A society of victims

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 21, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

"First one group wants rights, next thing you know, the whole damn world wants rights." -- Poet Gil Scott-Heron.

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"I have worked with women who were raped as long ago as 40 years ago and who were still trying to come to terms with it, still trying to regain control of their lives," said Cecelia Carroll, director of the Sexual Assault Recovery Center here.

"That's the thing you have to understand about rape," Carroll continued. "It is such a terrible, terrible, terrible thing. You feel that you have lost control of your person. You feel that you have been denied the opportunity to make a very fundamental decision about your life. You feel powerless. You feel awfully, awfully dirty. You feel guilty, as though, somehow, you were at fault."

In January, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., introduced the Violence Against Women Act of 1991, declaring that "today, it is easier to convict a car thief than a rapist. Police officers are more likely to arrest a man for parking tickets than for beating his wife."

Biden's bill, which is due for a hearing next month, would funnel some $500 million in federal funds toward shelters for battered women, counseling services and law enforcement efforts.

It also would classify rape and other gender-based assaults as "hate" or "bias" crimes akin to racism or anti-Semitism. The act would allow victims to sue their assailants for damages under federal civil rights provisions.

In some ways, the effect of this provision would be largely symbolic because women can seek civil damages against their assailants in state courts under the same tort provisions applicable to everyone.

But the surprising thing, the sad thing, is that many of those in the field insist that in these days and times a forceful statement against rape might still be necessary.

Rape victims still are cross-examined about their own actions as though they had somehow enticed men to rape. A huge number of cases still are never brought to trial, either because the victim decides not to testify, or because prosecutors believe the circumstances are too ambiguous to win a conviction.

And women's-rights advocates insist the cultural context of rape has not changed as much as people believe it has.

"Our society sanctions violence against women in the same way it sanctioned slavery and racism against blacks," Carroll said. "We tell people it's OK in ways that are so subtle that we may not even be aware of it. The rapist sees a movie where a woman says, 'No, no,' and then succumbs in the end. So then he refuses to believe that 'no' means 'no.' "

"It is almost eerie," agreed Scott Shellenberger, of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office.

"In every woman's mind, there is no question they were raped," he said. "But then you talk to the defendant and many of them are equally certain in their minds that they had had a normal sexual encounter. I bet many could even pass a polygraph test. Yet, they will describe the same circumstances, the same chain of events, but with completely different interpretations."

Shellenberger and other law enforcement officers said the demented serial rapist who attacks strangers at random is relatively rare.

"I wouldn't say in the majority of the cases the rapist hates women per se, although that may be true of the serial rapist," he said. "For instance, we don't often see the rapist screaming gender epithets, the way a racist may scream racial epithets during an attack.

"But the majority of the cases we see involve men with a distorted view of women, or who see women in a demeaning, degrading way."

Not everyone working against sexual offenses applaud Biden's approach.

In fact, Dr. John Money, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist, insisted society would be better served if we sought to treat sexual offenders rather than incarcerate them.

"This is a sexological illness," Money said, "and you don't solve medical problems and psychological problems by building more jails to put . . . [the convicted rapists] in."

Money said a less punitive approach to these illnesses would encourage more men to seek help before they hurt others.

"But we don't do that, do we?" he said sadly. "No. We're a self-destructive little society, aren't we?"

Actually, we're worse off than that. We are a society of victims. I know it seems as though everyone is clamoring for their rights these days. But it's got to be that way.

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