Rape and the Bathroom Wall

Joanne Jacobs

December 19, 1990|By Joanne Jacobs | Joanne Jacobs,San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — San Jose, California---YOU ARE ACCUSED of a shameful crime. Your accuser is unnamed. The time, place and circumstances of your crime are unspecified. No evidence is presented. You are condemned.

This isn't Kafka. At Brown University, a very liberal liberal-arts school in Rhode Island, a ''rape list'' scrawled on the wall of a library women's room names ''men who have sexually assaulted me or a woman I know.''

The list, started in October, names 30 men. As soon as janitors scrub the wall clean, someone writes the ''rape list'' on it again.

Lisa Billowitz of Brown Against Sexual Assault and Harassment calls the list ''an act of desperation in an attempt to get Brown to act responsibly and provide us with a system where we can air these grievances publicly as opposed to bathroom walls.'' At an angry campus meeting, women students charged that university officials are insensitive to date-rape charges, that the system is confusing, fragmented, underfunded, time-consuming.

''Magic Marker terrorists,'' says Robert Reichley, executive vice president for university relations. He says the university will no more tolerate anti-male graffiti than it allows misogynistic, homophobic or racist graffiti.

One woman told a reporter that erasing the names reinforces the idea that ''women are to blame for their rapes. . . . I think the writing on the wall was these women's way of taking control, of taking action and saying what they needed to say.''

L Taking control? Taking action? Saying what they need to say?

If a woman is assaulted, she takes control by reporting the crime. What she needs to say is: ''I was raped. Yes, I will testify in court.''

It's not easy, quick or stress-free. In our legal system, the accused has rights, among them the right to be confronted by accusers. Sometimes, there's not enough evidence for a conviction. But there's also a chance other women attacked by the same man would come forward. Rapists have a tendency to keep doing it till they're caught. And they're not caught till somebody calls the police and says what needs to be said.

Why have the Brown victims not called the police and turned in these 30 rapists? Why do they seek to have rapists disciplined by the university -- expelled at most -- not locked up in prison? I suspect the answer can be found in a July 1990 article in Reason magazine by Stephanie Gutmann which describes how ''date rape'' is defined to students.

Swarthmore College's Acquaintance Rape Prevention Workshop training manual says acquaintance rape ranges ''from crimes legally defined as rape to verbal harassment and inappropriate innuendo.''

A former director of Columbia University's date-rape education program tells Ms. Gutmann: ''Every time you have an act of intercourse there must be explicit consent, and if there's no explicit consent, then it's rape.'' Silence ''is not explicit consent.''

To Andrea Parrot, a Cornell psychiatry professor who's written a book on date rape, ''Any sexual intercourse without mutual desire is a form of rape.'' It's just as bad to be psychologically pressured into sexual contact by an acquaintance, she writes, as to be ''attacked on the streets.''

A woman may feel sexually assaulted by an innuendo, but dirty joking is not a crime. If she doesn't say ''yes'' but also doesn't say ''no,'' she can't call 911 and say: ''I've been psychologically pressured into sex without mutual desire!'' For that sort of thing, the only recourse is a date-rape-educated dean who will expel the beastly male and relieve the victimized female of the need to stand up for herself. And if the university doesn't provide that, the bathroom wall.

This trivialization of rape is a cruel insult to all the women who have been raped, by a stranger or an acquaintance, and not by being exposed to inappropriate innuendoes. Nor does it empower women to tell them they have no responsibility for their lives, no need to explicitly deny consent before claiming the increasingly and universally popular status of victim.

This fantastically broad definition of rape makes reports of an epidemic of sexual assault on campuses highly suspect. In the largest survey of campus date rape, 43 percent of women classified as rape victims had not realized they'd been raped. Ms. Gutmann asks, ''If you have to convince a woman that she's been raped, how meaningful is that conclusion?''

Last year, the Stanford Rape Education Project announced that nearly one in three female students and one in 10 male students had been raped, almost always by an acquaintance. Only 10 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men had ever mentioned it to anyone, much less reported it. In fact, no acquaintance rapes had been reported on campus in the previous 10 years.

Many of the women pressured into sex didn't think it was rape, said sophomore Suzanne O'Brien, who worked on the survey. ''Compared to a crime like mugging, they know what that is, but people are hesitant to label a rape as a crime.''

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