Sometimes it happens to re-enforce cultural or religious norms – such as when Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu reportedly said the following in regards to the first Delhi victim:

“Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”

In other cases, it may be a subconscious way for others to reassure themselves that such crimes could not happen to them. The victim did something to put herself/himself into the situation therefore, he/she is suffering. I would never wear that/go there/drink that much, etc. Other times, victim blaming occurs as an attempt to maintain whatever status quo existed before the assault was reported. This was case of the 17 year-old victim of Jerry Sandusky who was bullied to the point he had to change schools in the middle of the year. The students bullying him were blaming him for the firing of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno. Yes, you read that correctly, people actually found a way to blame a child sexual abuse victim for his abuse…and that way involved football.

Whatever the motive behind victim-blaming, it is one of the fundamental reasons why ending sex crimes is so difficult. Victims who believe they will be blamed for their own attacks don’t come forward. Unpunished offenders become repeat offenders. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they feel remorse if others are all too willing to lay the blame elsewhere?

2. Stop Trivializing Sex-based Crimes:
Just as societies are willing to blame victims for sexual assault and rape, they are often just as willing to minimize the seriousness of sexual crimes. Returning to the Jimmy Savile case in Britain, one victim who complained about his actions towards her claims she was told “Oh, that’s just Jimmy. That’s just his way.” Jerry Sandusky managed to elude detection as a serial child rapist by convincing his employers at Penn State that he was “only showering” with young boys. Both adult and child victims can be confused and distraught after an assault and can be very susceptible to the suggestion of others that their experience was not serious or that it was a misunderstanding, or even a misinterpretation of actions that were innocent in their intent.

It also doesn’t help when lawmakers and law enforcement officials create artificial distinctions about rape: “forcible rape” (from Congress in 2012), “legitimate rape” (U.S. Congressman Todd Akin in 2012), “serious rape” (UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in 2011). Such distinctions give victims the impression that unless they are assaulted by the proverbial “stranger in a dark alley” with the bruises and broken bones to show for it, their assault isn’t worth the justice system’s time. Date rapes, acquaintance rapes, assaults where the victim is intoxicated or unconscious – they simply don’t make the cut. The common perception among victims is that law enforcement won’t take the crimes seriously. And often, law enforcement lives down to this reputation. The intervention of the Internet activist group Anonymous into the investigation of the alleged rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Steubenville, OH earlier this month came about due to the widespread belief that local law enforcement were not taking the case seriously.

Regarding child sexual abuse, if the abuse happened several years ago and the victim has just recently worked up the courage to come forward? It’s not unusual for such victims to be asked, “Well, it’s been years hasn’t it? Aren’t you over it by now?” Or worse, victims of child sexual abuse are increasingly accused lying in of hopes to “cashing-in” with lawsuits.
Let’s be clear, all instances of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse are real crimes. Serious crimes. They are as deserving of the time and effort of law enforcement as any other crime. It’s long past time that we treated them that way.

3. Stop Prioritizing the Reputations of Organizations Over Victims:
Late in 2012, the Boy Scouts of America was forced by a series of court orders to begin releasing decades of its so-called internal “perversion files” – records of the scout leaders and other employees who had been dismissed by the organization for inappropriate actions with children. As reported by the Washington Post and others, the records show that in many instances the offenders were dismissed quietly, without being reported to law enforcement. In some cases, the parents of the victims agreed to this method, both to minimize trauma to their children and to “save Scouting” from negative publicity. The idea was that the BSA would flag the offenders in their files so they could not be admitted to Scouting programs in the future. There were two key problems with this plan, the flags didn’t work. Due to inaccurate record-keeping and failures in communication, dismissed offenders resurfaced again and again in BSA programs in different states, often abusing more children. The second problem with the “go quietly” plan was that the dismissed offenders were often men who had access to children through other aspects of their lives – they were teachers, coaches, counselors, and yes, priests. Barred from joining the BSA, they simply found victims elsewhere. By not reporting them, by placing the reputation of the organization above the safety of children, the Boy Scouts of America allowed offenders to abuse again. And again.
There have certainly been allegations that the same “reputation first” existed in the Catholic Church, at Penn State and now most recently at the BBC over the Jimmy Savile cases. Sadly, there are likely countless other well-respected organizations for whom reputation trumps all, even the safety of others.

4. Rethink Sexual Assault Prevention
A lot of sexual assault prevention advice seems to originate from the same school of thought as victim blaming: potential victims put themselves situations where sexual assault is inevitable. They wore provocative clothing. They drank too much. They ventured into dangerous areas alone. This attitude is not only demeaning to victims, it reduces men into immoral beings who are powerless to fight the inevitable urge to rape when they see a scantily-dressed person or a person in a vulnerable situation. Moreover it is ludicrous to assume that only provocatively dressed women get raped. Women in burkas are raped, elderly women in housecoats get raped, wheelchair-bound hospice patients get raped. Men get raped. Sexual assault is about power, not about clothing.
More recently there has been a movement in several countries to rethink how to approach rape prevention. There is now messaging directed at men reminding them about what constitutes consent and assault. One of the first of these was the “We Can Stop It” campaign from Scotland, which featured men making declarative statements about not being a person who would commit sexual assault.

PSA from Scotland's "We Can Stop It" Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign. Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

PSA from Scotland’s “We Can Stop It” Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign.
Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

Similar campaigns have been used in other countries and advocacy groups directed at educating men about sexual assault have formed as well. Among these is the U.S.-based Men Can Stop Rape which directs its education initiatives to college-aged men. This is where sexual assault prevention needs to go if we are to have true watershed moment: we need to teach people not to rape, not simply warn people to not get raped. There can be no real prevention until we acknowledge that the decision to commit the crime is one the offender does not have to make.

5. Value All People, Including Women and Children, As Human Beings:
This isn’t necessarily about offenders needing to see their victims as human beings. Psychiatrists have debated for years about how sexual offenders truly view others. No two sexual offenders are exactly alike and I’m obviously not going to get to the bottom of that question in a blog post. No, I’m taking about how ordinary people treat one another and victims of sex crimes. Why does it take someone saying “What if it were your kid?” for people to care about victims of child sex abuse? Can’t we care about strangers? Why is it OK to speculate that the alleged Steubenville victim is a “slut” only until someone reminds you that she could be your daughter. It seems that the first inclination for many people when they hear about a sex crime is to distance themselves from it. While this is a natural reaction, it can’t be the only reaction. This distancing too often leads people to being comforted by decisions to keep assaults quiet, to not prosecute offenders, and to not think about the fact that if an offender is not stopped, there may be future victims. Those victims may not be people they know, but they are victims just the same. People who deserve empathy.

There are many huge issues that the cultures of the world do not agree on but as human beings, we have to hope that we can at least summon the shared empathy to agree on these:

  • Children do not exist for the sexual gratification of adults; all sexual acts committed on children should be considered crimes.
  • Any sexual act committed against adults who have not fully consented or are incapable of consent should be considered crimes.

No exceptions. That’s valuing people as humans.

If we can agree to these, and have these principals guide our actions, we can have a real critical moment of change about sex-based crimes.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


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This Week In Why We Need to $%!^@*# Vote – October 15th Edition

Hello again, Voters! It’s your weekly round-up of stupid crap politicians have said and done trying to get elected, reminding you of the urgent need to vote for whomever is running against them. It’s been another busy week of debates, obfuscations, bizarre rape comments, fuzzy science and even fuzzier math. How do we keep it all straight? Well, as a wise gentlemen from Delaware once said, “fact matter” – so let’s get down to this week’s facts.

Wisconsin Rep. Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake) is the latest GOP lawmaker in trouble over comments on rape.

“What the whole genesis of it was, it was advice to me, telling me, ‘If you’re going to go down that road, you may have consensual sex that night and then the next morning it may be rape.’ So the way he said it was, ‘Just remember, Roger, some girls, they rape so easy. It may be rape the next morning.'” – Wisconsin State Legislator Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake)

Forcible rape, legitimate rape, now “some girls rape easy?” Even though they ran from Akin, (and now Paul Ryan has run from Rivard) the GOP in this country is setting a clear pattern of adding dubious qualifiers in front of the word rape these days. From this little-known Wisconsin legislator to Akin to VP nominee Paul Ryan, who enthusiastically supported the last year’s attempt to redefine rape. What exactly is the end game here? Fewer abortions that qualify for coverage? Or drastic cultural, legal, and political confusion on the entire concept of rape? Because it sure seems like we’re headed for both.

The Takeaway: Rice Lake, Wisconsin voters can choose Democrat Stephen J. Smith on Election Day. For the rest of us, this is more evidence that we need to pay close attention to the language lawmakers use when referring to rape. Those who choose to qualify the seriousness of this crime with their words and actions must be held accountable.

“I’ve taken a look at both sides of the thing and it seems to me that evolution takes a tremendous amount of faith…To have all of the sudden all the different things that have to be lined up to create something as sophisticated as life, it takes a lot of faith. I don’t see it as even a matter of science because I don’t know that you can prove one or the other.” -Republican Senate Candidate Todd Akin, of Missouri

If you’re thinking that we should just rename this feature “This Week in Todd Akin is $%!^@*# Crazy” – don’t think we haven’t considered it. So, this week the guy who came up with magical rape sperm-fighting vaginas is saying that there’s no science behind evolution. The easy response to this is to quip that “any thinking women who listens to the kind that crap Akin spouts would have cause to doubt his participation in evolution” and move on. But we can’t leave it at that because a) the race for Senate between Akin and Democrat Claire McCaskill is still mind-bloggingly tight (WTF, Missouri?) and b) have we mentioned that Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology? It’s long past time that we made the connection between the fact that our nation lags behind the rest of the developed world in science and the fact that we keep electing lawmakers who DON’T. BELIEVE. IN. SCIENCE.
The Takeaway: Missouri voters, Claire McCaskill for Senate. We’ve been over this.
Everyone else, your homework this week is to find out where all of your elected officials stand on science education. Report back on our Facebook page with what you find.

“There was no pregnancy and there was no abortion, I was attempting to use strong language to get her to tell me the truth.” -Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee

We posted about the bizarre recorded conversation between Tennessee Congressman DesJarlais and his patient/mistress in which the avowed pro-life lawmaker pressures her have an abortion. Well, we’d love to know Todd Akin thinks DesJarlais explanation is just a “theory” too because it sure pushes the limits of credulity. The woman, who DesJarlais admits to sleeping with, is now not his mistress. He admits that it’s his voice on the recording telling the woman, “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one,” but now he says that the woman was never pregnant. She was never pregnant yet he agreed that he would accompany her Atlanta for the procedure and also berated her for the situation: “Well, I didn’t want to be in your life either, but you lied to me about something that caused us to be in this situation, and that’s not my fault, that’s yours.” (Gee, now what could that be referring to?) Perhaps Akin will use this debacle as fodder for his “women who aren’t pregnant get abortions” theory.
The Takeaway: Tennessee Voters, Democrat Eric Stewart is a good alternative to DesJarlais. For everyone else, in case this whole thing hasn’t freaked you out enough, Dr. DesJarlais’ current legislative committee assignments include the following:
Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions
Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives
Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending

“[Y]ou go to the hospital, you get treated, you get care, and it’s paid for, either by charity, the government or by the hospital. We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.” -Mitt Romney, Republican nominee for president.

We know that this is going to shock you but Romney’s flat wrong on this. (We hope you were sitting down for that.) Facts matter, and we found these facts from a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health which states that a “[l]ack of health insurance is associated with as many as 44,789 deaths per year in the United States.” Several other studies echo these findings. What’s more, Romney knows he’s wrong on this. The 2006 version of Romney said the following:

“There ought to be enough money to help people get insurance because an insured individual has a better chance of having an excellent medical experience than the one who has not. An insured individual is more likely to go to a primary care physician or a clinic to get evaluated for their conditions and to get early treatment, to get pharmaceutical treatment, as opposed to showing up in the emergency room where the treatment is more expensive and less effective than if they got preventive and primary care.”

What’s the difference between Romney2006 and Romney2012? The newly programmed version has a nationwide conservative base to pander to, versus a statewide liberal-leaning population. He says what they want to hear. His principles, beliefs, and facts are infinitely malleable to fit his audience.
The Takeaway: Facts don’t matter to this Romney. And that’s dangerous. Remember what happened the last time we had a president who wasn’t fond of facts? We’re still cleaning that mess up. We have to let Obama/Biden finish the job.

“We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision.” – Representative Paul Ryan, Republican nominee for Vice President.

Paul Ryan said this during the Vice Presidential debate in answer to this question from moderator Martha Raddatz: “Should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?” If he were being honest and succinct he could have just answered. “Yes.” Because we all know the real answer to that question is really “Yes, you should be really $%!^@*# worried.” It would have been one of the few true things Ryan said in that debate.
The Takeaway: Mitt Romney may trying to dance to the center but he’s made it clear that Ryan and the far right will set the agenda on abortion. Obama/Biden is choice to make to keep having the right to choose.

See you next week, people.

P.S. If you have a quote you think should be included in a future snark-filled edition of “This Week” send it over to womenriseupnow@gmail.com with the subject line: This Week.


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One More Word About Fourtin

We have been moving forward in our efforts to understand the Fourtin case and how something like this happens under the current justice system. Outrage can be effective for getting things done, but it’s important that we are responsible in directing it to the right places.  In digging further into the details of the case and the workings of the law, we’d like to share what we’ve learned, and what we feel may be the best way to move forward in terms of minimizing the instances of it happening again.

First, Richard Fourtin cannot be tried again for this crime.  It would appear that double jeopardy prevents that. The likelihood of this getting elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court seems fairly slim. The prosecution in this case has made a motion to have the Connecticut Supreme Court reconsider its verdict, which they may or may not grant, due to the public outrage that has been in part supported by this page. In discussing this issue with a number of attorneys and others familiar with the law, it appears that the Justices ruled in accordance with the law and the error most likely lies with the prosecution. We’ll explain:

The statutes for second-degree assault and fourth degree assault both contain a number of subsections each. Both contain a provision for assaulting with a mentally disabled person (specifically, *just* mentally disabled, not physically), as well as the now infamous “physically helpless” subsection. It’s anyone’s guess as to why, but the prosecution chose to go with the “physically helpless” provision rather than the one dealing with the victim’s mental disability, and therein lies the problem.

You don’t simply charge someone with second-degree assault, you charge them with a specific subsection of the statute. It is sort of stratification, if you will, intended (we suppose) to clarify the nature of the assault. But –and here’s the part that is hanging up a lot of people- even if evidence is presented during the trial that indicates the defendant might be guilty under a different subsection of the law… if that’s not what he’s being charged with, the prosecution is out of luck.  He’s supposed to have a reasonable chance to defend himself against what he’s specifically being charged with. That’s due process, as we understand it.

“Physically helpless” under Connecticut law as it stands is really defined so narrowly that it would seem to only apply to someone who is unconscious or drugged to the point of being unable to speak or move, and therefore is unable to communicate resistance to their attacker. We aren’t sure why the statute doesn’t simply say “unconscious” or something similar to avoid confusion and misuse of the statute, but that’s another story.  Often the law is written in intentionally vague ways to allow for circumstances that those writing it may not foresee.   It’s an acknowledgement that those writing the law cannot predict everything.  However, it’s worth noting that misuse of this statute is actually not unprecedented; in the majority opinion they actually mention another case in which a victim was strapped to a gurney but conscious during her assault and actually voiced to her attacker that she wanted him to stop, however, they could not convict on this count, because they were charging with the “physically helpless” subsection – which as it turns out, boils down to assaulting someone who cannot communicate. It does not, as has been previously stated here and elsewhere, indicate the degree of resistance that the victim did or didn’t offer.

Now, there’s a lot of information about this case that we do not have. We have not pored over hours of court transcripts. We discovered, though, in reading the majority opinion, that in fact, as much as the victim’s ability to move were limited, that she did have methods at her disposal of communicating dissent. Kicking, biting, scratching, screeching, and so forth, were things she was able to do in order to communicate resistance to an assault.  It would appear that whether she actually did these things or not is, under this very peculiar statute, beside the point. I know, I know, but listen: the law is not looking, in this case, for whether someone did or didn’t consent, merely whether they were physically capable of doing so or not. And if someone is assaulting a person who is capable of communicating, it’s not assaulting a “physically helpless person,” as defined by the law under which Fourtin was being charged.

While it has been correctly pointed out in other blogs (including this good one by public defender Gideon) that the statement of the victim having the mental capacity of a three year old is not mentioned anywhere in the opinion, it seems clear from additional reading on his and other sites that she had certain skill areas which did fit that description, and certainly not much above first or second grade level in even the strongest of her skill areas. It has been mentioned that she had nothing in the way of sex education. While it may be overly facile to say she had the “mental capacity of a three year old”, it is more than adequate even in the opinions as written, to say that she was still not what anyone would consider an adult in the sense that we understand it, nor adequately prepared in any manner for sexual intercourse; the Justices in fact did not understand why the prosecution chose to pursue a conviction under the physically helpless part of the statute rather than the mental disability portion.

We have seen a great deal of traffic and interest in this issue. We are grateful for that, but we also want to be clear that we are trying to handle this issue in a responsible way. Is it madness that someone can commit an assault, that there is ample evidence to show as much, and yet the perpetrator can walk away because of a prosecutorial mistake? Yes. What can be done about it? Regardless of whether the prosecution in this case is successful in its quest to get the court to reconsider its decision, our problem remains – what to do, to keep this from happening again? Where to direct the energies of reasonable outrage about it?

We do not suggest reaching out to the justices further. If they decide to overturn their own verdict, that is their choice, and perhaps they can find another way to interpret the statute that will allow them to do so. But this is unfortunately the law working to deliver a verdict which, as we’ve talked about elsewhere, is unfair, but is legally just. We also do not advocate seeking out the prosecutor to give them a piece of your mind: they are already doing everything they can do to right this mistake. A public statement from their office explaining their choice to prosecute under that particular statute would be nice, but we feel would offer little in terms of concrete benefit to future victims.

We suggest starting with the Governor’s office. Ask him to lean on the legislature to either expand the physically helpless statute (in light of its seeming repeated misuse), or else create a specific statute to deal with assaulting the disabled. We may also suggest that if you are in the State of Connecticut, that you reach out to your local legislators as well. We wish there were more that could be done. We wish there a way to affect the Fourtin decision but barring the Court agreeing to reconsider its verdict and ultimately overturn it, it appears that there’s nothing more that can be done on this terrible case.

Reach out to the governor here:

Governor Dannel P. Malloy
State Capitol
210 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106

Tel: (860) 566-4840
Toll-Free: (800) 406-1527
TDD: (860) 524-7397
Fax: (860) 524-7395

If you don’t know your local state representatives, you can look them up here:

http://www.cga.ct.gov/maps/townlist.asp


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The Shared Failures of CT v. Fourtin

The tenets of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch are noticeably absent from their recent ruling in the Fourtin case, in our opinion.

Some of our readers may be wondering why we’ve written so much in the last few days about Connecticut v. Fourtin, the case in which the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man charged with raping a severely mentally and physically disabled woman. While the case is obviously horrific.. some of you may still be wondering “Aren’t you guys a politics page? Aren’t we five weeks before a big election? Why are you spending so much time posting about one case?”

To that, we say: Yes, we are primarily a page about politics and activism. Yes, we are now less than five weeks before what is probably one of the most important elections in recent memory. So why aren’t we posting about polls, debates, trumpeting the achievements of the candidates we support, and highlighting their promises and platforms? Why would we take so much time to focus on a single case in Connecticut?

Because, to put it bluntly, five weeks before an election is perhaps the most important time to focus on Fourtin. Fourtin is not about campaign promises, achievements, polls and puffery. Connecticut v. Fourtin is about failure. It is our impassioned opinion that the four Supreme Court justices who decided the ruling in this case failed in their duties. And, in many ways, we all share in that failure.

As my co-admin pointed our in her earlier commentary, the ruling hinged on whether the alleged victim in this case was truly “physically helpless” – a term taken directly from the sexual assault statute – and was therefore unable to fight back against her alleged attacker. There is long discussion about the fact that the alleged victim had, in previous instances been able to voice her displeasure with people, food, and other things by groaning and crying, and perhaps kicking, even though she did not have much ability to move. The Justices concluded that since she apparently had this limited ability to refuse some things, she could have communicated her refusal to have sex with the defendant. Since she did not, the sex was consensual, not rape. I know, I know, stay with me here…

Let’s take a look at what else the Connecticut statute says about the charges of sexual assault the defendant faced in this case:

(a) A person is guilty of sexual assault in the second degree when such person engages in sexual intercourse with another person and: (1) Such other person is thirteen years of age or older but under sixteen years of age and the actor is more than three years older than such other person; or (2) such other person is mentally defective to the extent that such other person is unable to consent to such sexual intercourse; or (3) such other person is physically helpless; or (4) such other person is less than eighteen years old and the actor is such person’s guardian or otherwise responsible for the general supervision of such person’s welfare;…

Therefore, the question that we and most observers of this case have after reading the statute is this: why did the Justices hang so much of their ruling on whether the victim was “physically helpless” when, it is clear that with her diminished mental capacity, she was clearly “unable to consent to such sexual intercourse”? She had no more knowledge of sexual acts, her own body’s reproductive organs, or her role in such as act than a typical toddler. Why is it assumed that she could have bitten, kicked, or screamed to stop the act? Is it not just as easy to assume that, much like many young children do in such situations, that she froze with fear? Or froze with shock and confusion at what was happening?

Granted, we are not attorneys and we welcome those readers who are attorneys to weigh in what seems to be a clear problem in applying Connecticut’s existing law. One possible reason that has been offered by some readers is that the prosecution may have written the charges in such a way that rendered the Court unable to consider the victim’s mental capacity. We have not seen that confirmed in our readings but if it is true, it’s an egregious failure, as well. One that the prosecutor should publicly acknowledge.

The larger failure is that the alleged crime in Fourtin is by no means an isolated incident. Far from it. According to the U.S. Department of Justice,

the rate of violent crime against disabled persons is significantly higher than for non-disabled persons: the age-adjusted rate of violent crime against persons with disabilities (28 violent victimizations per 1,000 persons) was higher than the rate for persons without disabilities (15 violent victimizations per 1,000 persons).

In 2010, this amounted to 34,750 reported sexual assaults committed against persons with mental and/or physical disabilities. This data does not even include crimes committed against disabled persons living adult correctional facilities, nursing facilities, or patient hospice facilities, which very often go unreported.

What does this mean? It means that we are failing, as a society, to protect the people who have the least ability to protect themselves from violent and/or sexual crimes. The people who most rely on others for their basic needs cannot be assured that these others will be prevented from abusing them. The public was rightly outraged at Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults against children and that case made international headlines, for many good reasons. Yet disabled people, who are no more capable of defending themselves against abusers than Sandusky’s victims, are abused on a massive scale and there are only a few headlines. (Even the media coverage of Fourtin amounts to a few short stories, buried beneath election analysis and football scores on news sites. Social media has magnified the reaction to the case but the initial media coverage was actually quite small.)

And now, a state appellate court has effectively set the bar higher for mentally and physically disabled persons to face their abusers in courts of law. They need to prove that they fought back “enough” or resisted “enough” for the abuser to know that they didn’t want something they may not even understand. Otherwise, it’s assumed that they do want their bodies used in whatever way someone else deems fit. Does this not make the default state of a disabled person’s body one that is, essentially, at the mercy or will of others? This a state that family members of the disabled live in constant fear of, and yet now it seems like the Connecticut Supreme Court has set that state as legal precedent.

Much like Penn State, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and other organizations’ failure to report crimes against children led to scores of more incidents of abuse, the systematic failures in Fourtin and cases like it may well lead to more incidents of crime against disabled persons. More incidents that will go unpunished by the justice system and by society.

Setting the bar of legal protection at different levels for different groups of citizens, forcing victims to prove they resisted acts they cannot even understand – this is not the country we claim to be when we trumpet our achievements to the world. But when we tolerate systematic failures such as Fourtin and the abuse against our most vulnerable, it is country we become. We say we are better than this. Now it’s time we proved it.

To learn more about rape laws in your state, and what, if any safeguards there are for people with mental and physical disabilities, visit the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.

If your state does not have specific statutes protecting disabled persons from abuse, contact your legislators about adding them in their next session. They can do it and they should do it.

We can all start with Connecticut:

Connecticut State Capitol and Legislative Office Building:
300 Capitol Avenue, Room 5100
Hartford, CT 06106
(860) 240-0100


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State of Connecticut v. Fourtin

Circled here: L, Justice McLachlan; Center bottom, Chief Justice Rogers; Center top, Justice Zarella; R, Justice Palmer

Normally there’d be some humorous graphic at the top of this article. But this shit ain’t funny. Take a look at these four faces, you may want to punch them by the time you’re done reading (we do not advocate violence, but if there were going to be a time, this would be it).

By now many of you have seen the articles on the atrocious Connecticut State Supreme Court decision to overturn the conviction of Richard Fourtin, the man accused of raping a physically disabled woman. In a 4-3 ruling, they decided that the victim, a woman with cerebral palsy who can barely move, cannot speak, and is severely mentally disabled, did not put up enough of a fight to indicate that the sex that occurred was not consensual.

This is a difficult thing to write about in a rational manner without things deteriorating into incoherent swearing and calling down the wrath of ancient, forgotten gods against the justices who voted to overturn this conviction. I am the parent of an autistic child who at the age of five, is barely verbal and incapable of communicating simple facts about what happened in kindergarten that day. This crime, and the subsequent ruling to overturn the conviction, is the stuff of my nightmares and those of anyone who has a loved one with a serious disability.

If the reason for overturning this conviction came in the form of new forensic evidence exonerating Fourtin or some other new information that cast doubt on his involvement or something along those lines, it would simply be justice served. But the reason that the justices gave for overturning the conviction was that the victim did not qualify under the law as “physically helpless.”

That’s right. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

If you feel like reading the ruling opinion, you can. It spends several pages dissecting the legalistic definition of “physically helpless” and apparently, being completely nonverbal (relying on grunting and occasional use of a communication board), and having an extremely limited ability to move due to cerebral palsy, does not, in these judges’ minds, qualify as “physically helpless” because she could have screeched, bitten, kicked, or scratched to communicate that she did not want sex. These are the same justices, by the way, who sat through four days of the victim’s laborious testimony watching her slowly and painfully use her one working finger to respond to questions with her communication board. They watched this testimony and concluded she could have really put up more of a fight.

‘‘It is apparent that the physical helplessness contemplated by the statute requires more than a disease causing physical paralysis.’’

Again, I couldn’t make this up if I tried. See, what the judges are looking for here is a “physical inability to communicate unwillingness.” The not-so-subtle bigotry here is, “we presume that women always want sex, unless it’s proven otherwise.” (Three of the Connecticut Supreme Court Justices dissented, their opinion can be read here.)

Never mind that it has been indicated that the victim had never received any type of sex education in her life, and indeed would not have been likely to get much out of it if she had, since she was determined to have the mental capacity of a 3 year old. It’s extremely unlikely that she fully understood what was happening to her. That makes it no less a crime.

One wonders whether these “justices” have ever spent a moment contemplating the reasons why it is illegal for an adult to have sex a 3 year old. Yes, it is physically unsafe for the child, it can do terrible harm to their bodies. But it is also more than slightly traumatic and emotionally damaging. A three year old inherently lacks the emotional, maturational, and cognitive development to understand or to consent to this type of sexual activity. It is an abuse of power of the worst kind. Anyone with half a brain and a remotely developed sense of outrage ought to be able to string that thought together. Simply because this woman’s body was adult, she is subject to the same expectations of proving she tried to resist Fourtin’s unwanted advances, regardless of the fact that she lacked the capacity to understand what was happening to her, much less give anything resembling actual consent. This would be an unreasonable expectation if the victim were only mentally disabled, and in the case of this victim’s added extreme physical disability, it defies reason.

The mentally and physically disabled in America are disproportionately the victims of physical and sexual abuse (see my co-admin’s article exploring these statistics further). This ruling will do nothing to alleviate that, or make it easier for people who work with disabled victims to help seek justice for them.

These justices ought to be ashamed of themselves. We plan to tell them so. We’ve found that the Connecticut Supreme Court keeps their Justices’ contact information fairly tightly guarded, but since we are ninjas we got two of the justices’ phone numbers who voted to overturn this conviction. We suggest you give these folks a call, or if you get stage fright on the telephone, drop them a letter and tell them they should be ashamed of their decision in State v. Fourtin:

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers
860-713-2192

Justice Richard N. Palmer
860-757-2115

Supreme Court Buliding
231 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106


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Issue Briefing: Congress’ Attempt to Redefine Rape

Originally posted March 31. 2012


Summary: In 2011, Republicans in the House of Representatives sought to amend a provision in the Hyde Amendment, which bans using Medicaid funds for abortions except in cases of “rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.” The House GOP, seeking to reduce the number of abortions paid for by federal funds, sought to add the word “forcible” before rape. As Nick Baumann pointed out in Mother Jones “[t]his would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.” The change was proposed Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a staunch abortion opponent,  as part of H.R.3 – No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.

Basically, the GOP was arguing that rape is not really rape unless there is force involved, and even then, they gave no threshold for their definition of force. In fact, in using the term “forcible rape” – a term that is not defined under federal criminal code – the Representatives opened up the very real possibility that no abortions would be covered under the rape exception. Instances of date rape, or those perpetrated using drugs or alcohol to incapacitate the victim would also fail to meet this new arbitrary criteria.

After an outcry from groups such as MoveOn.org, Emily’s List, a Twitter campaign targeting House Speaker John Boehner, and a flurry of negative media coverage, the House GOP backed down and did not amend the law. The “forcible rape” language resurfaced in May 2011 in another version of  H.R. 3 but did not make it into the draft sent to the Senate.

This attempt to redefine rape in a more stricter sense by the House GOP was notable in that it came at a time that the U.S. Department of Justice was actually broadening its 80-year old legal definition of rape to include more non-consensual sexual acts and to remove gender restrictions. The new broader definition was released in January 2012. Thus the attempt by the House stood out as an even more glaring symbol of the disconnect between the electorate and its elected officials, and specifically between American women and the GOP.

The Definition of Rape In the News:

Recent legislative actions impacting the legal definition of rape:

  1. Find out if your representatives supported this bill in the House and demand accountability.
  2. Share this Issue Briefing with friends, family, and colleagues.
  3. Support national and local advocacy organizations that lobby for real reform to combat rape including:

All information and links as of 3/31/2012.

http://www.facebook.com/womenrise


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Todd Akin Has Figured Out My Secret

Just one of the many magical things my vagina can do.

Todd Akin has figured out my secret: my vagina is magical. I thought he was a stupid, bigoted oaf, but apparently, he’s stupid like a fox. He’s found me out. I’ve been keeping it under my hat, but before it all comes out in the press, you might as well hear it from me. Here’s a Top Ten list of some of the amazing things my magical vagina can do:

10. I can pull a rabbit out of it.

9. It can produce flowers on command.

8 It can open several secret doors in Hogwarts.

7. It can destroy the One Ring. Please don’t ask me how. You really don’t want to know.

6. It can magnify the career successes of Jeff Dunham and Larry the Cable Guy to unbelievable heights. I know, I’m still ashamed of that one myself, but I swear they’re nice guys. I just wanted to help them out.

5. It can cast a spell on all men within a 100 foot radius, causing them to become temporarily stupid. Not just mine. Every woman’s vagina can do this.

4. It can turn water into wine. But you might not want to drink it.

3. It can summon 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But you might not want to eat them.

2. It can turn people invisible. Again, please don’t ask me how.

1. IF I GET RAPED BY A MAN WHO IS NOT WEARING A CONDOM, IT CAN MAGICALLY MAKE SURE THAT I DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES GET PREGNANT.

Isn’t that amazing? Todd Akin busted me on that last one, and hats off to him, I say. Who would have thought that Republicans would be the ones to figure out our incredible secret: that nobody anywhere ever gets pregnant from a “legitimate rape”. Now I’m assuming a legitimate rape is one where the victim wasn’t, you know, “asking for it.”

But maybe he can clear up for the rest of us, where does a date rape involving roofies fall on the spectrum of Rape Legitimacy? If a guy I don’t really like buys me a drink but I don’t refuse it, and he drugs me, was it a Legitimate Rape, because I was incapable of consenting? Or was it not a Legitimate Rape because I didn’t fight him off? Does it depend on what I was wearing or whether I was leading him on? Can Mr. Akin clear up for me whether I would get pregnant under that circumstance or not? I’m not out in the dating game anymore, but I think I speak for a lot of our younger, single audience when I say, some of us girls really need to know.

And I really need him to set me straight on that case of the mentally disabled ten year old in Kansas who got pregnant after being raped by her uncle. She’s pregnant, so clearly it can’t be a Legitimate Rape, even though she is ten years old, mentally disabled and completely incapable of giving consent. Unless… did her mental disability prevent her sparkly, pregnancy-preventing vagina magic from working properly? That must be it! Maybe he’d be willing to make an exception in her case and grant her the Legitimate Rape ribbon or sticker or whatever it is he thinks we should hand out if you get raped and get pregnant as a result.

So, how hard does a girl have to fight for it to be a Legitimate Rape? Do we get pregnant if we only say no once? Do we have to scream for help? If he has a weapon and says he’s going to kill us if we scream, and we don’t, what does that mean? Will we get pregnant or not? Would our lack of pregnancy hold up as evidence of a Legitimate Rape in a court of law? Poor little confused girls, we don’t know when we’ve been raped or not, so whether we get pregnant or not seems to be as good an indicator as any. And clearly, the razor sharp mind who figured it all out needs to be the one to explain it to us.

So girls, I think we should all come clean. I think we should contact Mr. Akin, through his facebook page, his campaign emails and phone numbers, and fess up on what other magical things our vaginas can do. And while you’re at it, gentle readers, tell us too! What’s your special vagina magic? We want to know!

https://www.facebook.com/supportakin
#TeamAkin
https://www.akin.org/contact
(636) 207-7986