Americans are in the throes of a national conversation about sexual assault, and yet somehow they are collectively missing the point. Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a sexual assault survivors’ “Bill of Rights,” meant to formally acknowledge survivors’ rights concerning sexual assault evidence collection kits. This piece of legislation establishes the federal standard that survivors do not have to pay for their sexual assault kits, that they must be notified of any test results from the kits, and that these kits must be preserved for the length of the applicable statute of limitations, whether or not survivors pressed assault charges.
For the first time, sexual assault survivors now have clearly enumerated rights under federal law. Admittedly, this bill does not go very far in the short term. But it establishes a precedent for handling evidence kits that will, hopefully, influence sexual assault laws at state and county levels, thereby effecting concrete change for sexual assault survivors and in the treatment of their evidence kits.
Instead of becoming a national discussion on the future of sexual assault legislation or prevention, the conversation about this historic bill was overtaken by the scandal of a leaked audio clip from 2005 of an Access Hollywood reporter and the future Republican presidential candidate, in which Donald Trump bragged about his ability to sexually assault women due to his celebrity status.
Since the breaking of this audio clip, at least fifteen women have stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault or harassment. Several celebrities and politicians, notably Michelle Obama, Robert De Niro, and Senator Mitch McConnell, have also publicly condemned Trump for his statements and past actions concerning women.
Unfortunately, the majority of discourse about this scandal centers on what it means for the state of American politics or the fate of the Republican Party. Those are serious concerns, of course, but what of the women whom Donald Trump sexually assaulted, who felt silenced by his power, money, and celebrity status? What of other sexual assault survivors across the country, men and women, who are fighting to be believed by their families, by society, and by the law?
Exposing Trump’s repulsive acts and rejecting his “locker room talk” about pursuing women is incredibly important to ensuring that rape culture is not normalized in our society. It is time, however, to shift the spotlight from Donald Trump and instead focus on bringing justice to sexual assault survivors. This scandal could be the opportunity America needs to publicly address its sexual assault problem and offer meaningful solutions and help to survivors of sexual assault.
According to the Department of Justice, 284,000 Americans are sexually assaulted per year. This number does not even account for those crimes that go unreported.
State governments could be diverting more resources into the handling of rape kits, the subject of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which wait in huge backlogs across the country. The slowness in testing this evidence potentially allows rapists to roam the country free. American schools could also introduce sexual assault prevention education, among other courses of action.
Donald Trump’s disgusting comments and actions should not be just another excuse to talk about him or to bemoan the state of American politics. Instead, Americans should use this opportunity to address their prevailing attitudes about sexual assault and to have open conversations about consent, respect, and prevention. It would be irresponsible to let this moment become just another of the many instances of public outrage over Trump’s actions, which resulted in neither change nor solutions.