Sexual violence victims coerced into crime need help, not punishment

The 2017 legislative session was arguably one of the most successful ever for advocates hoping to end sexual violence in our community. Legislation was passed mandating the submission and testing of sexual assault kits,tougher penalties for strangulation were enacted, and campus-based advocates will now be confidential resources for victims because of legislation that passed.

Of all the bills that passed and enacted one, of the most important — albeit unsung — pieces of legislation, House Bill 274, will make a remarkable difference in the lives of victims of sexual violence, sexual exploitation, and other crimes. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero of Salt Lake City and Sen. Wayne Harper allows for prosecutors and law enforcement to utilize a process known as vacatur to support victims of sexual violence who were forced, coerced, or defrauded into certain nonviolent crimes.

The case of Lynnsie Reddish and Terrance Chavez Jones highlights the critical need for this legislation, reinforcing many important community values and norms. One fact is simple — if coercion, force, or fraud are used to push a person to engage in a particular behavior or to act in a particular way — then that action by its very nature cannot be considered consensual. Sexual violence at its root is a crime of power and control.

Sexual violence manifests itself in a variety of ways throughout our community, but in this particular case it went reportedly far beyond a single act of exploitation. According to the Standard-Examiner, “One victim told authorities she worked as an ‘escort’ for Reddish for a year and a half. She said Reddish posted ads online and the money she earned from intercourse with clients went to Reddish in exchange for heroin. She described an incident on Jan. 18, 2017, in which both Reddish and Jones allegedly punched her, cut off her hair, beat her with a belt and caused a cut on her head that required eight staples, according to the court documents.”

Perpetrators use a person’s fear, hesitation or vulnerabilities to their advantage and seek to isolate, minimize, deny, and control the feelings or needs of the person they are targeting. In this particular case, the Standard reported, “Four victims told a special agent with the attorney general’s office how the couple used violence, fear and drug addiction to coerce them into performing sexual acts with clients.”

Under the provisions of House Bill 274, a person who has lost their autonomy or free will, or who has been the victim of force, coercion or fraud, can be given justice through vacatur. To vacate a charge means, at its core, that no crime has occurred. It is different than an expungement because it is a firm recognition by our community that a person is not a criminal if they commit a crime while being victimized through human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or any other means of control.

Prosecutors say the four women in this case were victimized, humiliated and defrauded. Fear and violence were reportedly used to extract a very particular behavior from them and in the end the perpetrators got what they wanted — a financial payout. This case is a particularly important one for understanding and responding to sexual violence.

As professional advocates for victims of sexual violence, we often work with victims and survivors who have made decisions others may not approve of; they may have engaged in activities that others find offensive or downright wrong. At the end of the day, though, we have a responsibility to stamp out sexual violence in all of its forms, whether it occurs in a dorm room at a college or to a person who works as a commercial sex worker or escort.

Our community is fundamentally better than to engage in victim-blaming. No person who has ever experienced sexual violence deserves it. Sexual violence is not a punishment or a repercussion for any behavior or action. If a loved one chose to ride a bike to work instead of riding the bus, we wouldn’t then say they deserved to be killed by a drunk driver for being on a bike instead of a bus.

The same logic should apply to all victims of crime, and that is why House Bill 274 is such a critical piece of our tool kit against sexual violence.

Turner C. Bitton is the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and lives in Ogden with his husband and two dogs. The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault works to improve the systemic response to victims of sexual violence and to prevent it altogether. Learn more at UCASA.org.


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