How America Systematically Fails Survivors of Sexual Violence

Before there was Christine Blasey Ford, there was Recy Taylor, an African-American woman who was raped by six white men in 1944 and fought for justice with the help of Rosa Parks. And in between the two of them, there was Anita Hill, Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano, Lupita Nyong’o, Tanya Selveratnam, Aly Raisman, and many, many more.

For centuries, women have experienced violence and harassment, and many have spoken out.  #MeToo brought us to a new phase in building the movement to end gender-based violence, magnifying and connecting thousands of voices as they shared their stories. Despite women’s achievement of formal equality, #MeToo exposed how common such violence is, the widespread silencing and dismissal of survivors, and the myriad ways violence undermines survivors’ security, dignity, and opportunities.

The President and Senate Judiciary Committee are far from the only powerful people and institutions that limit investigations, disbelieve survivors, and fault people for coming forward. Discrimination against survivors infiltrates all aspects of life, including the responses of law enforcement, employers, housing providers, and schools, to name a few.  Speaking out about violence is a crucial step. But law enforcement, employers, housing providers, and schools must also step up and acknowledge how their policies and practices contribute to violence.

“Why didn’t you report?” is the refrain so many survivors face when they disclose violence for the first time. But too often, police dismiss survivors who go to law enforcement. This attitude results in governments’ decisions not to test thousands of rape kits in cities like Detroit, Albuquerque, and Washington DC, based on officers’ assumptions that there was no sexual assault.  It also explains why one in three survivors feel less safe after contacting police. 

Survivors also bear punishment for filing complaints. They are ostracized by their communities or accused of lying and prosecuted for false reporting, only to be exonerated years later.  Sometimes cities enforce policies that hold victims responsible for crimes in their homes, resulting in their eviction. 

Survivors are frequently denied employment, educational support, housing, and other benefits due to violence and harassment. They are retaliated against by supervisors for breaking their silence. Schools ignore their requests for accommodations or protection, pushing them out.  Landlords evict them for resisting sexual demands. Veterans seeking disability benefits based on PTSD as a result of military sexual trauma are rejected unjustly, because they cannot meet a standard of corroboration that is not demanded of veterans with other forms of PTSD.

And victims have gone to law enforcement only to face sexual harassment and assault by officers themselves. Filling a criminal report can subject survivors to further violence, committed by those who are supposed to hold perpetrators accountable.

The multiple layers of discrimination that survivors experience, and the network of systems that foster it, could leave one feeling hopeless. But what we saw with so many of the survivors who have spoken out is that they are challenging the institutions that further perpetuate violence. In telling their stories, they are survivors, and also advocates and leaders pushing for change. 

I have witnessed this first-hand as an attorney at the ACLU representing survivors of gender-based violence. I have been awed by Lakisha Briggs, Nancy Markham, and Rosetta Watson, who are all survivors of domestic violence who either faced eviction or were evicted because they called 911. They successfully challenged local nuisance laws adopted by their cities in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Missouri, ensuring that other survivors no longer are forced to choose between their homes and police protection.

I had the honor of working with Rachel Bradshaw-Bean, a student in Texas who was sent to a disciplinary program for engaging in “lewd behavior” after she reported being sexually assaulted at her high school. She filed a Title IX civil rights complaint against the school district, leading to major reforms for how they respond to sexual harassment and violence.  And this month, PBS is featuring the Home Truth documentary on the life and work of Jessica Lenahan, a Colorado woman who became a human rights activist after Colorado police refused to enforce her restraining order against her ex-husband, leading to the death of her three daughters.

Our society is one that has long accepted and encouraged the victimization of women and other marginalized people. Today, survivors are building power by coming forward, seeing and hearing each other, calling on and providing support, and challenging the norms that have silenced victims. We will continue our work to dismantle the policies and practices that have allowed violence and discrimination to flourish.

This month, we are spotlightly sexual assault and harassment as part of our 12 Months, 12 Faces of Gender Discrimination Initiative to end gender discrimination in all its forms. 

Every day across the nation, the ACLU is called on to defend all the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There's never been a more important time for to support the ACLU and our effective work to protect civil liberties. If you like what you just read, help us continue to speak freely by donating today.

View comments (10)
Read the Terms of Use


Thank you. just... thank you.


Very good article on spreading awareness against domestic violence.

Being a resident from Albuquerque, I would like to highlight the conditions in New Mexico which is worse than you can imagine. I would really like to use this opportunity to make people realize how difficult it can be to live in New Mexico. Rapes, gun-shots, domestic violence, corrupt politics, police brutality, and poverty is prevalent in the state. The most disrespected member of the society are the women and domestic violence is common in the majority of households. I have been a victim of domestic violence and it is the least thing a woman will ever expect from her husband. He was very cruel who used to beat my innocent kids. Circumstances are really tough there and now I have divorced my husband, thanks to Family Law Firm ( ) . I have moved to California and conditions are worth living for a woman.


What a crock NJ GOVERMOR PROTEects. Rapist and crickets from the ACLU.


"The President and Senate Judiciary Committee are far from the only powerful people and institutions that limit investigations, disbelieve survivors, and fault people for coming forward."

And the divisions that are created due to Trump's distraction with the moral equivalency for the accusations of sexual accosting of a female by Kavanaugh and, accusations of murder and dismemberment of a journalist in an embassy/consulate location by Saudi operatives -- seem a stretch for even his imagination. How big of a lie can Trump gin up for fake news? SCOTUS Judge Kavanuagh is innocent, so the Saudi's must not be held to account for this crime . . . at least until they can all take the last airplane out of America. That's the take-away from such a B.S. rationale given by the fake-president.


Do u defen disabled against persecution reduction of pain meds who are fighting for the rights hell what a waste u actually use to stand for something done


I have written ACLU many times. I have written about 16 letters regarding victims rights. My daughter was abused, the assigned victim advocate was corrupt and after 2 years I find out the victim advocate is the reason the suspect hadn’t been charged yet.
Meanwhile I’m being told something completely different about being unable to reach a cop for a arrest warrant etc. * UNNECESSARY DELAYCAUSED MY DAUGHTER AND I TO NOT PROPERLY HEAL*. * I was fired for exceeding my employers time limit for leave*
NOT ONLY HAVE I SUFFERED AS A MOTHER SEEINV MY DAUGHTER GO THRU the heartache of betrayal by her father that should make her believe she is protected. She was in and out of the children’s psychiatric hospital medication school and behavioral crisis. All because she was LEFT FEELING UN VALUDATED!!!
I have also had to be the advocate because I have not had one.
Discrimination from CRVA because I had a disability prior to her victimization. Epilepsy was the existing condition CRVA denied (under the victim rights compensation loss of wages) and I had to go out of
my way to PROOVE my job absence was from a direct impact from the crime. I was told 4 times “it looked like my medical leave was due to my own disability.”
After I was terminated for exceeded the max allowed time with my employer. I appealed CVRA descions in which I was lucky to received 7 weeks of lost wages although I lost an entire year.
It’s a big mess. Conflict of interest because they all know him and he is related to law Enforcment in APD.
It’s a horrible thing to go through. I thought that victim advocates “vigerously advocates for the victim during the most mentally trying times of their life”. I am proud to say I made it through all of this with out an advocate, it’s just scary to know she was screening everything that happened on this case to BENIFIT THE ABUSER!
I’m wondering if this is also why I was denied by CRVA. I’m pretty sure.
Basically My rights to Protect a Victim From Abuse, Manditory Report Requirment Act broken by State Officials.
My child’s Victim Rights have ALL BEEN STOMPED ON.
Then I am discriminated on by State of NM CRVA.
Prosecutorial Misconduct and Unprofessional Ethics by the prosecutor and advocate on the case. Small towns can do what they want I guess.
Wrongfully Terminated from my job for this Protection scheme that was being hidden away.
Discrimination on my daughters disability suffering PTSD and Psychosis I was fired from the “call center” position I had for 4 years. Later hearing that it was NOT THE COMPANYS CHOICE. It was up to “one individual in HR”. Sabbataged all I overcame!
I’ve taken it to the EEOC.
Something called the SAFE Act under Victims Rights that states a victim of sexual abuse can’t be terminated for “not being better yet”.

People start to heal the moment they feel heard. And after 2 years and many attempts to be heard, it seems that our situation isn’t “BIG ENOUGH “ to claim fame for so its the really big stories that are represented and minimizing that secondary trauma is caused and I feel more traumatized at the fact the same people who fight and display that they care, are the same ones who “pick and choose who’s victim enough”.


IM STILL TRYING TO BE HEARD. ACLU I though you guys would have for sure especially since reading this post!

Dean Hedges

It is abhorrent to compare or include Dr Ford as a rape victim. She shows no signs of victimization aside from theater. Since 80% of violence is experienced by males, and since, mothers kill their children more often than fathers, and kill their sons @60%. This article is closer to propaganda. As for untested rape kits, it is not a sign of oppressive patriarchy or a conspiracy to hide crime. In many cases, the tests are become obsolete, either by confessions or retraction. One must realize that the overwhelming majority of cases are resolved thru plea deals. This is a culture of expedited justice, not rape culture. What I see is victim culture borne out of gynocentrism, and the cancer which is feminism


Another major factor that contributes to lack of reporting is how often the abusers are actually the parents of the victim. Of course a small child is not going to report this abuse, and it is more common than not that even adults who have suffered (or still are suffering) this at the hands of their parents will NEVER report his or her own parents.


Denial in families is also a significant factor.

Raul Zighelboim

It may be time for the ACLU to look into severe forms of child emotional abuse, an abuse that is as, or possibly more, damaging to children.

Up to this moment, the ACLU considers fighting for children victims of sexual abuse, and children victims of emotional abuse conditioned to being immigrants. There is a lot of child emotional abuse going on in this country.

Stay Informed