Sexual assaults, victim-blaming continues in Peace Corps

By — July 31, 2013

On November 21, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act. The act aims to reform Peace Corps’ policies and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assault. Its passage was intended to end the epidemic of sexual assault against Peace Corps volunteers and endemic culture of victim-blaming in the agency. But the success of the Kate Puzey Act is threatened by the Peace Corps’ use of outdated, victim-blaming definitions of sexual assault.

Celebrating after the signing ceremony, I remember feeling both elated and relieved.

Elated because seven months after testifying at Congressional hearings, I had helped pass a law that seemed a fitting memorial for Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered after exposing a Peace Corps contractor who sexually abused girls in her school. Kate died protecting young girls from a sexual predator. Her law would make Peace Corps volunteers safer and would make sure sexual assault victims finally get the care they deserve.

I was relieved because going public about my own rape had taken its toll. Seven months of back and forth between D.C. and Boston while juggling a tenure-track position at Harvard and a young family was beyond grueling. I was looking forward to going back to my quiet academic life and spending more time with my son. My work was done. Or so I thought.

Now, 18 months later, I feel like I am back to square one, arguing with the Peace Corps over their outdated definitions of sexual assault. I thought victim-blaming definitions like “forcible rape” and “legitimate rape” were limited to the misstatements of conservative lawmakers. Instead, I’ve learned they are reflected in the policies of the Peace Corps, one of America’s most revered institutions.

A report card by First Response Action, an initiative led by returned Peace Corps volunteers, assessing the Peace Corps’ progress in implementing the Kate Puzey Act, which aims to reform policies and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assault.

Einstein said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

Defining a problem is the first step toward solving it. One in eight Peace Corps volunteers, more than 800 men and women, reported being sexually assaulted in 2012 alone, according to the Peace Corps’ own survey of returned volunteers. Clearly, the Peace Corps has a sexual assault problem. Their current approach is not working and that may be, at least in part, due to outdated institutional definitions of sexual assault. Definitions determine prevention targets and are used to evaluate program effectiveness and identify service needs. The Peace Corps needs an effective sexual assault prevention and response program. The bedrock of this program will be the agency’s own definition of what this violence actually is.

The Peace Corps historically used a three-tiered definition of sexual assault—including rape, major sexual assault, and other sexual assault. In response to pressure from victims’ advocates, the agency has recently proposed replacing “major” with “aggravated” and dropping “other”; the groups viewed these terms as placing value judgments on women’s experiences. But the change in terminology is not a change in substance since the new definitions do not address the fundamental issue: Sexual assault is sexual assault no matter how you qualify it. Like “major,” “aggravated” sexual assault requires, according to the Peace Corps, the use or threat to use a weapon, force, or other intimidating action by the perpetrator.

This proposal of definitions is in stark contrast to those used by other federal agencies. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revised the FBI definitions of rape and assault to remove the requirement of “force” in January 2012. The Department of Defense uses one standard definition to capture all instances of sexualized violence without requiring force as an element.

The Peace Corps’ narrow focus on the use of force ignores the fact that perpetrators use any means necessary to subdue their victims, including psychological coercion. As the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women has explained: “In fact many victims do not physically resist during a sexual assault . . .[some] even fear that resistance will anger their assailant and increase their risk of injury or death.” The absence of force or even threat of force does not somehow make a sexual assault “less” as the tiered definition implies.

The Peace Corps’ tiered definitions have resulted in a tiered response. Volunteers whose assaults have been classified in the lesser tier, have not been, according to the Peace Corps’ inspector general’s report on the implementation of the Kate Puzey Act, “consistently receiving medical consultations or the follow-up care or support that some of them needed.” The lack of follow-up has led, according to the inspector general, in some instances, to escalating harassment by perpetrators.

I have found myself often wondering about my own sexual assault during my conversations with the Peace Corps and their Volunteer Sexual Assault Advisory Council on this issue. My assailant did not have a weapon. He held me down with his body—does that count as force? I was not seriously physically injured. I tried to push him off, but was unsuccessful. Then I froze physically while my mind raced, trying to figure out the best way to get him to leave. Was my experience "major"? "Aggravated"? Or just “other”? These are questions no victim should have to ask.

The Peace Corps should drop the tiered definitions of sexual assault. Sexual assault is sexual assault. The Peace Corps’ definitions should be consistent with those used by the Department of Defense—one standard definition for all sexual assaults with no “use of force” requirement. Only then will we move closer to making the Kate Puzey Act the living memorial it was meant to be.