Our federal government is mired in seemingly endless scandals as bizarre as they are distracting. But while the Trump administration’s pure incompetence has resulted in infuriating stagnation, state legislatures are cruising along in their pursuit of undermining the rights of women and other marginalized groups. From abortion bans, to “bathroom bills,” to, most recently, a bill concerned with the rights of accused rapists, they’re making solid headway.
Georgia House Bill 51 is one recent example. HB 51, which originally passed on March 1, proposes requiring campus officials to report sexual assaults to the police. Survivors and activists vehemently opposed this bill, just as they have spoken out against similar legislation that has cropped up in other states over the years. Their deafening dissent led a Senate committee to unanimously table the bill on March 23. Yet on March 28, Senate Bill 71 — a completely unrelated piece of legislation — was amended to include language from HB 51, in an attempt to present the bill to the full Senate during their last day of the legislative session.
Some might question why the victims of a crime wouldn’t want to involve the police, but survivors and activists have plenty of reasons, both based in fact and personal experiences, for their opposition.
“The criminal system just does not work,” Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director of Know Your IX, told MTV News. “The reality is that most sexual assault crimes reported to the police aren’t investigated. If they are, [and] charges are filed, most people accused of rape aren’t convicted. The reality is the police don’t really treat this seriously, [and] neither does the criminal or judicial system.”
Studies back Jahangiri up: Victim blaming and erroneous ideas about rape are not only significantly accepted among police officers, but even cited as evidence or rationale against victims in police reports. Even though the rate of false reporting among sexual assault survivors is only about 5 percent, according to a 2015 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, countless survivors who have chosen to report have stated that the criminal process — dealing with police officers who questioned “what they were wearing” or how much they drank — felt like “re-victimization” or “second assault.” What’s more, this process is overwhelmingly fruitless: Only 0.6 percent of rapists ever see jail or prison time at all. This is the reality that survivors face should they report to the police in the first place — which only about one-third of victims choose to do.
Which brings us back to Georgia: During the the first House Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing on February 2, Georgia State University graduate student and activist Jessica Caldas testified, “Victims know that the criminal justice system will put them through a lengthy and invasive process, for which many are not immediately prepared while dealing with the trauma of their assault. If they know they will be sent to the police, victims are less likely to report at all. This means campuses become more unsafe as less students choose to share their assaults, even with campus specialists.”
And reporting is a typically charged — if not totally unimaginable — experience for survivors already marginalized in other ways.
“It’s wild to me that there’s an increased trend in mandatory police referrals at the same time that there is such a clear understanding of police brutality … in this country,” Jahangiri said. “Folks who are of color, people who are queer, trans, undocumented — especially in this environment — are going to have a very tough time going to the police when that’s the very institution harming them and their families and their partners.”
Republican Georgia state Representative Earl Ehrhart, one of the original sponsors of HB 51, likely doesn’t care how the police will treat the student survivors he’d like to force to deal with them. Ehrhart made this clear at a public testimony for the bill earlier this year. When the false claim that “Forty percent of women who report a sexual assault are lying” was made during the testimony, individuals present pushed back. Ehrhart, apparently offended by this call for accurate information, reportedly told the crowd that “if they were going to be triggered in this ‘macro-aggressive environment,’ they should ‘go trigger somewhere else.’”
Ehrhart isn’t the only one convinced that women lie about sexual assault and have to be stopped from falsely accusing the real victims — men — of such violent acts. There has been a chorus of recent claims that the current campus-sexual-assault adjudication process “disregards due process rights” for those accused of assault. Representative Ehrhart in particular, Jahangiri noted, has “gone on at length about how tough it is to be a man on Georgia campuses and how likely it is you will be wrongfully accused of rape” — despite a complete lack of evidence to support his claim. Caldas confirmed to MTV News that she also feels “HB 51 was instigated by a lack of faith in victims and by the false assumption that most reports of rape are untrue.”
This bill (and the others like it that have popped up across the country in recent years) is concerning in and of itself, but it is also evidence of a broader problem. Trump and his cronies may be spectacularly flailing, but state legislatures are wasting no time trying to codify their bigoted policies into law. As of January 12, there were already 46 anti-abortion bills introduced in 14 states, including a charming array of the usual nonsensical attacks on women’s autonomy, such as Ohio’s move to ban abortion as early as six weeks after conception. Sixteen states introduced “bathroom bills” during the 2017 legislative session. More than 100 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in 29 states during the same period, according to Human Rights Watch.
On Thursday night, the Georgia Senate unanimously rejected SB 71, effectively killing the proposal for the year, since the night was the last of the 2017 legislative session. But while this seemingly unkillable cockroach of a bill was demolished, activists concerned with survivors and myriad other marginalized communities are ready to keep fighting.
“Most lawmakers aren’t evil, but they can’t do good unless we remind them of how their work affects us,” Caldas told MTV News. “They need their constituents to be present, to show up, to raise their voices, to support them, and to challenge them.”
It’s easy enough to do just that. It’s so easy to reach out to your elected representatives and remind them that their work should reflect their constituents’ beliefs and concerns. Doing so is crucial. As Caldas said, “I know that all of the advocates, the survivors, and everyone else who called or showed up to oppose HB 51 made a difference.”