Sexual assault is a ubiquitous problem in the United States and across the globe. Each April, Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month (SAAM) provides us with the opportunity to renew our nation’s commitment to ending sexual violence and reaffirm our support for survivors. As President Biden stated in the Proclamation commemorating Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month, “Freedom from sexual assault is a basic human right.” Noting that “[a]buse can happen anywhere — at work, at home, at school, in other public places, or online,” it is imperative that we expand efforts to prevent and address sexual assault wherever it occurs. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than half of women (54.3%) and nearly one-third (31%) of men in the United States reported some form of sexual violence victimization involving physical contact at some point in their lifetimes, and approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 26 men have experienced rape or attempted rape. Survivors of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, eating and substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.
However, just as sexual violence survivors are more than the violence done to them, SAAM is more than an occasion to focus on crime statistics. It is also a time to honor survivors’ courage and resilience, as well as reflect on the progress we are making to improve prevention efforts, expand support for survivors, and hold offenders accountable. To that end, the Biden-Harris Administration is proud to share some highlights of recent legislation and initiatives across the Federal government:
- In the workplace. The Department of Labor announced a new funding opportunity, titled the Fostering Access, Rights, and Equity (FARE) Grant Program, which will support non-profit organizations’ efforts to address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. The grants will improve job quality by addressing harmful workplace norms and helping employ strategies to prevent and reduce gender-based violence and harassment. In addition, President Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, which includes provisions that gave agencies and institutions the mission and tools to combat sexual and gender-based harassment in the sciences. The President also signed into law the Speak Out Act, which created new prohibitions on the judicial enforceability of a nondisclosure or nondisparagement clause if it was included in a contract prior to a dispute involving sexual assault or sexual harassment.
- In the Federal workforce. Earlier this year, President Biden issued a Presidential Memorandum that calls on Federal agencies to support employees’ access to leave when they need it to care for themselves or a loved one. As part of that Memorandum, President Biden tasked the Office of Personnel Management to provide recommendations regarding “safe leave” to support Federal employees’ access to leave for purposes related to seeking safety and recovering from sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking.
- In the military. The President has signed into law important reforms to the military justice system that were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, in both 2022 and 2023, which adopted core recommendations of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault, as called for by President Biden. These historic, bipartisan reforms fundamentally shift how the military prosecutes and investigates sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other serious crimes, and will increase prevention initiatives and support for survivors. The President also signed an Executive Order to establish sexual harassment as a specific offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and fully implement changes to the military justice code to criminalize the wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate images.
- At school. At the start of the Administration, President Biden issued an Executive Order directing the Department of Education to review Title IX regulations and other agency actions to ensure that all students have an educational environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sex-based harassment and sexual violence, as well as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. He called for advancing Title IX’s goal of providing appropriate support and protections for students who have experienced sex discrimination, and for ensuring that school procedures for investigating and resolving complaints of sex discrimination, including sex-based harassment and sexual violence, are fair to all involved. The Department of Education released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to amend the agency’s Title IX regulations in June 2022, on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, and efforts are currently underway by the agency to finalize the regulations.
- Online. To tackle the scourge of online harassment and abuse, President Biden issued a Presidential Memorandum in June 2022 establishing the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. Last month, the Task Force released a summary of the Initial Blueprint, which includes a broad range of new and expanded commitments from Federal agencies to address technology-facilitated gender-based violence across four main lines of effort: Prevention, Survivor Support, Accountability, and Research. While the President continues to call on Congress to do its part to enact legislation that create a safe online environment, senior officials from Federal departments and agencies are leveraging the Initial Blueprint to undertake key actions across the Administration.
- On Tribal land. In 2022, the United States hosted the Fourth Convening of the Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls, which is an initiative to reaffirm and advance the respective national and regional commitments that the United States, Canada, and Mexico have made to address the ongoing issues of violence against Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people. Additionally, the Administration has been supporting implementation of new provisions in the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2022 that expanded recognition of inherent criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts over non-Native perpetrators suspected of committing crimes of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and child abuse on Tribal lands, including sexual violence, in their own courts.
None of this would be possible without the voices and leadership of the courageous survivors who work to create a world that is free from sexual violence. The Biden-Harris Administration is cognizant of how critical survivors and advocates are to developing solutions that prioritize trauma-informed care and justice, and it is committed to centering the voices and leadership of survivors and advocates in all its efforts to prevent sexual violence. In recognition of SAAM, the Gender Policy Council led and participated in a number of events that provided opportunities to hear from survivors and integrate their recommendations into its ongoing efforts to address and prevent sexual assault:
- The Gender Policy Council and other key Federal Agency representatives participated in a convening in New York on the margins of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to hear recommendations from Indigenous women leaders from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, in developing priorities for discussion at the Fifth Trilateral Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls, which will be hosted by the government of Canada this fall.
- The Gender Policy Council and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs convened a roundtable focused on non-consensually distributed intimate images, during which survivors shared their experiences with a group of bipartisan state legislators from 12 states, legal experts, and practitioners. In the convening, experts also highlighted the federal civil cause of action for individuals whose intimate visual images are disclosed without their consent, and noted that they see an urgent need for a complementary law to establish a federal criminal liability for the distribution of private, explicit images of someone without their consent, citing the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act, which has been reintroduced this Congress with bipartisan support.
- In recognition of both SAAM and Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Gender Policy Council hosted a meeting with a coalition of advocates and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to discuss the importance of prevention and improving access to safety, justice, and healing. Advocates and survivors conveyed that childhood sexual abuse, including child sexual exploitation online, is an urgent public health concern, and shared recommendations for improving prevention and support services domestically and globally. Advocates also noted the importance of the enactment of the Respect for Child Survivors Act earlier this year, which requires the FBI to use multidisciplinary teams and a trauma-informed approach when investigating child sexual abuse cases, child sexual abuse material cases, and child trafficking cases, including in situations where the interviewed victim is no longer a child.
- The Gender Policy Council participated in a Roundtable hosted by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to recognize SAAM and National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Attendees at the Roundtable heard from stakeholders about the impact of programs to prevent and address gender-based violence, as well as opportunities for the Administration to strengthen these initiatives.
- The Gender Policy Council also participated in the annual convening of Alianza Nacional de Campasinas (National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance), an organization by and for farmworker women working to end gender-based violence and promote worker health and safety at the intersection of gender, migrant, labor, and climate justice. Survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking shared their stories and provided policy recommendations to the Gender Policy Council on ways to prevent and address gender-based violence among farmworker women.
Yet even as we celebrate these accomplishments and the progress we have made toward eliminating sexual assault, we recognize that there is much work to be done. Too often, survivors do not have access to support across each of the settings in which they live and work, nor are they granted the time and understanding to heal.
In order to seek justice for survivors and prevent sexual assault, we must ignite cultural change by invoking a whole-of-society response to sexual violence—a charge that President Biden has led throughout his career. During his recognition of SAAM earlier this month, President Biden said “National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month is an important time to speak out, stand with courageous survivors, and finally change the culture that has allowed sexual violence to exist for far too long.”
As part of the Executive Order President Biden signed to create the White House Gender Policy Council, he also called for the development of the first-ever National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence in the United States. The National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence is a critical tool that will allow the Administration to continue shining a light on the scourge of gender-based violence, building a culture where abuse is not tolerated, improving prevention efforts, and ensuring that survivors have access to safety and justice, as well as support for healing and well-being. The Gender Policy Council anticipates releasing the National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence soon and looks forward to continuing to engage with survivors, stakeholders, and government officials to advance the whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort needed to prevent and end sexual assault, sexual violence, and other forms of gender-based violence—both at home and abroad.