Pursuing legal action against a person who has harmed you is not an easy choice. It requires an immense amount of strength and willingness to be vulnerable, all in the name of closure and due process. The aftermath of sexual assault or rape leaves individuals struggling to cope with trauma. Meanwhile, those affected by assault also must determine what procedural actions they wish to pursue. For some, the next steps after their assault center around available legal resources and contacting their local police. However, for women and men in the state of Georgia, legal definitions and policies limit one’s chances of attaining justice.
The term “consent” is highly discussed in connection with sexual assault and rape crimes, and it has become a focal point when survivors share their stories. The word has been popularized in student health classes, residence life programs and resources on college campuses, and all aim to ensure that students understand the concept to increase personal safety. In order for any of these programs to teach anyone, consent must be universally defined. Here on Emory’s campus, the definition of affirmative consent is “knowing, voluntary, clear, and mutual agreement among all participants to engage in specific sexual activity” and was formulated after the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972. An act meant to protect students from discriminatory and harassing behavior.
Higher education institutions that receive federal funding are required to follow the guidelines put forth by Title IX. While colleges and universities have a comprehensible definition of consent, individuals with no affiliation to such institutions must rely on Georgia’s legal code. A clear definition of consent is noticeably absent from Georgia’s legal language. This legal void creates a barrier for Georgia residents, as they must go to greater lengths to prove they did not want sexual contact.
Although Georgia’s legal system lacks an explicit definition of consent, the language for what constitutes rape is clearly worded and available in legal code, and, unlike the lack of language used for consent, is understandable to those looking for it. In the state of Georgia, rape is considered the forced insertion of male sex organs into a female’s genitalia. Through the use of this definition, the state’s legal system delegitimizes the experiences of individuals who experienced rape that did not fit the male to a female criteria, and makes it difficult to seek justice from law enforcement. The only law on the books that serves men who experience rape is the possibility of an aggravated sodomy charge for their attacker. While, there are other avenues to convict attackers, the most severe punishment for aggravated sodomy is life in prison with a chance at parole whereas imprisoned rapists have no opportunity for parole. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), members of the LGBTQ+ community are victims of sexual violence and partner abuse at higher or equal rates to heterosexual couples and individuals. Instances of rape are particularly high among bisexual women, as nearly 50 percent will experience it in their lifetime, compared to 13 percent of lesbian women and 17 percent of heterosexual women.
The current laws in Georgia fail to create fair and equitable pathways to closure for those who experience sexual assault and rape. The absence of a complete, gender-neutral definition of consent leaves an impractical amount of space for interpretation. Furthermore, Georgia’s legal language for rape disregards a large subset of the population, and may discourage people with stories that do not fit the definition from coming forward.
In the post-#MeToo era, Georgia’s lawmakers must revise the state’s laws on sexual assault and rape to ensure that every resident has a chance to utilize the legal system when they need it. Preserving the fairness and integrity of the legal system is a social responsibility that everyone must uphold together. To do this, Georgians should be civically responsible and donate to non-profit legal services and sexual trauma advocacy groups near them. Residents should also reach out in person, on the phone or through email to legislators and Georgia’s Department of Justice to entice lawmakers to update outdated language to meet the needs of everyone who experiences sexual violence. Until the state government steps up to the plate, Georgia residents must apply political pressure for a complete, gender-neutral definition of consent.
Ciara Murphy (21C) is from Belmont, Mass.