The History of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

2001 was the first year Sexual Assault Awareness Month was recognized on a national level. 2021 is the year of perseverance; it seems only fitting that it marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As women, we know it is not confined to just April. Throughout our entire lives, we must stay on guard, prepared, and educated.

Women around the world are being violently taken advantage of. As American women, this should not be a dismissive thought. Sexual assault has dug its claws into aspects of every culture around the world, from war, to the classroom, to places of religion, to old relations that were once filled with love, and it has even penetrated the home. Women everywhere have a different, heartbreaking tale. 

It took a lot to be able to talk freely about such a sensitive and secretive topic in a country built on sexist and racist beliefs. To be able to discuss the topic is already a great way to start taking back the power. But we did not get here by accident. Generations of women have put their lives and reputation on the line for the hope of a better life, not for themselves but for their daughters. 

The first activists for sexual assault awareness were mainly women of color. The name Rosa Parks is affiliated most with the infamous Montgomery Bus Boycott; however, before the boycott, in 1931 her white neighbor attempted to sexually assault her. Since then, she became very active in the fight for fellow African American survivors, helping to ensure the trial would be seen by a court. She fought heavily with the famous Recy Taylor case.

Recy Taylor was an assault victim in 1944. Taylor was walking home accompanied by friend Fannie Daniels and her son after an evening church service. The group noticed a green Chevrolet following them. Seven armed white men got out and forced Recy Taylor into the car at gunpoint. Taylor was blindfolded and brutally raped by six men and left on the side of the road, while her friend and son successfully escaped. Fannie Daniels went straight to the police, after not much action she got Recy’s father and police chief involved. They found her in the middle of Abbeville, Alabama.

After Taylor bravely reported the story, risking her life, the owner of the green Chevrolet was named as Mr. Hugo Wilson. While Wilson was being questioned, he gave up the names of every man who played a role in the crime. The police released Wilson. The next day Recy Taylor’s home was set aflame. Even though Taylor reported the crime, witnesses confirmed her story, and one of the men confessed. The men were never brought into custody.

Rosa Parks fought by Taylor’s side to push the case to a jury. They succeeded, but the jury decided to dismiss the case, concluding Recy Taylor’s rape story, although the battle had just begun.

black placard stating on Gabrielle Rocha Rios/Unsplash

The war waged on. In 1971, the first rape crisis center was established in the San Francisco, Bay Area: Women Against Rape. During the next five years, 4,000 crisis centers were opened across the country. In 1975, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape was established, fighting to give victims a voice in court. In 2000, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to create the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, aimed to provide leadership in preventing and responding to cases. Yet there was still so much to do in regard to the relationship between the victim and the judicial process.

In 1994, the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was signed, designed to expand judicial rules to combat violence against women and provide protection to victims. Because of its passage in 1995, The Office on Violence Against Women was created within the Department of Justice. The creation of the VAWA has led to grant opportunities at a state and local level, which are funds used to prevent and address domestic violence and child abuse. Other federal grants are used for shelters, rape prevention and education, programs to address and reduce the sexual abuse of the homeless youth, and community programs to educate on domestic violence.

In 2001, Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) started up as annual campaign to raise public awareness. The early 2000s were focused on awareness by SAAM; during the mid-2000s, the organization focused heavily on prevention focusing on areas: communities, workplaces, and college campuses. Awareness for the campaign skyrocketed in 2009 when Barack Obama was the first president to officially declare April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In 2010, the campaign made the effort to offer bilingual resources to expand awareness.

Sexual assault awareness has been an uphill battle for our gender, but there are people who haven’t stopped fighting to make us feel safer. Every time you see an Instagram post educating the public, or hear a survivor's story, remember the courage, strength, and pain of the women before you who made it possible. We have come a long way from where we started, but we have new issues rising every single day. The women of the past are not to be forgotten, but instead, used as inspiration to continue overcoming our own battles in this tireless fight for our lives.