Voices: I’m a lawyer who worked on dozens of ASA cases. This is why I’m speaking out about my own assault
One morning in 2001, I woke up in an unfamiliar place with vomit covering my face and pillow. I was in my underwear, which I noticed to be sideways. The last thing I remembered from the night before was accepting a drink from “Mike” that I hadn’t watched him prepare. A friend chastised me the next day for the indecency of “having sex” in front of other partygoers, something I had no memory of. By the time I went to the hospital, it was too late to know whether I’d been drugged.
I have never shared these details publicly. I still feel ashamed, and I worry that people will think I’m “attention-seeking” or that what happened to me isn’t “bad enough” to “count.” Of course, I have other stories — we all do.
I wish my experiences weren’t so common. But they are.
This past week marked the close of the Adult Survivors Act “lookback window,” a one-year period during which the statute of limitations for sex crimes committed against adults was temporarily suspended in New York. As the owner of a feminist litigation firm, I co-founded the Survivors Law Project with renowned victims’ rights attorney Carrie Goldberg to help as many survivors as we could during the window. Both of us were driven in part by our own personal experiences with sex abuse.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, with our boots on the ground, have probably the best-informed perspectives on the Adult Survivors Act (ASA) and its impact. We see firsthand what motivates survivors to come forward and what barriers they experience.
Here is what everyone should know:
First and foremost, one year is not enough time. Before the Adult Survivors Act, the Child Victims Act created a similar window for child sex abuse victims. Roughly 11,000 cases were filed during the Child Victims Act window, which lasted two years. We still receive inquiries from child victims who didn’t find out about this opportunity until it was too late. I guarantee we will receive similar calls from adult survivors now that this window has also closed.
The wave of high-profile cases filed this past week, against New York City Mayor Eric Adams, P Diddy, Axl Rose, Jamie Foxx and others, reflects the last minute influx of calls that plaintiffs’ attorneys received. Many people are just learning about the Adult Survivors Act now; while there are outstanding activists and journalists who work hard to educate the public about these issues, by and large, the crowded news cycle is driven by high-profile cases.
Moreover, unlike a breach of contract or a slip-and-fall, sexual trauma takes time to process, and is difficult to talk about. We’re working with State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who spearheaded the passage of both these laws, to try to get the ASA window reopened.
Secondly, shame remains a powerful barrier to pursuing legal action. Some who call us are sharing their experiences for the very first time. Others have gone through the trauma of reporting their sexual assault to the police. While no experience is universal, it is safe to say that the stereotype of a “gold-digger” who is seeking “fame” — a stereotype that defense attorneys exploit — is laughably false.
Most plaintiffs are scared: they rightfully understand that they are subjecting themselves to scrutiny and blame. And in the most sacrosanct, confidential conversations with us, the majority of our clients share that they have altruistic motives — to prevent their abuser from harming others. But, it’s psychologically easier to blame ourselves for the abuse we suffered than to accept there are predators among us. I spent years thinking that without definitive proof I was drugged, I wasn’t “allowed” to blame anyone but myself.
Despite all of #MeToo’s progress, society is still woefully uninformed about how individuals respond to trauma. It’s extremely common for survivors to downplay what happened to them, black out certain details from their memories, or even enter into consensual relationships with the offender afterward. These are all ways our brains try to maintain the illusion of control. Nevertheless, they are all widely used by defense lawyers to undermine a survivor’s credibility. Callers to us are often apologetic, saying, “I don’t have any evidence.” In fact, testimony is the main form of evidence at trial, and the most powerful one.
A look behind the scenes reminds us that marginalized populations disproportionately suffer sexual violence. For every high-profile case against a celebrity, there are countless cases of abuse against prisoners and other disenfranchised populations that most people will never hear about. Studies have shown that, on average, white plaintiffs secure larger recoveries in civil cases, and that crimes against white people tend to be punished more harshly than others. It is easy to lose sight of this big picture.
Finally, the urgency of these civil windows highlights how much the criminal justice system fails survivors of sexual violence. “Why didn’t she report it to the police?” is a common question. Nobody would ever ask that if they knew what survivors typically experience when they do report. The civil justice system is a powerful tool. Civil rights lawyers are working behind the scenes to do the heavy lifting every day, but we should not be the only ones bringing abusers to justice.
In spite of all these barriers, thousands of survivors have used the ASA to obtain justice and closure for themselves that was previously impossible.
However, statutes of limitations are the main barrier to justice for most survivors, and these lookback windows are the difference between the ability to pursue justice and letting abusers get away with it. While we all work to change the culture of shame and stigma, legislators everywhere have one simple and easy way to support survivors. It is our hope that New York reopens the Adult Survivors Act window and that other states and countries follow suit.