Karrie K. Delaney, a Democrat, represents part of Fairfax County in the Virginia House.
I spent several years working as a rape crisis counselor and sat bedside with victims of sexual assault in emergency rooms, advocating for survivors as they underwent the rape-kit exam and police questioning. The process demoralized some sexual assault survivors, even in the first hours after their trauma, creating yet another barrier to justice. As an advocate, I sat ready to intervene when the line of questioning devolved to “How many drinks did you have?” or “Why were you out so late?” I was prepared to inject and bring attention to how such inquiries questioned the validity of the survivor’s trauma.
Now, as a delegate in the Virginia House, I have supported measures that would empower victims by allowing them to come forward about assault. This legislative session, I passed a bill that closes a sexual-predator loophole by prohibiting employment nondisclosure agreements from silencing accusations of sexual assault. This would allow victims of sexual assault to regain their voice and come forward with their truth.
As our nation has been exposed to very public allegations of sexual assault, there has been a schism between those who call for due process for the accused and those who call for the accuser to be believed. Living in a time when the hashtag #IBelieveWomen is used to show support for victims of sexual assaults, these narratives are met with great dissonance between what due process is and what it looks like through the public lens.
Believing survivors is what guarantees due process. Far too often, I have seen the default skepticism with which victims of sexual assault are met and how detrimental that disbelief is to their will to come forward.
The moment you look in someone’s eyes and say “I believe you” might be the first time a survivor feels that her pursuit of justice is viable. Two-thirds of sexual assault victims never report their assault to the police. Coming forward and asserting a claim of sexual assault require tremendous bravery. Survivors of assault are far too often met with doubt and suspicion, making them feel as if justice is inaccessible and would bring about more conflicts than resolutions.
In the United States, people are supposed to be innocent until proved guilty. Yet we often fail to apply this same value and courtesy to those with claims of sexual assault. In doing so, we fail to recognize that believing victims does not exist in lieu of due process but ensures its accessibility. Believing that survivors are telling the truth until proven otherwise is the other side of the due-process coin.
Now a member of the Virginia General Assembly, I’m more committed than ever to standing up for women, victims of violent acts and our most vulnerable populations.
Survivors can be silenced in endless ways. My legislation is one way to give a voice to survivors, especially those who may not wish to pursue criminal charges or a settlement agreement but just raise the alarm. For example, this legislation would allow survivors to speak about abuse they endured from their employer, bringing to light their true intentions or warning others about the risks they pose. Sadly, there are still many reasons survivors remain silent, and most of these reasons are beyond our ability to legislate. These barriers are based on how our society tends to respond to claims of rape and sexual assault. Amid the shame and embarrassment that so often accompany such heinous acts, survivors are faced with the looming question, “Will anyone even believe me?”
Believing survivors while also calling for due process are not contradictory elements; rather, these are complementary necessities. As we continue to hear allegations of abuse, we must remove the blockades to justice. We must allow both parties to have their cases heard, thus allowing justice to be properly delivered and served.
As public conversations about sexual assault continue, I remind survivors that they have a community of support in the commonwealth. If you would like to talk to an advocate and ally, please reach out to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance anytime, day or night, by calling 800-838-8238, texting 804-793-9999 or chatting at vadata.org/chat.