There are days when I wake up and feel completely rejuvenated in the world and believe that we are making significant progress in providing services to survivors to sexual assault and nudging society away from myths and victim blaming and towards real information on sexual violence and prevention efforts. There are so many people who put in an effort each and everyday to create a better world for survivors, significant others, and, let’s face it, everyone. They do this because a world without sexual violence would be a marvelous world to live in.
Despite the fact that the change is slow, there is still so much to be excited about. There are new campaigns that focus on what people can do to change the environment around them to prevent sexual violence rather than just telling people what to do after they’ve been assaulted. There is new research that has been evaluated and is effective at reducing incidents of sexual harassment in middle schools. The FBI recently changed its definition of rape to be more inclusive of the many victims and survivors it affects each year. Teenagers are speaking out against the dangers of slut-shaming and victim blaming . Documentaries are being made to show the effects of media and the epidemicof sexual assault in the military . Change and the push for change are happening on so many different levels so it’s easy to get excited as an anti-sexual violence advocate.
Maybe all this positive energy, change, and complete lack of a scary New England winter has made me too hopeful…too expectant that society is shifting for the better. I am quickly snapped back into reality when legislation, such as the one in VA mandating a trans-vaginal ultrasound for women who are seeking an abortion, is proposed and then passed by the House and Senate. What does this legislation mean exactly? It means that any woman who wants an abortion must have a trans-vaginal ultrasound, which is very different from a sonogram that is done on the stomach. The Reproductive Health Reality Check does a great job explaining what this procedure entails (WARNING: Graphics used).
The new definition of rape from the FBI is the penetration, however slight, of any bodily orifice by any body part or object without consent. This new law on the table in VA is the mandatory penetration of a woman’s vagina without the need for her consent or a doctor’s recommendation. It is not medically necessary, nor is it optional based on the situation at hand. It is required for every woman who wants to obtain an abortion. While it can be traumatic for any woman who wants to practice body autonomy, it can be especially traumatic for rape and sexual assault survivors.
Rape and sexual assault cause the survivor to lose power and control over their body. Sexual violence can cause a variety of emotional, psychological, mental, and physical trauma to survivors. It can be daunting and challenging for survivors to seek general medical care in the years afterward. This medically unnecessary procedure also takes away a woman’s power and control over her body and medical choices. It takes away the voice of the woman and the doctor to make appropriate choices and decisions for themselves. Being in a medical appointment creates a clear power dynamic between the doctor and patient, which can be intimidating for survivors. Also, patients can feel exposed by the robes they wear or the needed positions to complete a medical examination. These challenges can be prohibitive for a survivor to seek standard medical care if they want to avoid feeling vulnerable. As we know from research and decades of interactions with survivors, these feelings and thoughts aren’t just present immediate post-assault. It can be challenging for a survivor to seek care years after the assault. State-mandated laws, such as the one proposed by VA, can make it impossible for rape and sexual assault survivors to seek abortion care.
In a study, it was found that approximately 5% of rapes result in pregnancy, which translates to approximately 32,000 pregnancies each year due to a rape. Of these pregnancies, approximately 50% of them result in an abortion (Holmes, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Best, 1996). The vast majority of abortions (90%) are done within the first trimester of pregnancy. For a survivor of rape, this means that she will have to experience a medically unnecessary trans-vaginal exam just 12 weeks after the first rape. It is inconceivable to verbally write out the amount of stress and anxiety that can cause a survivor such a short time after the initial assault. However, one survivor shares her perspective . This law will make abortions even more inaccessible to survivors who have recently been assaulted.
Currently the law is in a holding pattern as there has been a lot of negative media coverage and societal pushback. It has passed both the House and Senate in Virginia and, initially, Governor McDonnell said that he would absolutely sign the law if it came to his desk. However, he has recently held emergency meetings with other Republican members to discuss the ‘true implications’ of this bill and states that they did not originally know how invasive the procedure would be. These assertions are completely untrue as there were several attempts to take out the trans-vaginal ultrasound requirement and use a sonogram. These proposals were rejected by the Republicans each time, therefore they were given plenty of opportunities to recognize the invasiveness of the procedure they wanted to require. Rachel Maddow does a great job outlining several of the attempts on her show on Feb 22. (As an aside, if they truly didn’t understand the ramifications of the bill – why are they passing the law??)
It is extremely disheartening that the law was able to pass through so many layers and that it would have been signed by the governor of Virginia without a second thought. I appreciate the hard work of advocates across the country to raise awareness about this extremely dangerous piece of legislation. There have been several silent and not-so-silent protests in VA about this legislation where hundreds of people have showed their dissent. Amy Poehler returned to SNL this past weekend to do a Really!? segment about the transvaginal ultrasound law. John Stewart also focused on the invasive and unnecessary procedure on the Tuesday episode. Hopefully there is enough pressure to keep Governor McDonnell from signing the legislation. We need to keep in mind the many women and survivors who will be directly impacted by this law. Their voices, choices, and autonomy should be respected and treated with dignity.