Bill Cosby stands accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women. Woody Allen, now married to his adopted step-daughter, faces accusations of molestation from his biological daughter. (Both men have denied the charges.) The Hollywood Reporter recently published an interview with actor Corey Feldman in which Feldman says that he and now-deceased actor Corey Haim were routinely raped (Haim), molested (Feldman) and abused (both, among other children) by Hollywood predators. In his interview with THR, Feldman said that despite knowing “every single person” who targeted Haim—a man who died at 38 after decades of drug abuse—he couldn’t name them.
“I'm not able to name names,” Feldman said. “People are frustrated, people are angry, they want to know how is this happening and they want answers and they turn to me and they say, 'Why don't you be a man and stand up and name names and stop hiding and being a coward?' I have to deal with that, which is not pleasant, especially given the fact that I would love to name names. I'd love to be the first to do it. But unfortunately California conveniently enough has a statute of limitations that prevents that from happening. Because if I were to go and mention anybody's name I would be the one that would be in legal problems and I'm the one that would be sued.”
I have written that, in light of the Cosby accusations, there should be no statute of limitations for rape. With ever public allegation—every child who was assaulted and never said anything until adulthood, every woman who assumed no one would believe her until she heard so many other women accuse the same man—the case for removing statutes of limitation for rape gets stronger.
It is a shame that celebrity scandals finally get the American public really talking about sexual violence. One in five women, and one in 71 men, will be raped in their lifetime. Many more will experience attempted rape, or other forms of sexual violence. Thousands of rape kits sit untested in crime labs as the cases associated with them go stale and rapists remain free to assault again. The overwhelming majority of assailants never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a day in jail.
Many victims also never report the crime, or wait days, months, years or even decades to speak about it. Despite its ubiquity, sexual violence remains a deep source of shame for many who survive it. The act itself is one of unique cruelty—turning the sexual parts of the body, which is for many people are sources of great pleasure and joy, into a locus of pain and humiliation – only compounded by a society that seems to willfully misunderstand and misrepresent rape and sexual violence. In the same breath as we say that a woman is never at fault for being raped, we still ask what she could have done to avoid it, as if the problem were her behavior and not a rapist who would likely have assaulted some other woman had the one he found not been there. We talk about acquaintance rape as if it’s often some sort of misunderstanding, two drunk people just not communicating their needs instead of one person deciding sex is a thing he simply takes and not a mutually pleasurable shared experience. We look at handsome male celebrities accused of rape—Kobe Bryant, for example—and ask why he would ever rape anyone when he could get sex from any number of willing women, as if rape were about uncontrollable and unfulfilled male desire instead of sadism and a desire to make someone else hurt. (Bryant settled a civil suit with his accuser, to whom he had to apologize, without admitting guilt.)
Americans have a disordered relationship with sexual violence, and the victims of it make us especially uncomfortable. Can you blame them for not speaking up?
The least we could do is not put arbitrary roadblocks in the way of those same victims getting justice.
Opponents of doing away with statutes of limitations for sexual assault cases, including the Catholic Church in the aftermath of its own sex abuse scandal, cite legitimate concerns. “Statutes of limitations exist to ensure a just verdict can be reached,” Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told Business Insider. “Over time witnesses' memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.”
Those concerns, though, don’t require a limit on how long after a crime is committed prosecutors can bring a case. If a perpetrator or a witness is dead, they’re dead —which may impact a prosecutor’s decision to try a case, and may mean it never gets brought, but there’s no need to impose an artificial constraint. Ditto concerns about lost evidence and fading memories—it’s not clear why capping a case at 12 or 20 years would solve those problems.
The longer a case sits, the weaker it gets. For that reason, it’s unlikely that doing away with statutes of limitations will result in a wave of decades-old prosecutions. Most old cases are simply too weak to win.
But some aren’t. And those victims deserve justice—not an arbitrary legal limitation. Statutes of limitations differ by state, so a rape victim in California has a different window in which to report her assault than one in Pennsylvania or New York or Mississippi. There are already sixteen states that don’t have statutes of limitations on rape or sexual assault; no great chaos has broken out, and the justice system has not broken down.
Criminal defendants have a right to fair trials, and certainly judges should take into account the fallibility of human memory. Even eyewitness accounts soon after an event are notoriously unreliable. And perhaps if sex crimes were treated socially, legally and culturally just like any other violent crime, it would make sense to more or less tell victims, “you have a narrow window of time in which to report this, and after that, it’s too late.”
But we don’t treat sex crimes like we treat other crimes. Even legally they’re often treated differently—until fairly recently, testimony about a woman’s sexual history or what she was wearing at the time of the assault was all admissible in court. Men who rape three-year-olds still get probation instead of prison time. We claim to despise rapists and child molesters, but there’s Roman Polanski, a convicted child rapist, still lauded and awarded by Hollywood. There’s Woody Allen, accused of molesting his daughter, on the red carpet to promote his new film while famous power-players circle the wagons.
Sexual assault survivors, even those victimized by men more average than famous, face an uphill legal battle. The vast majority of them will never see their assailant tried for his crime. Doing away with statutes of limitations doesn’t solve the entrenched and vast problems facing sexual assault survivors, but it does open a tiny window for a few of them—and would allow survivors like Corey Feldman to shine a light on those who harmed him. Why stand in the way?