Last edited: February 14, 2005

Governor Signs Sexual Assault Reform Act

Empire State Pride Agenda Press Release, October 19, 2000

New York, New York  — With today’s signing of the Sexual Assault Reform Act by Governor Pataki, New York State’s "consensual sodomy" statute is being consigned to the dustbin of history. As important, the new law commits the legislature to revamping the penal law’s antiquated classification of sexual assaults. This will result in the elimination of the terms such as "sodomy" and "deviate sexual intercourse" from the state’s criminal laws.

"We’re thrilled that New York’s approach to sexual assault is coming out of the dark ages and that these offensive, misleading and stigmatizing terms will be going out the door," said Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "We thank our victim advocate allies for pushing so hard for this long-overdue change in the law, and commend the Governor, Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Bruno for their non-partisan approach to this issue."

New York becomes the 26th state (along with the District of Columbia) to repeal its consensual sodomy laws through legislative action. Illinois was the first state to do so in 1962. Before New York, Rhode Island was the last state to do so, in 1998.

The new law repeals a long-standing thorn in the gay community’s side - the consensual sodomy statute. This provision (which outlawed oral and anal sex between all unmarried persons) was ruled unconstitutional by the Court of Appeal in 1980, but nonetheless has remained on the books. "This is more than a great symbolic victory — it will also stop the isolated instances in which police use the statute to target gay couples they find in ‘lovers lanes,’" Foreman said, adding that while these charges are not prosecuted, individuals are frequently compelled to plead to some other offense.

In a never-before seen move, the measure puts into law the Legislature’s intent to establish the single offense category of Criminal Sexual Assault, to encompass the various types of criminal acts now falling under Rape, Sodomy and other nomenclature. The law states that the Legislature "intends to modernize and consolidate such language in subsequent legislation." The parties to the negotiations indicated this would be done before February 1, 2001, when the other provisions of the law take effect.

Unlike the federal government and the majority of states, New York law currently differentiates sexual assaults on the basis of the bodily organ involved and what is used to commit the offense. For example, Rape is charged when the assault involves a penis; Sodomy charges come from assaults where there is oral or anal sexual contact (defined as "deviate sexual intercourse"). Because of this terminology, when most people now read about a crime involving "sodomy," they assume the victim was raped anally. In reality, most charges of sodomy under current law involve oral sex.

Foreman said that rape counselors and assistant district attorneys agree that survivors find the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘deviate sexual intercourse’ humiliating and offensive. Some survivors have refused to go forward with a prosecution out of concern over the use of these terms in pre-trial publicity or on the stand.

"No sexual assault survivor will ever again be further humiliated by reading in the papers that she was ‘sodomized’ or re-victimized by having to take the stand and admit that she engaged in ‘deviate sexual intercourse,’ Foreman said.

The state’s leading sexual assault victim advocates, including the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, made the repeal of offensive and antiquated terminology one of their top priorities among a broad range of needed reforms. The Pride Agenda provided technical assistance, strategic advice, media relations and financial support to the effort.

"We’ve wanted to get rid of this stigmatizing language for years - we know firsthand how it pains sexual assault survivors, whether they are gay or straight," said Susan Xenarios, Director of the St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Crime Victim Treatment Center and Co-Chair of the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims. "This was a great collaborative effort between the victim advocate and gay communities."

"We extend our gratitude and appreciation to Anne Liske, Harriet Lessel, Susan Xenarios, and Judy Condo, for including this reform in their priorities for victims," Foreman said. "The epidemic of sexual assault afflicts every community, and we are proud to be associated with these extraordinary leaders and the significant reforms they have achieved through this legislation."

Founded in 1990, the Empire State Pride Agenda is New York’s statewide, non-partisan lesbian and gay political advocacy organization. Its mission is to end discrimination and prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation. The Pride Agenda fights for equal rights under the law by lobbying state and local elected officials, electing supportive candidates to office, organizing constituent pressure, and educating the public. With 25,000 supporters statewide, it has offices and staff in Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Long Island, New York City, and Rochester.

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