Violence Against Women

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Silenced No More

VA NOW President Lisa Sales stands for survivors at the SAAM press conference.

On Wednesday, April 24th, survivors and activists gathered outside the Alexandria Federal Courthouse for a press conference organized by Lisa Sales, President of Virginia NOW, to raise awareness about the continued prevalence of sexual violence during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Speakers included Vice Mayor of Alexandria Amy Jackson, 56th Speaker of the VA House Eileen Filler-Corn, VA Delegate Mark Sickles, NOW President Christian Nunes, Policy Director of the VA Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Jonathan Yglesias, author of “Harasshole” Lisa Bowman, attorney Da Hae Kim from the National Women’s Law Center, Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, Kendra Sutton-El from Birth In Color, Bobbee Cardillo from Zonta USA, Joanie Hunn from the National Council of Jewish Women, Myra Smith-Jones, Representative for NAACP – Virginia, Susanna Gibson, founder of MyOwn, and Galina Varchena from Birth In Color.

During her remarks, Ellie Smeal emphasized the urgent need for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), especially to combat gender-based violence. With 1 in 3 women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, the ERA would provide a crucial guarantee of sex equality in the Constitution and enable Congress to take decisive action. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Violence Against Women Act cannot grant victims of gender-based violence the right to sue their attackers in federal court. The Supreme Court held that Congress did not have the authority to enforce this provision and, therefore, it was unconstitutional. However, the ERA would provide survivors this civil right to pursue justice in federal court. The legal system’s reliance solely on law enforcement to address sexual violence is evidently not enough.

To show the reality of these structural inadequacies, many speakers shared poignant accounts of sexual assault and harassment, including Lisa Bowman and Lisa Sales, both of whom bravely came forward with their stories despite facing severe backlash and a challenging legal system.

Bowman recounted her experience at United Way, where she faced sexual harassment from a male colleague and was subsequently terminated for speaking out, despite following company policy and properly reporting the incidents to HR. Bowman was pushed out of United Way, while her harasser received a promotion. Bowman announced at the press conference that she is suing United Way for $12 million in damages. She has also published a book titled “Harasshole,” detailing her ordeal and the retaliation that followed.

Sales shared a similar story of retaliation after her traumatic experience. She was assaulted in 2011 by her tenant Dmitry Mikhaylov, enduring severe injuries and multiple surgeries, while Mikhaylov served only a month in prison. In 2021, Sales spoke out about her assault and was subsequently fired by her employer. Sales has been fighting for justice for over ten years.

Despite an estimated 1 in 6 women being assaulted in the U.S. annually, only 5% of cases are reported, making rape the most underreported crime. Factors such as victim blaming, fear of retaliation, and the traumatic reporting process contribute to survivors choosing not to come forward.

“Cases of sexual assault and harassment are not isolated, but are emblematic of normalized rape culture and permissive silencing of women,” Sales said. “It isn’t any wonder why victims choose not to report, to stay silent, but we are here today to say: We will not be silent.”

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