On Friday, a woman who chose to identify herself as Jane Doe became the 16th woman to allege sexual harassment or rape at the hands of producer and Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons. The civil suit accuses Simmons of forcible rape, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, asking for $10 million to be paid in damages. (Simmons denies all accusations against him.) We reached out to her lawyer, Douglas Mastroianni, who explained why she decided to fighting her rape case in civil court.
“How many rape kits languish in police evidence rooms untested for years and literally years?” Mastroianni asks in an email to Refinery29. “Moreover, many states still allow rape prosecutions to be turned into a trial against the victim. No wonder the best estimates are that a full two-thirds of rape victims don't bother to report their assailants to the police.” DNA evidence has become crucial in seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence, yet the exhaustive backlog of rape kits poses an enormous obstacle to holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes. According to the nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization RAINN, thousands of rape kits from around the country were either never sent to a crime lab for analysis, or were sent to a crime lab but never tested.
Mastroianni believes that the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes is lacking in the United States. “Probably more resources are spent chasing potheads than rapists in this country,” he said taking a cutting view of attorney general Jeff Sessions’ preoccupation with criminalizing marijuana.
With the momentum of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, a precedent is being set. As more people come forward and file suits against their attackers, they hope that coming forward means their attackers will be less likely to be able to do the same to someone else. “If the #metoo movement had started earlier and had the culture allowed more brave women to come forward in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, then maybe my client would not have been assaulted,” writes Mastroianni. “Every suit filed now, including my client’s suit against Simmons, makes it more likely that there will be fewer assaults later and fewer victims permanently damaged.”
Most civil suits involve monetary reparations for damages, but for every person who comes forward with a civil suit for assault that involves money, there are countless doubters who accuse them of seeking a payout. Women are coming forward in unprecedented numbers, and the result is a reshaping of our justice system as we know it. Civil suits can act as a last resort when criminal charges fail in a legal system that has historically been weighed against people making assault accusations. It is a tactic that Keha used when she sued former producer Dr. Luke in 2014, seeking to be released from her contract and alleging that he sexually abused her for years (he denies the charges). Her request was denied and she only began to receive widespread support later as the Me Too movement emerged. Mastroianni makes it clear that the money is never about the assault itself. It is about a person’s ability to move forward.
“I have represented many women and some men who have been sexually harassed, abused, humiliated and raped and the injuries are deeply felt, disruptive of all of their relationships (thus affecting third parties) and usually permanent,” Mastroianni explains. “Neither the criminal justice system nor the civil justice system can repair the damage caused by sexual assault — or adequately compensate victims.”
Women should not be shamed for including monetary damages in their lawsuits. There is a tendency to assume that once money is involved, greed and dishonesty are involved, too. There are financial costs associated with sexual assault that we often forget, caused by medical bills, therapy, and taking time off work. According to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, rape is the most costly of all crimes. Total estimated costs amount to $127 billion each year. One study found that the average cost of tests and other medical treatment after a rape the US is $6,737, and that insurance holders usually pay $950 of that cost out of pocket.
Suing for damages isn’t about wanting to profit at someone else’s expense. Our society’s bias against women shows in the fact that we think the money is about her gain and not his punishment. What price would you put on the negative and lasting effect it has on a person’s life? Moving forward is complex and takes time, and often a lot of money. It would be wise to redirect our focus to what is best for the person whose life was changed without their consent.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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