Bill of the Week: Silencing Survivors?
Joan Huffman’s bill may have an adverse effect on survivor psyche
Senate Bill 576, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston
A survey published by UT last Friday confirms what sexual assault activists have known for too long: Rape is far too common on college campuses. According to the school's Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, 15% of UT's female undergraduates – and 7% of graduate students – have been raped while enrolled at the university. Another 12% and 5%, respectively, report having survived an attempted rape. Men have also fallen victim: 5% of undergrads report having been raped, as do 3% of graduate males. Those numbers align with national averages, though the report does suggest a disproportionate rate of sexual and intimate partner violence against members of the school's LGBTQ community – specifically those who identify as bisexual.
Such data adds fuel to the Legislature's attempt to eradicate sexual assault on campuses ("Bill of the Week," March 24), which includes SB 576, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and co-sponsored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who filed the five bills spotlighted last week. SB 576 would require college faculty, staff, and students who hold leadership roles within university-based organizations to report any incident of sexual harassment, sexual assault, family violence, or stalking committed by or against a student. Those who fail to report within 48 hours risk being charged with a class A or class B misdemeanor – depending on whether or not there's an attempt to conceal the assault.
Huffman's bill was born of good intentions, but it risks legitimate backlash; not all rape survivors wish to report the crime. Sexual assault is not like any other crime, and its victims frequently face feelings of isolation, fear, and that their privacy (and body) has been violated. Choosing to report is a personal decision, one that advocates have repeatedly said should not be forced on survivors. But under SB 576, if a survivor disclosed that they were raped to a friend who was also a campus sorority president or trusted teaching assistant, that individual would be required to report the rape. Unless the survivor confides in a doctor or therapist, who can promise doctor-patient confidentiality, the name and address of each alleged victim – as well as "any other pertinent information concerning the incident" – must be reported, which could potentially silence survivors completely, rather than aiding them and targeting their attackers.
The Survivor's Justice Project, a coalition of advocates, community leaders, and survivors fighting for system-level change in Austin's response to sexual assault, has asked supporters to call members of the Senate State Affairs Committee to ask that they approve Watson's five bills. SB 576 was noticeably absent from that call to action. A coalition spokesperson told the Chronicle: "We think policies that force victims to report their assault miss the mark when it comes to centering the experiences of victims and survivors." State Affairs heard witness testimony concerning the bill on Thursday. It currently remains pending in that committee.