Fueled by accusations against titans of Hollywood, industry and politics, the #MeToo movement will prompt state lawmakers across the country this year to consider bills that could fundamentally change the culture of dating and sex.
States are expected to grapple with legislation to establish affirmative consent — known as “yes means yes” — and rewrite rape and sexual assault laws. Legislatures are already considering more than two dozen bills that would strengthen laws against rape, teach students that both participants must consent to sexual activity, and extend the time to prosecute or sue those accused of sexual assault. They also will weigh measures to clarify sexual assault survivors’ rights, improve rape kit testing, and change the rules for sexual harassment settlements.
State lawmakers have debated such bills in the past. But this year a slew of accusations of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment have given legislators greater momentum in pursuing policies that do more to crack down on abusers and support survivors.
“I’m hoping we are just reaching a time where people realize this is not a fad,” said Maine state Sen. Mattie Daughtry, a Democrat who introduced a bill to teach consent as part of sex education. “This is women stepping up for change, and this cannot be put on the back burner.”
Legislators and victims’ rights advocates say many current laws put too much of the onus on victims, requiring them to prove they resisted sexual advances. And they say requiring victims to come forward quickly is unfair to those abused as children, who may take years to understand and grapple with what happened to them.
“The steady stream of people coming out and saying ‘me too’ led to this moment that I think is going to lead to a lot of change,” said Ilse Knecht, director of advocacy with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based group that pushes states to improve rape kit testing.
Many states are considering bills that would toughen their existing rape statutes by no longer requiring proof that the perpetrator used force against his victim, or that the victim actively resisted.
“When you look at the neurobiology of trauma, we hear about fight or flight, but there’s a third response: there’s freeze. … Some women undergoing trauma, their body may choose to freeze,” said Washington state Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat who has sponsored a bill that would remove the force requirement from current rape law.
More than half the states have laws that require a show of force by either the perpetrator or the victim, according to a 2015 analysis of state laws by Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Only four states — Montana, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin — have what Tuerkheimer considers a strict affirmative consent standard that requires both parties freely consent to sexual activity.
In Nebraska, state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would scrap the force requirements for both perpetrators and victims in the current law while imposing a new affirmative consent standard.
“The old law didn’t do enough,” she said. “If you require that there be force, then someone has to fight off someone to say no. That’s not a reasonable standard.”
Some lawmakers are pushing for an affirmative consent standard to be taught in schools. Bills in Pennsylvania and West Virginia would make affirmative consent part of the code of conduct for college students. Bills in Maine and Michigan would require teaching affirmative consent as part of sex education.
State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat, sponsored the Michigan bill as a way to change the conversation around consent.
“I think what we’re trying to do is change a culture,” he said.
Eight states — California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and Vermont — are considering bills that would extend the time for victims to file a civil suit or for district attorneys to prosecute.
New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat seeking to extend the statute of limitations in the state, said current law protects abusers, particularly those who prey on children who may not address the issue before turning 23, as the law now requires.
“There’s this widespread revulsion among survivors that their abusers have remained unidentified and continue to prey on young people with abandon,” Hoylman said.
Hoylman’s bill would extend both the criminal and civil statute of limitations, and it also would create a one-year exception for people whose claims have expired to file a civil suit against their abuser.