was only fifteen the first time a friend
confided in me that she had been raped.
She had been at a party. She had been
drinking. He had seemed nice. But he
wouldn't and didn't take no for an answer,
and her efforts to stop him failed.
She went home devastated and terrified.
But she didn't call the police. She
didn't tell her parents. She thought
that she would be blamed. She didn't
want to get in trouble for the drinking.
She didn't want people to call her a
liar and a whore. It was before the
term "survivor" came into
vogue, but she embodied turning victimization
into survival, and I admired and loved
her for her bravery and determination
and compassion. Later, she even "outed"
herself as a rape victim, in an educational
video about date rape, in the hopes
that it might help other girls like
have long since lost touch with her,
but I imagine that she is still working
to make the world a better place for
girls, and I imagine that she is strong
and beautiful, and I hope that she is
proud of who she is. But I imagine that
she is still-in some small way, perhaps-working
to heal and survive the damage done
by sexual violence.
what about him? About him I don't know
what to imagine. Did he rape again?
Does he still have sex while his "partner"
is crying and trying to push him off?
Does he still use alcohol as a weapon,
to make it difficult or impossible for
girls to stop him? Maybe he was wracked
with guilt and horrified at what he'd
done. Maybe he now takes care to never
have sex that isn't mutual and consensual.
That is certainly what I hope.
I know is that he was never taken to
task for the harm he caused my friend.
What I know is that the vast majority
of women who are raped -like my friend-never
report their rapist to the criminal
justice system. What I know, because
of statistics and scientific evidence,
as well as the too-many girls and women
I care about who have become rape survivors
in the decades since I was fifteen-is
that even when rape is reported, and
justice is sought, most rapes go unpunished.
What I know is that in this world, for
rape survivors, there is virtually no
it is not just victims who see that
rapists are almost never held accountable
for what they have done. While most
men do not rape or batter women, male
sexual force against women in our culture
is very prevalent and, some would say,
even celebrated and encouraged. This,
in combination with the well-documented
ineffectuality of our criminal laws
against rape, powerfully convey to potential
rapists that the risk of being accused
of rape-let alone prosecuted for it-is
however, two state legislatures stood
in solidarity with rape survivors. Seeing
that more could be done to hold rapists
and batterers accountable for their
crimes, and recognizing that civil law
could give survivors legal tools that
they could control and use to obtain
justice, Illinois and California both
enacted the Gender Violence Act (GVA).
Modeled on the Federal Violence Against
Women Act, the GVA is a revolutionary
civil rights law that seriously endangers
the financial well-being of anyone who
engages in rape or other forms of sex-based
there are some differences between the
two laws (the Illinois version has a
stronger statute of limitations), both
California and Illinois now define gender
based violence-like sexual assault and
domestic violence-as sex discrimination,
actionable in state court as a violation
of equality rights. Under the GVA, victims
of rape and intimate battery can sue
their perpetrators in state civil court,
regardless of whether he was ever charged
or prosecuted in criminal court. Under
the GVA, survivors can be the boss of
legal action against their perpetrator,
and it is the wallets of rapists and
batterers that will empty to pay the
bills generated by their violence. And
significantly, under the GVA, civil
lawyers have financial incentives to
represent sexual assault survivors-and
to represent them effectively.
While rape and domestic violence are
crimes, and should always be treated
as such by the criminal justice system,
the establishment of civil rights for
survivors of gender based violence is
critical because civil rights law is
a powerful force for positive social
change. Not only do civil rights laws
express a community's values and aspirations,
and hit wrongdoers where it hurts them
(in their wallets), but they create
opportunities for lawyers to make a
living by representing people who for
too long have not had powerful advocates
on their side. Civil rights laws prohibiting
sexual harassment in the workplace,
for example, have brought justice to
individual women through large financial
awards, and simultaneously improved
working conditions for other girls and
women, by sending a strong public message
that sexual abuse in the workplace will
be punished severely.
the GVA, girls and women finally have
equality law on their side in the private
sphere. At home, on dates, in all the
places girls and women live and breathe
outside of work, the GVA creates an
independently enforceable right to be
free from rape and battery. No longer
will rapists and batterers be able to
take comfort in the ineffectuality of
the criminal justice system, or in the
reluctance of rape victims to report
the crimes against them to the police.
From here on out, men who would rape
and batter should be warned: the GVA
gives girls and women time to heal,
time to find a lawyer that will work
for them, and a tool that they can use
to hunt you down and haul you into court,
and make you pay for the harm you caused.
It may be too late to obtain justice
for my friend, or to make her rapist
pay for what he did. But from now on,
people living in Illinois and California
have an enforceable right to be free
from rape and sex-based violence, and
rapists in these states will soon learn
to fear the power of civil litigation.
In the hands of girls and women, the
GVA is a tool that will re-write the
story of rape and justice. Beyond Illinois
and California, in all the states of
this nation, survivors of sexual assault
deserve no less.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer
TO ENVISIONING EQUALITY MAIN PAGE
is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois.
She served on the Governor's Commission
on the Status of Women in Illinois from
1999 to 2003, where she chaired the
Commission's Violence Reduction Working
Group. She is co-author of the Gender