The topic of sexual assault is challenging on many levels. When we begin to create a cultural view of sexual assault, we see that we are dealing with a complex set of systems. As we try to understand individual cases of sexual assault, it is helpful to have the sense of perspective that comes from understanding the history (or her-story) of the sexual assault movement.
A Condensed Herstory
Our history as an Anti-Sexual Assault Movement in the United States is complex. It has a rich history that informs all that we do today; knowing more about the history of our work can aid in creating a new, successful future.
Legal History of Rape
- The earliest written laws and texts defined rape as a property crime, with the male head of household or the family/tribal unit as the victims. While those laws evolved over time around the world and in a variety of cultures, English Common Law most clearly influenced laws about sexual assault in the U.S., shifting it to a crime against a person where a civil suit could be made, or a crime against the state in which the government would bring an offender to trial.
- An overall revision of Washington State's rape laws occurred in the 1980s including the creation of the law criminalizing Rape of a Child, based solely on the age of victim and perpetrator.
- The revision of laws that had previously exempted rape in marriage began in Nebraska in 1976, and was not completed until 1993 in North Carolina. To this day, the Washington State crime of Rape in the Third Degree still provides an exemption in cases where the perpetrator is married to the victim.
Although Women of Color have been pivotal in this Movement, their efforts, struggles, and survivorship have been largely invisibilized because of racism from within as well as outside of the Movement. Sojourner Truth first publicly connected the issues of women and race when she spoke of the role of Black women in the fight for women’s rights in her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”
The history of rape in the United States is a history of racism and sexism intertwined. Rape was an important tool in white colonists’ violent efforts to repress Native nations. During slavery, both white and Black men raped Black women with impunity. After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, white mobs lynched numerous black men based on trumped up charges of sexual assault of white women, and the specter of lynching terrorized the black community.
Popular media in this country continue to perpetuate racial stereotypes, particularly about women of color. Portraying black women and Latinxs as promiscuous, American Indian and Asian women as submissive, and all women of color as inferior legitimates their sexual abuse. Portraying men of color as sexually voracious and preying on innocent white women reinforces a cultural obsession with Black-on-white stranger rape, at the expense of the vastly more common intraracial acquaintance rape.
Although the data is limited, many women of color appear to be at greatest risk for rape. A nationally representative survey indicates that while almost 18% of white women and 7% of Asian/Pacific Islander women will be raped in their lifetimes, almost 19% of black women, 24% of mixed race women, and 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped during their lifetimes. Additionally, undocumented immigrant women who are raped often cannot turn to the authorities because they fear deportation. Moreover, they often lack linguistically appropriate and culturally relevant victim services within their communities.
- White colonists brought several aspects of these laws to the United States. However, colonization included widespread human rights abuses, including sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women that continues to this day.
- Collective action against rape began with African American women. It was common and legal for African women who had been enslaved to be raped by White men. Following the abolition of slavery, rape was used by White men as a tactic of violence and control over Black women and communities. Perhaps the first women to break the silence about rape were African American women testifying before Congress following their gang rape by a White mob during the Memphis Riot of May 1866.
- While existing rape laws didn't protect Black women, they did justify the lynching of Black men accused of raping White women. The earliest efforts to organize against rape began in the 1870s when African American women, most notably Ida B. Wells, took leadership roles in organizing anti-lynching campaigns.
Rape Crisis Movement: Second Wave
The second wave of women’s activism began with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and the Student’s Free Speech Movement of the 1960's. The Civil Rights Movement, through the inspiration and work of women like Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer, gave hope that groups of committed citizens can fight against injustice, institutional violence, and racialized sexual violence, and obtain equal rights. Betty Friedan’s best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, sold millions of copies and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement. From the early consciousness raising groups to the establishment of women’s studies programs in universities, women’s voices, experiences and realities joined the public debate about radical shifts in the power structure of institutions and relationships.
- In Washington State, Seattle Rape Relief, formed in 1972, was one of the first Rape Crisis Centers in the country, along with centers in Washington, DC and San Francisco.
- Published in 1975, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape was written by journalist Susan Brownmiller, followed in 1978 by Sandra Butler's Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest.
- David Finkelhor writes that the 1970's saw the creation of Child Protective Services, the establishment of mandatory reporting laws and the collection of reports of child abuse. This work dovetailed with anti-rape work by highlighting child sexual abuse as well as physical abuse.
- Near the end of the decade, activists held the first events that came to be known as Take Back the Night rallies.
From Organizing to Organizations
- Rape crisis centers in cities and towns began joining together to form state and national coalitions. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs was incorporated in 1979 with ten members from around the state. They had been working together to make legislative change, and to mark what was then Rape Awareness Week (now Sexual Assault Awareness Month).
- The National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA) was established in 1978, and one of its first conferences was held in Washington in 1982. Also on the national level, Child Abuse Prevention Month began in 1983, following about 100 years of concern about child abuse that had crystallized in the 1960's.
- The late 1980's and early 1990's saw an increase in the public conversation about sexual assault. In 1988 the film "The Accused" was released. It was based on the true story of a woman who was gang-raped and starred Jodie Foster. In 1991, three major stories filled the news:
- The Seattle-based organization now known as the FaithTrust Institute had been founded in 1977 by the Reverend Dr. Marie Fortune to address faith communities and issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Abuses by members of the Catholic clergy began to surface in the 1980's, followed by stories of abuse in other faiths. An organization of survivors, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), formed in response in 1989.
- In the late 1970's, Washington State passed the Victims of Sexual Assault Act, including funding administered by the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) guided by a Sexual Assault Program Advisory Committee. On the federal level, the Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grants began in 1982.
- In 1990, the State Legislature created the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to administer sexual assault funding and services to victims of other crimes. Former WCSAP Executive Director Bev Emery was chosen to lead OCVA. In 1994, the first federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed including Rape Prevention & Education (RPE) funding. The 2005 re-authorization of VAWA included the Sexual Assault Services Program.
- In 1995, in an effort to ensure a basic level of services to everyone throughout the state, the Sexual Assault Services Advisory Committee released its final report, creating the system of accreditation for Community Sexual Assault Programs. That plan was followed by the 1997 Prevention Plan for the State, including an emphasis on Community Development strategies.
- In part because the feminism of the 1970's grew out of the civil rights movement, questions about the relationship of racism and other oppressions to sexual assault have long been (although at varying degrees) part of our dialogue as a Movement. From the 1980's at least, WCSAP struggled to create a place for the conversation in the governance of the coalition. From 1990 to 1996, WCSAP had an Inclusiveness Committee. Our mission and philosophy statements today speak to the intersection of sexual assault and oppression.
- In 2002, OCVA funded a project known as Community Voices, organized by WCSAP Prevention Director Gayle Stringer to provide concrete information to the field.
Where We Are Today
The hard work and courage of countless women led to the establishment of rape crisis centers and advocacy as we know it today. You may draw on this history as you encounter the difficult work of advocacy. As you support survivors, educate your community, and dream of new approaches to ending rape, you can know that you are part of a movement and your voice is an important one.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established as resource for all state coalitions & rape crisis centers in 2000.
President Obama is the first U.S. President to declare April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in 2009.
Today we can see that we have had significant successes:
- A rape survivor's sexual history cannot be used to discredit her in court.
- Acquaintance rape has gained greater visibility.
- Rape crisis centers have consistent and committed funding in Washington State.
- Laws are changing, and we continue to strive for additional change in favor of survivors.
- The #MeToo Movement has increased the visibility of our issues and amplified the voices of survivors and the call for change.
However, we continue to struggle with a rape myth legacy that is, at times, perpetuated by those in power. In society at large, victims are still blamed for the violence they suffer. It is still common for people to ask: "Why did she: wear that, say this, go there, drink that, etc." rather than "Why did he rape her?"
- Finkelhor, D. (2002). Introduction. In Myers, J. E. B., Berliner, L., Briere, J., Hendrix, C. T., Jenny, C., Reid, T. A., [Eds.], The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, Second Edition (pp. xi-xiv). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Greensite, Gillian (1999). History of the rape crisis movement. In California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (Ed.), Support for survivors: Training for sexual assault counselors. Cited by Sniffen, C. in History of the rape crisis movement.