For Caroline Forno, there has been at least one good thing to come out of the furor over last week’s comments by a V.I. senator casting doubt on the idea of spousal rape. People are talking about it.
"I think we as a community are realizing and standing up for the idea that no means no," Forno said Tuesday.
Forno is assistant director of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix and was in the Senate chamber Sept. 10 when Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen said, when discussing a bill that would remove the "spousal exception" from the territory’s legal definition of rape, that she didn’t understand how a spouse could be accused of raping his or her marital partner.
"If a woman says no and he still wants something, I don’t know how you can call it rape," Hansen said.
Witnesses explained the reality, that some spouses are threatened or physically compelled to have sex, with no resources and no place to go to escape the spousal abuse, but Hansen responded that those spouses should leave. And in other cases, she said, "Some of them just like it.”
One senator described the remarks as "unbelievable," and Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the author of the bill who had said the existence of the spousal exception in V.I. law is “an embarrassment in this day and age,” called her comments "shocking."
Hansen’s comments brought national attention to the territory, but not the kind that promoters are hoping to get.
In an essay on the news website Salon, which was picked up on the website of Ebony magazine, author Mary Elizabeth Williams said, "Hansen is sadly not alone in her inability to grasp that forcing yourself sexually upon another person – even a person to whom you are married – is a crime."
For Forno, the answer is simple.
"No means no. Period. The end," she said Tuesday. "That should be the end of the discussion. There shouldn’t be different levels of punishment for someone who happens to be married to the person he raped … Rape is rape."
That’s the battle cry of the domestic violence movement, she said, and the public uproar over Hansen’s comments has helped get that message out.
"This is an opportunity for us to educate our community and for our community to engage in a discussion of sexual assault," Forno said. "Anybody has the right to say no … Marriage does not give someone the right to sex any time they want. Court after court has upheld that."
Testimony prepared for the hearing on Sanes’ bill, Forno noted, cited a 1984 decision by the New York State Court of Appeals, which held that:
“Rape is not simply a sexual act to which one party does not consent. Rather, it is a degrading, violent act which violates the bodily integrity of the victim and frequently causes severe, long lasting physical and psychic harm. To ever imply consent to such an act is irrational and absurd. Other than in the context of rape statutes, marriage has never been viewed as giving a husband the right to coerced intercourse on demand. Certainly, then, a marriage license should not be viewed as a license for a husband to forcibly rape his wife with impunity. A married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman."
Forno’s concern is that, "Victims will hear some of the insensitive comments and think, ‘Then I’m not a victim.’"
The Source attempted to contact senators Hansen and Sanes, along with Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone for comments, but messages were not returned.