Without time, sex assault trauma does not fade

Time heals all wounds, or at least that’s how the saying goes. But it’s not time that heals, instead it is how you use that time to recognize, inspect and treat your wounds. 

To address the unhealed wounds caused by sex assault, New York enacted the Adult Survivors Act (“ASA” or “the Act”) on Nov. 24, 2022. The ASA offered a one-year lookback window for sexual assault survivors to pursue civil claims in court for abuse that may have occurred years earlier if they were over 18 at the time of the incident.

This window is officially closing on Nov. 23, in two days. The ASA has been hailed as a gamechanger for people previously unable to file claims for sexual abuse due to a short statute of limitations, and it no doubt has offered the invaluable gift of time. 

But now that time is coming to an end, and where does that leave sex assault survivors moving forward?

The purpose was to give victims what they were previously denied: time. For sex assault victims and survivors, time is a double-edged sword. A survivor needs time to digest the impact of a sex crime and to come to terms with a new reality that may include how they perceive themselves, others, and the world around them. In New York, adult sex abuse victims have up to five years to press criminal charges or pursue a civil lawsuit under legislatively designated statutes of limitations. 

So basically, once you become the victim of a sex crime, the legal stopwatch begins ticking. Justice has a time limit and survivors who want it must condense their physical, emotional, and psychological trauma into the firmly designated time period. The ASA’s objective was to restart that stopwatch, yet this second chance for justice has significant limitations. 

One is that justice can only yield a remedy in a civil court. There is no prison time or loss of liberty for the perpetrators. Any damages are either received in dollar amounts, or if you’re lucky, public condemnation. 

Another is that the pursuit of justice in and of itself is a long, arduous road that may not fully vindicate the victim’s claims. In the ASA civil suit of E. Jean Carroll against Donald J. Trump, jurors rejected Carroll’s claim that she was raped, finding Trump only responsible for a lesser degree of sexual abuse. Proving a case in court and holding those accountable can be a challenging feat in sex assault cases, whether in civil or criminal courts. 

A perfect example is the case against gynecologist Robert Hadden, who sexually abused countless women over decades. Holding Columbia University liable was a near impossible achievement that took years and the combined efforts of the Manhattan DA’s office and private attorneys to finally force it and affiliated hospitals to admit their part and agree to a $165 million settlement with 147 patients. 

As of two weeks ago, more than 2,400 lawsuits have been filed under the ASA — more than half involve cases against jails and their counterparts for perpetuating a culture of sexual violence against those incarcerated. As remarkable as the number of cases is, it pales in comparison to nearly 11,000 lawsuits filed during the Child Victims Act window that closed in August 2021

The slim reality of winning a case under the lookback window must be measured against the trauma of the process itself. A victim runs the risk of ripping apart old wounds only to be told that their recounting of events isn’t strong enough, that their memories aren’t reliable, and that their trauma isn’t sufficiently quantifiable to amount to a worthwhile monetary sum.

The ASA merely reiterated that the trauma of sexual assault may not be healed or alleviated with time, and justice is not a one-size-fits-all definition. What is seen as justice for some survivors may be viewed as further victimization by others. 

A few points are clear at the close of the lookback window: First, we cannot rely on the legal system, as it stands currently, to hold accusers responsible and thus we need to institute other methods to empower victims outside of a courtroom.

Second, recognizing the impact of trauma in our justice system requires more than just time. It requires empathy, education, and trauma-informed training for all involved with these types of cases.

And third, in order to create an environment that makes survivors feel safe, society as a whole must combat a culture that routinely normalizes, accepts, excuses, and plays down sexual violence. 

Without additional protective measures, the aftermath of the ASA will fail to achieve the legislation’s intended goals. 

Cucolo is a professor at New York Law School. 


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