A slew of recent news involving high-profile allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls and women have been heralded as “a crucial moment for the #MeToo movement.” This includes the criminal conviction of singer R. Kelly, congressional hearings on the FBI’s failure to investigate reports of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of scores of female athletes on the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team, as well as a federal judge’s refusal to allow Prince Andrew, duke of York, to evade civil sex abuse claims arising from his time with sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Unmistakably, these events mark important steps toward accountability for sexual predators as well as the safety of women and girls in the United States, nearly 15 percent of which experience sexual violence during their lifetimes and whose ranks swell every 68 seconds. That the likes of Kelly, Nassar, the duke of York, Epstein and other powerful men (think Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby) finally got some comeuppance is cold comfort for the millions of rape victims that remain unseen, unheard and largely uncared-about. This handful of #MeToo “wins” occurred only after powerful men succeeded in assaulting girls and women unimpeded for years — and there is no good reason to expect that to end.
Kelly’s demise can be traced to 2017, when BuzzFeed ran a story of a 19-year old girl whose parents told police that since in 2016, Kelly had been holding their daughter against her will as part of a “cult.” Yet, according to the parents, because their daughter wasn’t “a missing person ... in the eyes of the law,” nothing happened. Having staved off similar allegations since the 1990s, Kelly reportedly told friends about the BuzzFeed piece, “it’s too late. They should’ve did this shit 30 years ago.”
In 2001 and 2002, Kelly settled a number of civil cases on undisclosed terms, and he was found not guilty in 2002 by a criminal jury on 21 counts of making child sexual abuse videos. Charges of producing child sexual abuse imagery were again dropped in 2002 to 2004. It was not until a 2019 six-part series that aired on Lifetime called “Surviving R. Kelly,” along with public pressure on his record label RCA and several departures of his top-tier employees, that Kelly was indicted on federal charges in Brooklyn and Illinois. The latter case remains pending.
Last week, a federal jury in Brooklyn found Kelly, 54, guilty on multiple counts of criminal racketeering entailing sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, forced labor and violations of the Mann Act — also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 — which criminalizes the transportation of “any woman or girl for purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
His conviction followed a six-week trial that included 45 witnesses, as well as video and audio recordings, photos, phone and travel records, a well as DNA evidence.
Regarding Nassar, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last month on how FBI agents ignored numerous abuse allegations brought against the team physician from as early as July 2015. The agents later made false statements about their own misconduct, culminating in a scathing Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general report issued in July.
DOJ concluded that the FBI’s Indianapolis field office had heard of the abuse following a USA Gymnastics internal investigation, which included graphic details of his sexual assault of three minors. Nassar is now serving a life sentence for crimes involving over 250 girls, to whom he justified his inappropriate touching by claiming he was performing “back therapy.”
The FBI took no investigative action for months, failing even to notify state and local authorities. Nassar was ultimately indicted on federal child pornography charges in December of 2016; between 70 and 120 girls were newly abused in the interim.
For his part, in late September, Prince Andrew was effectively served with a federal civil lawsuit by Virginia Guiffre, who alleges that he forced her to have sex with him when she was underage at the home of Epstein’s associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, and also on Epstein’s private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Maxwell is currently under federal indictment for sex trafficking.)
Guiffre sued in New York under the state’s Child Victims Act, which passed in 2019 to give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a new, two-year window to sue alleged abusers over conduct that would otherwise be considered stale under prior law. It also allows any survivor to sue until the age of 55, while the old law capped the age by which a person must file a claim at 23.
Former New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoEMILY's List announces early endorsement of Hochul Hochul jumps out to early lead in NY governor's primary: poll De Blasio privately says he plans to run for New York governor: report MORE (D) — who in August resigned his office over credible reports of his own alleged sexual mistreatment of women — pinned his support for the bill on “significant abuse in the Catholic church” of (primarily) boys.
Of the approximately 463,634 victims of rape and sexual assault each year, 90 percent are female — and 94 percent of those suffer post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Nearly one-third contemplate suicide. It is estimated that girls and women conceive between 7,750 to 12,500 children each year as a result of rape, and they are up to 10 times more likely to use major drugs than individuals who do not experience sexual assault.
It’s no wonder victims wonder who cares. Olympic medalist Aly Raisman told Congress, “I remember sitting with the FBI agent and him trying to convince me that it wasn’t that bad.”
Simone Biles added, “to be clear, I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.”
The tagline #MeToo doesn’t begin to capture the urgency and trauma of the ongoing culture of sexual violence in America, which overwhelmingly victimizes women and girls. Until lawmakers get to the bottom of what happens in the criminal justice system to allow multiple allegations of rape and even torture by Epstein, Nassar, Kelly and others to go nowhere — for years, the epidemic of sexual violence will continue unabated.
Governments must also dedicate sufficient resources to investigating and prosecuting rape crimes so that perpetrators take the possibility of consequences seriously. And legislatures should follow New York’s lead by updating statutes of limitations and even establishing new causes of action so that victims feel safe coming forward in the first place.
To be sure, given the tsunami of problems facing America, violence against female-identifying Americans is not at the top of many priority lists. But the core humanity of each and every one of the 166.7 million female persons in the United States — more than half the total population — demands that it should be.
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books "How to Read the Constitution — and Why” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @kimwehle