An Overdue Path to Justice for Adult Sexual Assault Survivors
Even when a victim does everything right—like Ambra did with Harvey Weinstein and Marissa did with Dr. Robert Hadden—the system can still fail. A new look-back window would help.
Between the #MeToo movement, the scourge of sexual assaults on college campuses, Chanel Miller’s viral essay, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and countless reported stories about the privileged abusing power, the American public has gone through a crash course on sexual violence and the factors that influence a victim’s decision to report. We’ve seen how the justice system can be cruel—valuing the career or future potential of one man rather than making him pay for the damage his actions have caused—or how individuals or institutions with the power to do something would rather turn a blind eye.
While there have been some triumphs in state legislatures and the courts, there are still serious gaps in protections for and routes to justice for adult survivors in New York State. That’s why we’re fighting for the Adult Survivors Act.
In our own two cases, we’ve seen how even when you do everything “right” as a victim—even when you work with the police and wear a wire to tape your abuser admitting to sexually assaulting you, as Ambra did with Harvey Weinstein—the system can still fail victims pursuing justice. Our cases are remarkably different but share one major commonality: Outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance had the power to do something and instead protected the wealthy, powerful, serial sexual predators who preyed on us.
The OB-GYN who sexually assaulted Marissa and at least 170 other women received a plea deal from the Manhattan district attorney’s office that allowed him to register as a Level 1 sex offender—a purposeful downgrade from the state’s own higher recommendation. He lost his medical license—essentially an early retirement for a man who had been abusing women as a medical professional for at least 20 years—and spent no time in jail or on probation. Only after years of pressure from survivors as well as a federal indictment, do we feel closer to knowing the full scope of his abuses.
After Ambra worked with the NYPD—whose initial reaction to her report of Weinstein’s assault was, “Oh no, not again”—Marsha Bashford, then-head of the sex crimes unit for Vance, grilled her. Bashford brought up unrelated questions about Ambra’s past, such as if she had ever been a prostitute. Ambra had not participated in sex work, but even if she had, it would not have changed the fact she was attacked—a person’s sexual activity has nothing to do with their right to protection under the law. Nevertheless, Vance failed to prosecute Weinstein, only doing so five years later after mounting pressure from Ambra and others. Last spring, Weinstein was finally sentenced to 23 years in prison.
That’s some modicum of justice but it doesn’t change the fact that Vance’s failure to initially do his job ran out the clock for many survivors to seek justice, because of New York’s current statute of limitations.
The Adult Survivors Act would help address that problem, by allowing survivors one year to sue their abuser—or the institution that covered up the abuse—in civil court, no matter how long ago the abuse happened.
In 2019, the Child Victims’ Act opened the door for victims who were under the age of 18 when they were abused, to come forward and seek justice in civil court. Ambra was not much older than 18 when Weinstein assaulted her—she was 22 years old. It’s an arbitrary distinction, but it also speaks volumes to how much more tolerance we have for sexual violence against women.
While we did everything “right” by going to the authorities, we know that most cases of sexual violence aren’t reported to law enforcement—and for good reason. For some survivors, reporting might not even be an option. How can it be, when you’re so traumatized you might not even be able to recognize for yourself what happened? Our brains work hard to protect us, and for some, it can take time to fully process—or just put words to—what happened. And for others still, there’s already a deep distrust of the system, where 99.5 percent of predators walk free, so they choose not to report and then feel as though they’re left without options down the road.
That’s why we need a lookback window—because our system doesn’t work for survivors, isn’t great at catching perpetrators and does nothing to address the root causes of sexual violence. We all deserve a chance at justice, and abusers, and the institutions that protected them, must pay.
The general public has come a long way to understanding sexual violence in the last 10 years, but our laws aren’t up to speed. There is much work to do to give victims a route to pursue justice and make sure abusers are held to account. The system failed us in seeking criminal justice—we know we are not alone in this experience. The Adult Survivors Act, if passed, would give thousands of survivors their voice back.