Legislative History

Going back to early America, the colonies defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a woman 10 years or older, forcibly and against her will”. By the late 1800s, the age was raised from 10, to anywhere between 14 and 18, depending on the state. (Roger, 2016) Black women suffered even more, as most states excluded both free and enslaved black women from rape laws that protected other women. Not only did the laws exclude them, but slave women very commonly endured sexual assault, and if they didn’t simply allow it to happen, they would be beaten very badly. In 1861, black women were finally able to report a rape incident against a white man. (Feimster, 2016)

In the 1960s, about 100 years later, came the “second wave” of the feminist movement. This is when a significant progress in the country’s laws and views on rape started to be seen. In 1972, the Seattle Rape Relief was formed, which was one of the nation’s first Rape Crisis Centers. Centers were also opened in Washington, DC and San Francisco. Before the 1970s, marital rape was not even included in many rape laws, so basically, it wasn’t illegal for a husband to rape his wife and vice versa. This lasted until 1976, when Nebraska became the first state to make marital rape a crime. More states started to follow along, and by 1993, marital rape was a crime in all 50 states. 

Prior to 1975, when Defendants were allowed to essentially attack the victim, their credibility, and their sexual activity. This is a notable point in which victims were silenced, as none of them wanted to have to face the public humiliation and shame of having their sexual history revealed to the courtroom. However, in 1975 the “Rape Shield Laws” were adopted by Congress, which limits the Defendant’s right to dig into the victim’s sexual history and reputation to use against them. (History of the Movement, n.d.)

In 2000, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established to help victims and be a resource for those who need it. Since 2001, April has been “Sexual Assault Awareness Month” in the United States, and officially since 2009 since Barack Obama because the first U.S. President to declare it as such. (Tatum, 2018) The #MeToo movement was founded in 2006, but really kicked off in 2017. This is the point when many women, including famous celebrities, started to share their stories at an increasing rate, and feel free to open up on how they were sexually assaulted. At this point, we saw a plethora of investigations being conducted, which even led to perpetrators losing their career, spouses, etc. (History of the Movement, n.d.) This movement drastically increased the visibility of sexual abuse survivors. 

Luckily, laws regarding sexual assault and abuse continue to move in the right direction, and many states have laws in place to protect men and women from living as victims. While the country still has some work to do, it is still very comforting to look back on the history of laws and policies regarding sexual abuse and reflect on how far we have come. 


Feimster, C. (2018, February 02). How Formerly Enslaved Black Women Fought for Sexual Justice. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/02/how-formerly-enslaved-black-women-fought-for-human-dignity-and-sexual-justice.html

History of the Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.wcsap.org/advocacy/program-management/new-directors/history/history-movement

Roger, S. (2016). Rape Law “Early History of Rape”. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rape-law-early-history-bj-cling-2004-stephanie-d-hursey/

Tatum, S. (2018, March 30). Trump declares April National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/30/politics/donald-trump-national-sexual-assault-awareness-month/index.html

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