Changing the conversation about sexual violence
While this year featured Chancellor Angela Merkel as Time magazine's Person of the Year, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, perhaps the most feminist justice story of the year was the spotlight on sexual violence against women. No story demonstrates changing attitudes toward sexual assault like the overnight credibility of (in some cases) decades-old rape allegations against comedian Bill Cosby.
Cosby and the court of public opinion
Last October, a video of comedian Hannibal Buress discussing rape allegations against Bill Cosby went viral, and by the end of this year, nearly sixty women have accused Cosby of sexual assault. Barbara Bowman wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing her anger that her and other women's accusations were not believed until a man with a microphone repeated them. New York magazine published a powerful cover story in July featuring thirty-five of Cosby's accusers, noting that their accounts of sexual assaults starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1990s "function almost as a longitudinal study—both for how an individual woman, on her own, deals with such trauma over the decades and for how the culture at large has grappled with rape over the same period."
Bill Cosby has denied the allegations, and has been sued for defamation by some of the accusers after alleging that money motivated their accusations; he has countersued some of the accusers for defaming him. This summer, however, a 2006 deposition was released, revealing that Cosby previously admitted using quaaludes "as part of his effort to have sex with women." Following Hannibal Buress's lead, comedians from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Larry Wilmore tore into Cosby. Many universities and colleges that had granted honorary degrees to Cosby over the years either rescinded those degrees or are considering doing so. And while explaining that he could not revoke Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Obama commented:
If you give a woman -- or a man, for that matter -- without his or her knowledge a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape.
This month also saw the conviction—by an all-white jury—of Oklahoma ex-police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was charged with raping thirteen black women. Many of the women testified that they felt afraid to come forward because of Holtzclaw's status as a police officer, and also because he threatened to arrest them. The Holtzclaw victims and the Cosby accusers expressed similar hopes: that their stories would inspire others who have survived violence at the hands of powerful people to come forward.
Campus rape and the changing definition of consent
The discussion of sexual violence on college campuses also continued this year. Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who claims that she survived a campus sexual assault, carried a mattress around the campus during her senior year as a performance art protest. The student she accused was cleared in a school disciplinary hearing, and has sued the school for harassment. After passing an "affirmative consent" law last year, requiring college sexual assault investigators to ask if both parties gave affirmative consent to sex, California enacted a law requiring sexual consent education in the state's high schools starting next year.
This year, we saw changing attitudes about the definition of rape, as well as increased accountability for and conversation about sexual assault. But as Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk recently wrote:
Sexual assault is a serious and insidious problem that occurs with intolerable frequency on college campuses and elsewhere. Fighting it entails, among other things, dismantling the historical bias against victims, particularly black victims—and not simply replacing it with the tenet that an accuser must always and unthinkingly be fully believed.
Violence against women is an international problem, and progress is still desperately needed. In March, the United Nations released its findings that 35 percent of women worldwide experience violence in their lifetimes. Mexico is experiencing what some are calling an "epidemic" of femicide—the murder of women, often by their romantic partners. We hope that the United Nations, the United States, and the global community will make even more progress on issues of gender violence in 2016.