This 19-Year-Old Said She Was Raped but She Couldn’t Press Charges Because of a 38-Year-Old Law

Thanks to a 38-year-old law in the state, no actually doesn't mean no.

It was just another headline in a sea of stories about sexual assault. But among all the reports about Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, and other high-profile offenders, it managed to stand out: "N.C. law: Woman can't back out of sex once underway." The Fayetteville Observer article proved to be an easy share and it quickly went viral.

Those who clicked through to the article learned the headline wasn't about new legislation; the rule, which states that a person cannot revoke consent to sex once they've given it and sex is taking place, has been on the books in North Carolina since 1979. The reason it's getting attention now is that Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson has introduced a bill to address the issue of revoking consent — and Aaliyah Palmer, a 19-year-old North Carolina State University student, shared her own harrowing experience of sexual assault with the newspaper.

"I encountered this loophole as a criminal prosecutor when our office was forced to dismiss a rape charge because of these circumstances," Jackson said in a statement to ELLE.com. "Very few legislators are aware that this is the current state of our law. They're very surprised when I tell them … This really shouldn't be a controversial matter."

The proposed bill, which unfortunately is likely to be stuck in the Senate's Rules Committee for the rest of the two-year legislative session, Jackson says, contains just 122 words. It reads:

A person who initially consents to vaginal intercourse is not deemed to have consented to any penetration that occurs after the person withdraws consent during the course of that vaginal intercourse. A person may withdraw consent to engage in vaginal intercourse in the middle of the intercourse, even if the actual penetration is accomplished with consent and even if there is only one act of vaginal intercourse. The withdrawal of consent must be clearly communicated in a way that a reasonable person would understand to constitute withdrawal of consent. A defendant who continues the act of vaginal intercourse after consent is withdrawn is deemed to have committed the act of vaginal intercourse by force and against the will of the other person.

The Fayetteville Observer's June 22 article about the bill included Palmer's story, using her name with her permission, as an example of how the current law affects victims. Palmer entered a bathroom with a man while at a party. At first she consented to sex but when it turned violent she told him to stop. He did not. "If I tell you no and you kept going, that's rape," Palmer said to the Observer. She then learned that in North Carolina, it's not.

The loophole comes from a court ruling: State v. Way was a case before the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 1979. The jury, while deliberating a rape accusation between two people who disagreed about the sexual incident that happened on their first date, asked the judge whether consent could be withdrawn.

"It is true that consent can be withdrawn. This concept ordinarily applies, however, to those situations in which there is evidence of more than one act of intercourse between the prosecutrix and the accused," Associate Justice James William Copeland wrote in his decision, in which he declared the need for a new trial after the jury's confusion. That vague adverb — "ordinarily" — had the effect of legally defining rape in North Carolina, opening the door for defense attorneys to use it for the next 38 years.

"I didn't know if it was a for-real thing, but apparently it is a for-real thing because North Carolina has the crappiest laws to ever exist," Palmer says, via a phone interview with ELLE.com.

In January 2017, Palmer attended a party in an apartment complex near Fort Bragg military base. She chatted with a man, they flirted and drank beer, and she decided to go into the bathroom with him to hook up. The sex was consensual, she says, until he got violent and it started to hurt. The Observer reported that he pulled her hair out. Palmer says he continued to assault her for more than two hours. When it was over, she went to a friend's apartment to sleep, and after a day spent crying, she decided to report the crime to Fort Bragg's police desk.

"I knew this would turn into a he-said-she-said and that I wouldn't be believed," Palmer says, particularly because the alleged perpetrator is in the military. "People look at [the military] and think, 'Well, they serve our country. They're fine, they wouldn't do that. Their word is worth more than mine. Their status is higher than mine.'" When authorities learned the apartment was off base, they sent her to the local police department. From there, she was forced to retell her story, then went to the hospital for a rape kit.

The nurse found no visual injuries, Palmer says. She adds dryly, "If you want to get your rapist prosecuted, just make sure he beats you or kills you."

It was only after a few more rounds with detectives that Palmer learned about the State v. Way loophole. "[My detective] came to my dorm with his partner and one of the major questions they had for me was, 'Did he re-penetrate?'" she recalls. "Yeah, he re-penetrated multiple times. They said, 'Okay, that's good! Technically it wasn't rape because you can't revoke consent. But if he pulled out, you said no, and he re-penetrated, it's considered a new act.'"

In the weeks after the incident, Palmer tried to keep going to class and hanging out with friends. Then she learned there was a video of her rape. Four men had stood outside the bathroom, and one slid his phone under the door, posting the resulting film to Snapchat. (While the man Palmer accused of rape has not been charged, police arrested his friends for their involvement with the Snapchat video.) She hasn't seen the video, but learning about it heightened the anxiety she's begun feeling amid crowds and around strangers.

"N.C. State is a big university. My lectures have a lot of people in them," Palmer says. "I don't know everyone, and in my mind they've all seen the video." When she's returned to Fort Bragg to socialize with friends there, she's afraid of people opening doors. "I tell my friends, 'If anyone is coming to your door, I need to know who they are ... I don't want them in here if I don't know them.'"

Campus sexual assault awareness has been on the rise over the last few years — President Barack Obama launched the It's On Us awareness campaign in September 2014, which VP Joe Biden has carried on since leaving the White House. But the problem is far from being solved: The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating more than 300 sexual-violence-related Title IX cases at more than 220 universities and colleges.

Palmer decided to take the rest of her freshman year off because of the panic attacks she began experiencing. She spent months calling and texting her detective at the Fayetteville Police Department, hoping for an update on her case or to hear more about the video evidence.

"I need this to come to a conclusion because I need to move on with my life. I have to go back to school," Palmer says, crying. "I can't be dealing with this next semester … I feel like I shouldn't have to babysit the police department."

She was willing to share her story and name with the Observer, and connect it with Jackson's Senate Bill 553, in the hopes that her experience could make a difference. Besides, she says, what is the point of maintaining a secret?

"My privacy was taken away when four guys decided to film me. I don't have privacy," she says. "Do I care if my name and face are out there? No. I don't. It just makes me a person. If people want to talk trash to me, they can DM my Facebook." Which, she says, people have already been doing for months.

After the soldiers were arrested, Palmer was inundated with messages. "I've gotten the general comment, 'Oh, she's just a slut. She's just upset that he didn't call her back, she's just upset about the video, she's just falsely accusing … Women are liars. It's just because he's military,' yada yada yada," she says.

But since the Observer's headline went viral, the message ratio of hatred to support flipped. "Since the article, people have inboxed me and said, 'Thank you for being brave and coming out with your story. I'm really proud of you. Hang in there.' That kinda stuff."

If I say no to someone, that means no and they have to stop. I don't care if I know you or not. I don't care if we've been hooking up for the past five years. If I say no, you have to stop.

Palmer is ready to get back on track with her major, animal studies, so she can work toward her dream of being a veterinarian. "When I was 7, my mom told me that I couldn't have a dog, and my response was, 'I'll just become a vet, then,'" she says, her voice getting stronger. "I'm considering being an emergency and critical care vet to help injured animals or rescued animals. Something like that. I've never had a plan B. It's my career choice since I was really little."

As for her thoughts on Jackson's bill? "It looks like a way to get my story out there, because some people are completely unaware of this law," Palmer says. "And it's a ridiculous law to have. If I say no to someone, that means no and they have to stop. I don't care if I know you or not. I don't care if we've been hooking up for the past five years. If I say no, you have to stop." Palmer hopes the media attention can help move either her case or Senate Bill 553 forward.

"I'm a 19-year-old college student. I don't really have a voice," she says.

But she does — and her voice is saying, loudly and clearly, that no means no. Palmer has a viral headline now, and that might be enough to sway the minds of legislators, voters, and internet readers alike.




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B3infoarena: This 19-Year-Old Said She Was Raped but She Couldn’t Press Charges Because of a 38-Year-Old Law
This 19-Year-Old Said She Was Raped but She Couldn’t Press Charges Because of a 38-Year-Old Law
Thanks to a 38-year-old law in the state, no actually doesn't mean no.
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