National Action Plan Against Sexual Assault (napasa). This essay may be freely reproduced, published in newsletter, distributed to local media for publication and generally used to support the goals and objectives of the napasa.
Unconstitutional, Unfair and Illegal
K. Edward Renner, PhD
National Action Plan Against Sexual Assault
When women who are sexually assaulted and children who are sexually abused report their victimization to legal authorities, they often fail to receive the equal protection of the law which is unconstitutional, experience unjust legal procedures which are unfair, and are discriminated against which is illegal,.
This was the conclusion reached by a group of researchers who have studied the legal problems faced by victims of sexual assault and abuse for over 10 years. Their analysis was based on an examination of over 2,500 cases who sought help from a sexual assault service, of over 1,000 court records, and of over 100 transcripts of sexual assault and abuse trials.
On June 28, 2002, the group announced the establishment of a National Action Plan Against Sexual Assault at a symposium sponsored by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. The Plan provides local groups through www.napasa.org with copies of the research, and applied materials for challenging the unconstitutional, appealing what is procedurally unfair, and confronted through civil action what is illegal.
Women and children fail to receive equal protect of the law, guaranteed by the Constitution, because the standard used by the legal process for leniency is identical to the social conditions under which sexual assault of women and child sexual abuse most often occurs: When there is a social or family relationship with the offender, there is no physical harm, and where the accused is not a member of a criminally dangerous element of society. Thus, by definition, the legal system "discounts"the seriousness of sexual assault and sexual abuse by excluding cases and giving lessor punishments in those circumstances where women and children behave in the socially and normally expected ways of associating with known and trusted people, and of choosing (similar to robbery victims) not to physically harm as well as criminally assaulted.
As a result, only a highly selected and atypical group of cases ever reach the courts. When they do, they are subjected to unjust procedures which result in further disparities based on misconceptions and distortions of the nature of child sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Children are asked questions about their clothing, attitudes and behaviors which in effect holds children responsible for their sexuality, when legally the exact opposite is the case. Full and complete responsibility rests with the adult to refrain from all sexual activity with a child.
In addition, children are asked developmentally inappropriate questions. Children cannot answer questions they do not understand or which requires mental capacities they have not yet developed. This common courtroom practice is itself a form of child abuse, making the child appear to be an unreliable witness when, in fact, it is the questions which are developmentally inappropriate.
Adult women have the reality of their actual experiences distorted by the court. The content of their trial is dominated by commonly held myths and stereotypes based on false premises about sexual assault: If the clothing was not torn, if there was no physical harm, or if the accused is a trustworthy person, then it is not seen as a sexual assault. Yet, these are the realities of women's experiences with 90% male sexual violence. To be a credible victim, the woman must be a physical and emotional wreck, at the hand of a stranger, and show it. However, in actuality, most women do not consciously put themselves in harms way; rather, they act in normatively expected social ways.
What is absolutely true about these myths and stereotypes is that they are false beliefs that have no place in rational decision making. The standard of logic requires that rational arguments and decisions follow the rules of reasoning, and that they must be based on true, not false premises. Yet, the only proofs required for discounting the seriousness of a sexual assault are those of relationship, no physical harm, and not criminally dangerous. Thus, the agency responsible for justice, officially denies women the reality of their experience.
To be subjected to unequal protection of the law, and unjust procedures, is a form of illegal discrimination against women and children and subject to civil actions. Existing anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of gender and age provides a separate channel for class action suits against individuals and institutions who are instruments of discrimination. Private and public agencies have been required to adjust employment, access, and operating practices to avoid discrimination, as must the legal system.
A Plan for Action
There is no need to wait for national law reform or a change in social attitudes. Rather, local community action is the intervention of choice. It requires only a handful of individuals in each community and involves three elements:
(1) Document the Outrageous. The issues identified by napasa happen in every courtroom, every day in every community. It is local cases which get extensive local press coverage. A simple court watching program using the napasa concepts allows local cases to be discussed with the local media in a way that will raise public consciousness in a civil rights context. This is a conceptual re-definition of issues which creates a new, more effective, way to talk about the required social changes. At the local level, these are real people with names and positions who can be directly challenged by objective criteria and held accountable to do better.
(2) Challenge the Legal System. The napasa material provides the basis for a local prosecutor (the State or District Attorney) to formally object to these practices in actual court cases and, if the objection is not sustained by the judge, to appeal the case. This practice across the country will force the legal issues of extending the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to women and children who are victims of sexual assault, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. These appeal cases will open a new area of legal scholarship and capture the attention, and thus education, of Judges across the country.
(3) Support Victims. The napasa material identified 24 mechanisms through which these legal issues occur on a regular basis. This information can be used to help victims anticipate how their cases will be distorted and to help them avoid some of the common traps.
What To Do
To join the effort, go to www.napasa.org and register as an individual or as a group. This will allow napasa to act as a clearing house and to share information and materials developed in different communities.
Organize a local group to do one or more of the three components of documenting the outrageous, challenging the legal system, or supporting victims. All of the necessary materials for these three activities may be found and downloaded from: www.napasa.org.
Renner, K. E. Re-conceptualizing sexual assault: From an intractable social problem to a manageable process of social change. In James Hodgson & Debra Kelley eds.,Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices, and Challenges in the United States and Canada. Praeger: 2002, Pp 135-153. (at: www.napasa.org/Pub17.htm)
For further information see www.napasa.org, or contact the National Action Plan Against Sexual Assault, 14241 110th Terrace North, Largo, FL 33774, (727) 595-3857, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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