There is a strong likelihood that you, as an attorney, have daily interaction with survivors of sexual violence. Sexual violence knows no boundaries, and your clients, your fellow attorneys, your employees, and your judges may be survivors. A 2015 prevalence study by the University of Texas found 40% (2 in 5) of women and 20% (1 in 5) of men are likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. The Office for Victims of Crime culled studies that show 1 in 2 transgender individuals are likely survivors of sexual violence, while some studies indicate rates as high as 66%. It is notable that while sexual violence affects everyone regardless of race, class, or gender, the pathways and accessibility of healing and justice are inconsistent. We also know that some communities are disproportionately affected and traditional systems may not resonate with the complexities of that community.
While there are specific legal definitions of rape and sexual assault in the Texas Penal Code, sexual violence is best understood as a broader continuum of unwanted non-mutual sexual activities that range from subtle to deadly. Though sexual assault can be defined by multiple crimes in the legal codes, the true spectrum of sexual violence and its socioecological impact is far beyond legal parameters. Sexual violence is pervasive and deeply rooted in our society. It is thus critical that prevention be addressed on a spectrum, from policy and deterrent strategies to address immediate danger to eliminating those root causes of violence through primary prevention approaches.
Regardless of your legal practice area, working with survivors presents complex underlying challenges and additional legal issues. Given that sexual assault is an underreported crime, many cases may not appear directly related to sexual violence, but the trauma survivors face has widespread impact on their participation in legal matters. This trauma can manifest in psychological, physical, and behavioral forms and can often interrupt that client’s capacity to engage in daily activities—making resolving legal issues increasingly challenging. Even in the wake of a reported sexual assault, the myriad civil legal needs of the survivor are often overshadowed and forgotten, though civil legal remedies may be some of the most effective ways to help reduce stress and prevent further trauma. The November 2020 Report to the Office of the Texas Governor’s Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force shows that only 45% of survivors’ legal service needs are met.
A holistic screening of a survivor could reveal basic needs for protective orders and safe housing; however, ancillary needs could include immigration assistance, utilizing educational protections through Title IX, accommodations and protections in the workplace, personal injury and other torts, and Crime Victims’ Compensation. Above all, trauma-informed legal practitioners should strive to support a survivor’s pursuit of justice and healing within and outside of the criminal system while mindfully protecting the client’s privacy, safety, and dignity. Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault, or LASSA, Network is a statewide network of nine programs funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation that collaborate to provide holistic civil legal services to the most vulnerable and underserved sexual violence survivors in Texas. The LASSA Network strives not only to serve survivors in their healing and justice journey, but also to educate and support other legal providers to strengthen their legal services for victims.
Since 2001, April has been recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. This year’s theme is “We Can Build Safe Online Spaces.” Sexual assault can happen anywhere, including online. We encourage you to participate in prevention efforts to end sexual violence. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has put together a customizable toolkit to support you in taking action. Please also follow our LASSA Network social media account for legal updates from around the state.
If you are a survivor or know a survivor seeking support, please consider these resources:
- RAINN—operates the free and confidential, 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline and Chatline and the nation’s largest network of sexual assault resources.
- LASSA Network—a statewide network of nine programs that collaborate to provide holistic civil legal services to the most vulnerable and underserved sexual violence survivors in Texas. To speak directly to an attorney, call the LASSA Statewide Hotline, Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., 844-303-7233 (SAFE).
- TAASA—statewide coalition of survivors, advocates, rape crisis centers, and allied professionals. To find sexual assault services near you, use their Crisis Center Locator.
Dukes is with the Texas Legal Services Center.
Jasmine Bhatt is with the Texas Legal Services Center.
Maricarmen Garza is with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Clarissa Ayala is with Lone Star Legal Aid.
Victoria Smith is with Lone Star Legal Aid.