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'It's disgusting': Loopholes remain in North Carolina's sexual assault laws. Advocates ask why.

"I am hurt by some of North Carolina's lawmakers who are not taking this seriously. It's disgusting and it's infuriating," one victim said.
Image: Leah McGuirk
North Carolina resident Leah McGuirk in Raleigh, N.C., on April 25, 2019.Amanda Morris / AP file

Leah McGuirk was partying at a bar in Charlotte, North Carolina, a year ago when something felt wrong, she said. Her vision turned blurry, her arms and legs went limp — her friend thought she was having a seizure.

McGuirk was adamant she was not intoxicated. But later, thinking back, she realized she had shifted her attention at the bar when she dug through her purse for her wallet, and believes someone drugged her drink at that time.

The incident was upsetting enough that she shared her story on Facebook. Then, she began getting random messages from other people who believed their drinks were spiked at that same bar. While McGuirk was not sexually assaulted and had no idea who was responsible, she still decided to contact the police and file a report.

"I felt like there needed to be a paper trail," McGuirk, 32, said Friday.

In a statement provided to NBC affiliate WCNC in Charlotte at the time of the alleged incident, the general manager of the bar said, "We have been working closely with CMPD [Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department] since our inception to ensure the safety of our patrons ... we will continue to make safety a priority."

Unbeknownst to McGuirk, she had no recourse: The law in North Carolina doesn't consider her to be the victim of a crime.

But that could change under House Bill 393, which would make it illegal to tamper with someone's drink, regardless of whether or not they were sexually assaulted — one of two bills seeking to modernize North Carolina's sexual assault laws in the era of #MeToo.

The bill also seeks to close other loopholes, including one that still makes it legal to have sex with someone who is incapacitated, such as through drugs or alcohol, if that person was responsible for their own condition.

Advocates for assault victims, however, are worried that North Carolina lawmakers aren't taking the issue serious enough after another bill — Senate Bill 563, co-sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat representing Mecklenburg County — failed to get a hearing during this legislative session before the deadline Thursday.

"At this point, I am hurt by some of North Carolina's lawmakers who are not taking this seriously," McGuirk said. "It's disgusting and it's infuriating."

This was the fourth year that Jackson has been unsuccessful in advancing his Senate bill, which would make it a crime if a person continues to have vaginal intercourse with a woman even after she revokes her initial consent and wants to stop. The existing loophole, which also effectively prevents women from legally revoking consent during sex, has been in place since 1979 and appears to be the only one of its kind in the nation, advocates of sexual assault victims say.

Jackson, who first introduced SB 563 during the 2015 session with two Republican co-sponsors, says he routinely receives emails from women who don't believe they have been adequately protected, especially if they were the victims of violence during sex.

"I apologize to them on behalf of the state and assure them I'll keep fighting for this," Jackson said Friday.

He said one of the reasons the bill has been so difficult to advance is that some lawmakers may feel uncomfortable with having discussions about sex and sexual assault. In fact, this is not the first time North Carolina has found itself behind the curve with regard to criminalizing certain types of sexual assault — in 1993, it became one of the last states to criminalize marital rape.

However, the crux of SB 563 could still see some movement before North Carolina's legislative session ends, potentially around July, if its language gets incorporated into another bill, such as HB 393.

In North Carolina, a bill must first pass its initial House or Senate chamber before the other body takes it up, and only if it passes through both chambers, can it be signed into law by the governor.

HB 393 is co-sponsored by Rep. Chaz Beasley, a Democrat in Mecklenburg County. When asked about adding a provision based on Jackson's Senate bill, Beasley said he favors any version that "has the best language possible and does as much as it can."

"Our bill is a direct result of survivors being open to sharing their stories, and I'm optimistic we put together a bill we can all rally around," he said.

Skye David, a staff attorney for the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she encounters many younger women who are in favor of these laws changing, but for some older people, she said, there is some hesitation and concern that some women "will go around and blame men for rape just because they regret having sex."

While no lawmakers or campaigns have publicly opposed SB 563 or HB 393, there remains a lasting stigma related to sexual behavior that becomes a barrier to having more open discussions, David said.

"It's the South — we don't talk about sex out loud," she added. "It makes people uncomfortable, and they would certainly prefer not to have to talk about it in legislative committees or on the floor."

HB 393, however, did pass unanimously April 29. That has given advocates such as David some hope that it can move forward in the Senate in the coming weeks and ultimately be signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Both the state's House and Senate are currently controlled by the GOP.

McGuirk, who is advocating for Beasley's bill and is disappointed that Jackson's has stalled, said the longer lawmakers wait to take action, the more people have the potential to become victimized without legal recourse to hold their attacker accountable. She said that she still feels the trauma of what happened to her, and whoever drugged her drink could still be out there doing the same thing to others.

"I hope he sees my face, and I hope he knows that his days of victimizing people are numbered," McGuirk said. "The law is catching up, and my hope is one day he will be caught and he will have to pay for all the pain he has caused."