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Reason to be Thankful This Holiday Season: New Law Empowers Sexual Assault Survivors

Gov. Hochul signs the Adult Survivors Act (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

On Thanksgiving, survivors of sexual abuse in New York had something to be truly thankful for. November 24 marked the opening of a one-year period when, under a new law, survivors can file a civil claim against the person who abused them and any institutions that enabled the abuse, no matter how long ago the abuse happened.

This law, the New York Adult Survivors Act (ASA), presents a watershed moment for survivors; it invites and empowers them to reclaim their narratives, end their silence, and hold those who harmed them accountable.

The ASA was born of the recognition that for too long, survivors of sexual abuse were either disbelieved, shamed, or blamed for the abuse and left with little support to recover from the trauma left in its wake. After all, until 1984 it was legal in New York for a husband to rape his wife. And sexual harassment was not even considered a violation of federal civil rights law until 1986. Even once the laws became more protective of survivors, historically short statute of limitations periods meant that by the time survivors were able to speak their truth, it was often too late to sue the abuser. In reviving expired claims, the ASA also revives survivors’ chances for a measure of justice and acknowledges the reality that processing sexual trauma takes time.

Ending silence, secrecy, and shame around abuse is why laws like the ASA, the Child Victims Act before it, and the anti-SLAPP law New York passed in 2020, are so important. SLAPP lawsuits (or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) have long been used by abusers to torment and silence survivors. Formally named in the 1980s and in use well before that, a SLAPP suit may look like an ordinary claim for defamation, nuisance, or invasion of privacy but its purpose is to intimidate and muzzle the person on the other side. Abusers leverage SLAPP lawsuits to tie up survivors in lengthy legal proceedings in an attempt to drain them of their financial and emotional resources while fighting these baseless claims.

This tool was famously used by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard to punish her for publicly telling her story of intimate partner violence in the Washington Post, leaving her silenced and impoverished in the end. The publicity surrounding that case has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on survivors considering coming forward to speak out about the abuse they suffered, especially if their abuser is famous, powerful, or rich.

The SLAPP suit is also the tool that was wielded against me (Grace) by my ex-husband, who sued me for defamation after I spoke out on my podcast about abuse in the entertainment industry and the challenges facing victims in the justice system. But thanks to New York’s anti-SLAPP law, my story has a happier ending than Amber’s: earlier this month, a court threw out the lawsuit against me and ordered my ex-husband to pay the attorney fees and costs I incurred while defending myself.

For too long, short statutes of limitations for filing abuse claims and the threat of SLAPP lawsuits conspired to keep survivors quiet. And that silence only benefited abusers, allowing many to suffer no consequences and go on to abuse others. But taken together, New York’s anti-SLAPP statute and the one-year Adult Survivors Act revival period create the opportunity for a full-throated telling of survivors’ stories to fill the courts with accountability as its final chapter. And that is something to be thankful for.

Grace Aki is an actor, playwright, and comedian in New York. Laura Edidin is Of Counsel at Wigdor LLP, a former sex crimes prosecutor, and domestic violence victim advocate. On Twitter @itsgraceaki & @WigdorLaw.

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