By Emma Eidsvoog and Ariel Dunleavy
“A Minnesota man can’t be charged with felony rape because the woman chose to drink beforehand, court rules,” a Washington Post headline reads after a sexual assault conviction was overturned in the Minnesota Supreme Court in March.
The case, where a woman was sexually assaulted while intoxicated, was appealed due to a Minnesota sexual misconduct statute written in 1975.
The statute states a person who sexually assaults another is guilty in the third degree if “the actor knows or has reason to know that the complainant is mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.”
While the facts of the case weren’t debated during the appeal, the definition of “mentally incapacitated” was, since the woman wasn’t forced to be drunk. The court found the definition only includes those who are intoxicated against their will. In the case of the Minneapolis woman, she had been drinking alcohol and taking drugs prior to meeting the man, so she was labeled as voluntarily intoxicated.
The decision and new ruling was met with outrage. It sparked a campaign to change and strengthen the statute regarding the sexual assault laws in Minnesota, specifically calling for the law to state that all intoxicated people are incapable of giving consent to sex.
This statute is the difference between the perpetrator charged with a gross misdemeanor or a felony. A felony charge would put him on the Minnesota Predatory Offender Registry and increase his prison sentence. Instead, the court released him from prison and ordered a new trial for the man.
Close to home
While Bethel doesn’t carry out disciplinary actions based on criminal statutes, Title IX Coordinator and Compliance Officer Cara Wald follows policies set in place for the university.
“If a person is intoxicated, voluntarily or not, that person is unable to give consent,” Wald said. “Consent is one of the many issues that we examine when we receive a sexual assault report.”
Wald says the Supreme Court decision could easily be misunderstood and believes the justices’ “hands were tied by the Minnesota statute’s language.” The court didn’t have the capacity to change the law, but encouraged lawmakers to do so.
One Bethel student, who has preferred to remain anonymous, shuddered after reading the headline repeated over and over as more news outlets around the country reported the news. Her own experience mirrored the court case.
“It has opened the door again where I thought I’d shut it enough to finish school and finish it out here,” she said. “We hear this headline and it’s just hard.”
During her freshman year, she was sexually assaulted after a homecoming dance. She had been drinking alcohol when a male friend who was with her, assaulted her. This male student had been sexually suggestive for weeks leading up to the assault and made it obvious through Snapchat messages and comments that he wanted a sexual relationship with her.
“Freshman year, that was how I saw men; they saw me as somebody to sleep with,” she said.
The student didn’t report to Bethel’s Title IX or anyone else. She had a prior experience reporting an incident to Student Life and felt drained from the process.
“Now I would never report it because it’s not real,” the student said. “Maybe there’s more to it that I’m missing, but from the headlines and from what I’ve read, why would I go through the trouble of putting myself through hardship and reliving the trauma to have someone say, ‘Well, you were voluntarily intoxicated. It’s not real.’ I would feel like death at the end of that.”
A new bill for change
A new bill is moving through the Minnesota legislature that will update the wording in this sexual conduct statute. Legislators who wrote the bill are hoping to expand the definition of “mentally incapacitated” to include voluntary intoxication.
Democratic state representative Kelly Moller and Republican state representative Marion O’Neill co-author the bill that aims to fill the gaps in the Minnesota law.
“Sexual assault cases are grossly underreported, and it certainly doesn’t help when there are a lot of media stories about intoxicated victims not getting protection,” Moller said.
The current bill, House File 707, is based on the framework of a previous bill, entitled ‘Hannah’s Law,’ that was proposed after a young woman fell victim to the loose terms of the sexual assault law. This case could not have been charged, due to some loopholes involving intoxication and protections for children under the current law. Moller wants to note that there are some legal protections when it comes to voluntary intoxication and sexual violence.
In 2019, Moller and other legislators created a working group comprised of sexual assault survivors and advocates that aimed to share their experiences and give recommendations to ensure the statutes are able to provide justice for victims like Hannah.
Bethel task force taking charge
Philosophy professor Sara Shady says that there’s an unhealthy or harmful discussion of sex on campus which makes reporting sexual assault, especially in the context of drinking, more difficult.
Shady is part of a working group that addresses the problem of sexual assault at Bethel. Once the group was formed, they began to draft guidelines and plans that were approved by the Faculty Senate and Cabinet.
Since 2019, 90 posters with QR codes leading to Title IX’s website have gone up in freshman hall bathroom stalls. The websites titled “Complaints and Concerns” and “What to Expect” have been updated by the working group and include next steps for anyone who has experienced sexual assault.
One of the working group’s goals is to implement an NCAA “Step Up” bystander curriculum, which Bethel Athletics will utilize.
“The Step-Up Bystander training is an awesome training that extends beyond sexual violence into bullying/hazing, alcohol use/abuse – even a potential tool for recognizing racism or other kinds of bias,” Gretchen Hunt, a member of the working group, said.
Their plan is to test out the training on a small group during the next academic year before completely adopting the plan. The task force also plans to start voluntary discussion groups led by faculty and staff to talk about sexual assault.
“We hope that the training and the education that we provide to our students and employees gives individuals valuable information on this topic,” Wald said.
Title IX Coordinator/Compliance Officer
Office location: ANC530
For an advocate outside of campus
Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault
161 St. Anthony Ave., Ste. 1001
St. Paul, MN 55103
24-Hour Emergency On-Campus
Office of Security and Safety
Office location: HC103
The “Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment Policy” website includes phone numbers, office locations, emails, and names of those who you can report sexual assault to inside and outside of campus. Included are confidential resources as well. The “What to Expect” website contains information on what to expect when you report a sexual assault or harassment to the Title IX Coordinator. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
Another resource if you are unsure of what to do http://rapehelpmn.org