How Sexual Assault Survivors Used Comedy to Change Laws
In October, President Barack Obama signed into law the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, legislation that codifies basic rights for sexual assault survivors. That wouldn’t have happened without Amanda Nguyen, a twenty-four-year-old Harvard alum and aspiring astronaut who previously worked at NASA and as the Deputy White House Liaison at the State Department. Seriously.
Amanda is the founder of Rise, an organization working with Congress and state lawmakers to protect the rights of sexual assault survivors, a mission she took on after being raped in Massachusetts and finding that “navigating the broken system was worse than the rape itself.” Every six months, she would have to request an extension to stop her untested rape kit from being destroyed by the state.
She learned this wasn’t uncommon. In states throughout the country sexual assault survivors risk having their untested rape kits destroyed, sometimes without their knowledge. Others make rape victims pay for their own kits. The rights and protections for survivors vary by state and that’s something Amanda is working to change by having Congress pass a Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.
It’s heavy stuff. So when approached with the idea of partnering with Funny or Die to create a video highlighting the absurdity of these laws and directing people to her petition on Change.org, it seemed far fetched. How would comedy be used to inspire people to take action on an issue as serious as sexual assault? It was a bit of a gamble, but it worked.
Within a few hours of the video’s release, over 50,000 people signed her petition asking Congress to pass the bill.
The video stars Erin Richards from Gotham playing the leader of a group of supervillains brainstorming all the evil things they could do to destroy their arch nemesis’ beloved city. But when one of them starts suggesting making sexual assault survivors pay for their own rape kits or destroying untested kits (the most evil things he can think of), they’re all horrified to learn these are actual things happening in states around the country. They decide it’s time to (temporarily) team up with the good guys and get these laws changed.
This is smart and funny, and a powerful way to use humor to inspire people to take action. We’ve seen other petitions on Change.org use comedy to build support for serious issues too. In 2015 GLAAD created the Celibacy Challenge, a video starring Alan Cumming that pokes fun at the FDA’s announcement that gay men could donate blood as long as they had remained celibate for one year. Nearly 30,000 people signed GLAAD’s petition asking the FDA to ditch the proposal. And Steve-O from Jackass launched a Change.org petition and video asking Wendy’s to offer a veggie burger to customer — it’s short and goofy and helped him gain over 40,000 supporters.
In a profile in Elle, Amanda explained what it was like to work with Funny or Die on the video:
It was fantastic! Humor gives us a way to talk about difficult, awkward issues. And quite frankly, that’s what sexual assault is. It’s remarkable that we’re able to use humor and to use social justice comedy to get the word out there. Whatever platform people have in their lives and wherever they come from, they can use that to contribute to this cause. There are so many ways for us to do this. We want to try them all.
Even though the bill was passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, Amanda and Rise’s work isn’t done yet — they’re now focused on encouraging state lawmakers to pass this legislation at the state level. Using Movement Pages, one of Change.org’s newest features, Amanda is empowering survivors from all over the country to connect on our platform to sign and even start petitions.
Jon Perri is Associate Campaigns Director at Change.org. You can follow him on Twitter @_jonperri.