An archaic law concerning sexual consent and a woman’s right to withdraw it has come under fire in the US, after a string of women discovered that they had no legal basis to file a rape charge.
Under North Carolina legislation, women cannot revoke their consent after sexual intercourse begins. The southern state is the only region of the US where this rule applies, after a controversial ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1979.
However, politicians and activists are now campaigning to get the law changed.
The law has come under the spotlight after a young woman who believes she was the victim of rape went public with her story. Aaliyah Palmer, a student at North Carolina State University, tried to report the non-consensual encounter to police – only to discover that the alleged perpetrator’s actions were perfectly legal under state legislation.
Palmer says that she attended a house party in January with a man she met on Tinder Social. When he pulled her into the bathroom for sex, Palmer initially consented, but told Fayetteville police that she changed her mind when “the sex turned violent”.
The 19-year-old alleges that the man started pulling out ‘hanks of her hair’. “I said, ‘You’re hurting me. Stop’,” Palmer tells The Fayetteville Observer. She says that she repeatedly asked him to let her go, but he refused.
To make matters worse, the non-consensual encounter was secretly filmed, according to court documents. The video was shared with several other people, including four soldiers who have been charged with possessing illegally made videos. However, the man who Palmer believes raped her has not been charged with any crime.
Survivors of sexual assault often decide that they want to remain anonymous, to avoid further trauma and potential online abuse. Palmer says that she has experienced panic attacks since the incident, and ended up withdrawing from her second semester of university as a result. However, she decided to go public with her story to raise awareness of the archaic and dangerous legislation.
“I’m not a silent victim,” says the student, who describes the law as “really stupid”.
“If I tell you no and you kept going, that’s rape.”
Watch: The definitive guide to sexual consent
Palmer’s case is at least the second in two months to highlight the problem with the law in North Carolina. Another woman, Amy Guy, said that her estranged husband “showed up drunk at her apartment and demanded sex”. She initially consented, but – like Palmer – tried to stop when the encounter became violent.
Guy’s ex was originally charged with second-degree rape, but due to the 1979 ruling this was later changed to a misdemeanour assault charge.
“Amy was the victim of a law in addition to being a victim of rape,” says Kristopher Hilscher, Guy’s lawyer. He adds that the law had “had a chilling effect on prosecutions”.
Jeff Jackson, a Democratic state senator in North Carolina, is working to get the law changed. He says that Palmer and Guy’s cases are just the tip of the iceberg, and that many other women have asked him privately for help in cases where they withdrew their consent but the man could not be charged with rape.
“Legislators are hearing more and more about women who have been raped and are being denied justice because of this crazy loophole,” he said. “North Carolina is the only state in U.S. where no doesn’t mean no.”
Jackson has sponsored a bill which would make it a criminal offence to continue with intercourse when a woman withdraws consent, but says that it is unlikely to get through the majority Republican North Carolina Senate.
“There’s no reason for this to be partisan,” says Jackson. “It’s about doing what’s obviously right.”
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