Fla. case focuses debate on 'acquaintance rape'

April 21, 1991|By Randi Henderson

The cry of rape that was sounded after a recent incident at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Fla., has reverberated nationwide, reviving discussion about one of the thorniest aspects of the crime -- acquaintance rape.

On Easter weekend, according to a number of reported accounts, a young woman encountered members of the Kennedy clan at a Palm Beach bar, ended up at the Kennedy compound, and later accused William Kennedy Smith, nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., of rape. No criminal charges have been filed.

The incident has received widespread publicity and has focused attention on the issue of whether "date" or "acquaintance" rape -- when a woman is forced into sex by a man she knows, often after agreeing to see him socially -- should be considered in the same legal and social context as "stranger" rape, typified by a man accosting an unprotected woman on a dark street or after breaking into her home.

"It makes no sense at all not to have distinctions between date rape and stranger rape," said novelist Avery Corman, whose latest book, "Prized Possessions," is about date rape.

"There are distinctions in different types of murders," he noted.

Mr. Corman, the author of "Kramer vs. Kramer," spoke last week at Loyola College, kicking off a series of events marking Rape Awareness Week, which begins today.

Most people agree that the public today is better educated about rape than ever before. "Finally we're breaking the silence and talking about it," said M. Therese Kelly, community educator for the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore, citing the increasing number of invitations she receives to address school and community groups.

"People seem more knowledgeable about the issue, and it doesn't have the stigma that it once did," agreed Bonnie Ariano, director of the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center of Baltimore County. "There is increased understanding that a rape victim is a victim -- it's not something she did."

But much of the talk the past year has been about acquaintance rape, which for some people muddies something that had once been clear-cut. Discussion of acquaintance rape, for some, dilutes the horror of rape as a violent crime. Others fear a backlash that minimizes public reaction to rape.

This emphasis on acquaintance rape "is trivializing the actual outrage of real rape," said Camille Paglia, a writer, teacher (at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia) and an unconventional feminist whose opinions have incurred the wrath of more mainstream feminists.

Ms. Paglia sees the Kennedy case as "absurd, if the facts are as they have been reported. This was a stupid girl doing a stupid thing."

Newly emerging attitudes about acquaintance rape -- which she described as "whining, crybaby behavior" -- are demeaning to women, she said.

"The relation between the sexes has never changed," she said. "A girl has to be on her guard always, and the idea that she is totally guiltless in a situation makes her an infant. She must take personal responsibility for her behavior. Only she can protect herself."

While making the point that rape is rape whether the assailant is known to the victim or not, Ms. Ariano acknowledged that with acquaintance rape "there are still a lot of questions in people's minds."

"There's still a belief in people's minds, 'That's OK -- if they went on a date, it's sort of a mutual thing.' It's a harder concept for people to understand," she said. "And if that has resulted in minimizing the issue of rape, that's very unfortunate."

The issue of acquaintance rape "really does make things murky," said Dr. Charles McDowell, a psychologist and criminal investigator for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Dr. McDowell recently published a study of unsolved rape cases, with the conclusion that many had been incidents of false reporting.

"The basis of a false allegation is to solve a problem," he said. "People find themselves in a difficult situation and fudge the facts. For a real victim, rape never solves a problem, it creates a problem."

Dr. McDowell said that the question of acquaintance rape, where there is at times uncertainty as to whether a crime had even been committed, is compounded because "sexually aggressive people are like chicken hawks. They pick people with care, in hopes that they won't offer resistance."

Such people often do not file criminal complaints.

"It is false and incredibly dangerous to women who are victimized to say that date rape is not as serious or as violent as stranger rape," said Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies.

Jack Kammer, director of an organization called the Greater Baltimore Commission for Men, said that men and women and their motivations should be considered when discussing acquaintance rape.

"We hear much about how often men think about sex," he said. "I think it would be helpful to ask women to recognize how often they think about being sexy."

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