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Tosha Blackburn

Tosha Blackburn, pictured Friday was one of six women who testified they were sexually assaulted by former Casper doctor Paul Harnetty. Blackburn pushed for a new law, recently passed by the Wyoming Legislature, that adds safeguards and penalties to help protect patients from sexual assault by medical professionals.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Two years ago, Tosha Blackburn emailed each of her 90 state representatives and her three Congressional delegates. She told them her doctor, a man she trusted, sexually assaulted her during a gynecological exam. She told them state law made it difficult to prosecute that doctor for what he did.

None responded.

But Tosha wouldn’t be deterred. Later that year, she emailed all of them once more. This time she told them how that doctor, Paul Harnetty, had been arrested and charged with assaulting Tosha and five other women.

This time, she heard back.

Two representatives, Steve Harshman and Debbie Bovee, responded to Tosha’s second email. From there, Bovee and Tosha worked together to draft legislation that would increase protections for patients in an effort to prevent similar crimes.

The legislation, which Gov. Matt Mead signed into law last week, experienced obstacles along the way. An original provision of the bill required a third party be present during genital exams. But medical groups opposed the mandate. So Tosha, lawmakers and representatives from the concerned groups met to reach a compromise.

The revised law, House Bill 157, empowers medical boards to discipline health care providers for sexual misconduct. It strengthens criminal penalties for providers who commit sexual assault. It qualifies health care providers as positions of authority. And it bars providers from expunging a conviction of misdemeanor sexual battery from their records.

It’s proof that engaged citizens can enact change.

Sexual assault is difficult to talk about and even harder to stop. Too often, social mores and institutions allow it to continue unchecked and unchallenged in our culture. In a small community like Casper, these obstacles seem even greater.

As Tosha learned following her assault, the medical community is not exempt from the culture of abuse that’s unfortunately so prevalent in parts of our society. There can be a power imbalance between patients and their doctors. And there are some who exploit and abuse that imbalance. A jury convicted Harnetty on two counts of sexual assault, though they acquitted him on the charges tied to Tosha’s allegations. The world was shocked and disgusted to learn about the epidemic of sexual abuse that went on in the exam room of Olympic physician Dr. Larry Nassar.

But how many more Nassars or Harnettys are there? And what can be done about them?

The problem is that choosing to speak out about sexual assault, choosing to be an advocate for other victims, is often the path least travelled. And that’s because it’s a perilous one.

Recounting the event can traumatize a victim all over again. It can trigger post -traumatic stress and hinder the healing process. And that’s to say nothing of the social backlash. When a victim speaks out, she will inevitably face a crowd of disbelievers who will discredit her, slut-shame and victim-blame her. They will accuse her of making false accusations for attention. And those people have silenced victims for too long.

Over the past year, that silence is starting to break with help from the #MeToo movement on social media. Women are speaking out and seeking justice for sexual assault and harassment. The purpose of the movement is to shine a light on the dark corners of society that so many women are all too familiar with, and to expose those who have skulked in those shadows for so long.

Tosha spoke out about her trauma long before the trending hashtag made sharing stories of assault a more acceptable avenue for victim advocacy and sexual assault awareness. She stood up for herself and all women before all women were standing up for each other.

Tosha’s bravery helped lead to the arrest and conviction of Harnetty. She helped prevent him from victimizing other women. But her bravery also led to a piece of legislation that will protect so many more women from other potential predators in white coats.

Too often, men in power victimize women. Too often, the justice system fails to see justice done. And too often, sexual assault goes unpunished.

But thanks to Tosha Blackburn, maybe there will be fewer victims and more justice.

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Opinion Editor

Dallas Bower joined the Star-Tribune copy desk in June 2017. She studied English at the University of Wyoming. Her favorite book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, or Harry Potter, depending on the day.

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