Closing the Gaps in State Sexual Assault Laws

The bill reverses a decades-old court decision that found that a defendant could not be found guilty of rape if a woman consented beforehand, even if she later changed her mind.

The bill reverses a decades-old court decision that found that a defendant could not be found guilty of rape if a woman consented beforehand, even if she later changed her mind. Shutterstock

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North Carolina has been the only state where women can't revoke consent. Newly passed legislation could change that.

Women in North Carolina would be able to withdraw consent after a sex act has started following the passage of sweeping reforms to sexual assault laws that closed a 40-year-old loophole in the state’s legal definition of rape.

Senate Bill 199, passed unanimously last week by both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly, nullifies a 1979 decision by the state Supreme Court that determined that a defendant could not be found guilty of rape if a woman initially consented, even if she later changed her mind.

The legislation undoes that decision by changing the definition of rape to include sexual acts performed “after consent is revoked by the other person." If Gov. Roy Cooper signs the bill, every state in the country will allow people to withdraw consent. 

State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, had introduced a version of the measure four times previously but never saw it advance to a vote. Its passage now—as a provision added to the broader sexual assault legislation—is a testament to victims who never sought justice from the state under the previous laws, he said.

“In the process of fighting for this for many years, I spoke to countless women who had been through this experience,” Jackson said on Twitter. “I just want to say to them: Your stories made this happen. We heard you and we took action. It took way too long, but we got there.”

The bill also would undo a 2008 court decision that found that the state’s sexual assault laws did not apply to people who were incapacitated because of their own actions, including drinking or taking drugs.

It also calls for expanding protections for children who experience sexual abuse by requiring people over the age of 18 to report such abuse if they’re aware of it. The bill would also require school staff to undergo training to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse and sex trafficking, and expands the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse against children, giving grown victims more time to prosecute their attackers 

Those changes will help parents and the state keep children “safe from abuse and violence,” said N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein.

“It will make sure abuse is reported and prosecuted—allowing more victims to see justice and putting abusers behind bars,” he said in a statement. “It will better protect kids online from sexual predators. And it will allow adults who were violated as children to sue their abusers in court for the damages they suffered.”

The bill was forwarded to Cooper on Thursday. He is “carefully reviewing” the bill, and is generally supportive of measures that “protect victims, particularly those too young to advocate for themselves,” according to a statement released by his office.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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