New York

Rape: Now a Matter of Civil Rights


On June 14, 2003, Karla Kash, then an Upper West Side resident, walked the 10 blocks to her apartment alone after her late-night bartending shift had ended. She was just entering her building’s front door when she was jumped from behind, shoved down a corridor, and raped.

“I always lived a pretty fearless life,” says Kash, now a 32-year-old drama professor. She had moved to the Big Apple a year earlier, all on her own, all to chase an actor’s dream. But her attacker stripped her sense of safety.

She began taking precautions she’d never felt necessary before. She stopped walking alone and riding the subway at night. And because her rapist had visited a nearby housing project before the attack, she avoided the projects everywhere.

“I was jumpy,” she says. “I felt like I was drowning all the time.”

Kash never thought of her rape as a matter of civil rights. But advocates who work to combat sexual violence say it is. Rape, the theory goes, differs from other violent crimes because, for the most part, it’s committed by men against women, for the purpose of dominating. As Kash’s experience shows, the act—even the threat of it—colors a woman’s ability to function freely and safely in the world. Women tend to change their behavior for fear of becoming a target. They may sleep with closed windows, or avoid empty parking lots.

Which explains why advocates have been pushing for a civil rights remedy for victims of sexual violence. In New York City, a local ordinance gives victims the right to sue in civil court on a gender- based claim. Only two states—Illinois and California—have similar laws. But the measures are not well-known, nor well used. To date, only one New York survivor has sued her perpetrator under the ordinance since it was passed in 2000.

Diane Moyer, of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, who helped draft a similar bill now pending in that state, explains that the laws have bumped up against predictable barriers. Men don’t like to think of themselves as predators, nor do women want to see themselves as victims. And nobody likes to equate every rape to a hate crime.

But, Moyer says, “Rape has everything to do with our fundamental rights as citizens.”

That idea found support on Capitol Hill in 1994, when lawmakers passed the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. Back then, the act included a section permitting women to sue in federal court—a classic civil rights remedy—for gender-based discrimination and violence.

“This act had enormous promise to further equal protection for women,” says Harvard law lecturer Diane Rosenfeld, who shepherded VAWA for the Clinton administration.

But the promise didn’t last. The statute’s first test came in 1994, with the case of Christy Brzonkala. A freshman at Virginia Tech, she met two football players who she says lured her to a dorm room and gang-raped her. Brzonkala claimed evidence of gender-based animus, saying that one of them bragged, “I like to get girls drunk and fuck the shit out of them.”

In May 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court declared VAWA unconstitutional on the basis of states’ rights, a rare instance of the court striking down a piece of civil rights legislation.

Since then, advocates have pushed for local versions to little avail. Here, two dozen or so city officials ushered through the local ordinance that same year. “We realized if New York City didn’t fill the gap, what jurisdiction would?” explains Mark Green, the former Public Advocate. “Some day, a creative lawyer and a fighting victim will use it to their benefit. That was the intent.”

Right after her attack, Kash says, her priority was recovery. Only now, two years later, does she feel ready to consider the elements of gender bias in her case. Her perpetrator assaulted another woman that same night, and police linked the two rapes with DNA collected at the scenes. In criminal court, the perpetrator, now serving a 25-year prison sentence, admitted feeling inferior to women. “This was his way of feeling superior,” Kash says.

Now, she wouldn’t mind holding him accountable to her, not just to the state. She still has to grapple with a lost sense of security. Last September, she moved from the bustle of New York to the tranquility of Ames, Iowa, where she teaches drama. The city, she says, “is incredibly safe,” the kind of place where residents keep their front doors unlocked at night.

Not Kash. She locks her apartment’s sliding glass door with a rod. “I’m the only one who puts a little pole in my door,” she tells the Voice. “I guess the ramifications are much more a part of my life than I’ve wanted to admit.”

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