MONTPELIER — The state’s sexual assault criminal statutes are outdated, especially when it comes to defining consent and the role of alcohol and drugs, according to supporters of a bill now before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill, H. 183, had its initial hearing Wednesday and was introduced during a news conference hosted by one of its three main sponsors, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Orange-2.
“No Vermonters should experience rape compounded by the absence of justice,” Copeland Hanzas said. “We need to take consent out of the shadows and talk openly about what consensual sex means and doesn’t mean.”
The bill proposes to clarify what does and does not constitute consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance does not constitute consent, the bill says; nor does submission resulting from the use or threat of force, a previous dating relationship, or a person’s manner of dress.
Furthermore, a person is deemed to have acted without consent when they “knew or reasonably should have known” that the other person was incapable of consent due to a number of factors, including “because the person was substantially impaired by alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicants.”
The bill proposes data collection about cases, “so we know every step along the way where the breakdown is occurring” in investigating and prosecuting cases, Copeland Hanzas said.
The bill proposes expanded access to forensic nursing so victims can be examined in a primary care environment without the need to travel to a hospital emergency room. And it establishes an Intercollegiate Sexual Violence Prevention Council.
“The majority of women I’ve ever known have experienced some degree of sexual assault,” Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, said. “And I think most people who have had a chance to have those kinds of intimate conversations with women know that to be true, and know that underreporting is very real.”
The last time the state’s sexual assault laws were reformed, said Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, the widely accepted notion of the nature of sexual assault was that it was a stranger lurking in the shadows attacking random victims.
That’s long since been exposed as a myth, Thibault said, explaining that most survivors know or are acquainted with their assailants.
Furthermore, jury instructions in sexual assault cases currently rely upon a case precedent rather than clearly defined statutes, Thibault said. Clearly written and defined law governing what constitutes consent and assault would be an improvement over the status quo, he said.
“I want sexual violence to be treated for what it is: an epidemic,” Sydney Ovitt, a University of Vermont senior and sexual assault survivor, said during the news conference.
“If you yourself aren’t a survivor, it’s almost guaranteed you know someone who is,” Ovitt said. “Our current laws are not enough and they are not working .. it’s incredibly important that our law reflect survivors’ experiences.”
Nationally, out of every 1,000 instances of sexual assault against women and men, only 230 are ever reported, 46 lead to arrests, nine are referred for prosecution and five result in convictions, Copeland Hanzas said.
Armenia Menic, a victim advocate in the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s office, said the bill might not solve all of the difficulties facing survivors who come forward, “but it will clarify the law of consent. It will validate the experiences of survivors who have not come forward.”
Area co-sponsors include Reps. Mollie Burke and Kornheiser, Kathleen James of Manchester, Sara Coffey of Guilford, Michael Mrowicki of Putney and Leslie Goldman of Rockingham.
Improving data collection will help leaders better understand the problem, Kornheiser said. And increasing the availability of forensic exams will help survivors get the care they need and make decisions about whether to pursue charges.
“That’s really an important part to me,” Kornheiser, of Brattleboro, said. “Because when this happens to people ... they need to be getting the care that they deserve, and to be prepared for whatever decision they want to make about pressing charges or not. I want to make sure that they have that opportunity open to them, and they’ll only have it open to them with proper forensic care.”
Burke, the co-chair of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, said the bill addresses needed updates to the criminal statutes and aligns with her values and interests.
“This is one issue that’s rally important,” Burke said. “We know that a lot of sexual assault is not between a stranger and a woman, and we know it often involves alcohol and drugs.”
“I supported the bill because I think the bill makes both meaningful reforms aimed at preventing and curbing sexual violence in our communities and on college campuses and resources for forensic nurse care for victims as well as clarifying language around consent,” Coffey said.
“My hope is that this bill will address the gaps and biases in our justice system to ensure that victims of sexual violence will have a better path to justice, and to make our campuses and communities safer.”