Publicity from Florida case worries rape awareness advocates

April 23, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

AS RAPE Awareness Week begins, Baltimore advocates for rape survivors worry that the notoriety of the rape reported at the Kennedy compound in Florida recently will inhibit women from ++ reporting sexual crimes.

A 29-year-old Florida woman has accused William Kennedy Smith, the nephew of Sen. Ted Kennedy, of raping her last month. Against her wishes, both NBC News and the New York Times have printed her name and detailed information about her life.

In keeping with tradition, however, the great majority of newspapers have withheld the woman's identity.

"What has happened to her is what rape survivors fear so much will happen to them: That if they say they were raped, their lives will become public," says Liz Style, coordinator of program services for Baltimore's Sexual Assault Recovery Center.

She points out that sexual crimes are the only ones with "alleged" victims.

"Intellectually you can understand that, but when you've been victimized already, it's like another violation . . . In a societal sense, I think that rape victims are the ones we don't believe. We still say, 'Well, you shouldn't have been out drinking' or 'You shouldn't have dressed a certain way.' We are the least forgiving of rape victims, and, as result, tend not to look hard at the perpetrators."

She cites a recent case of a local elementary school student raped on her way home from school.

"All the attention focused on wanting to make the school or the parents appear irresponsible in some way. No one focused on the fact that there was an adult in the community who had raped a 9-year-old girl.

"I think one reason rape victims feel they are not going to be believed is because we seem to focus more on them than on the perpetrators. That's why they often don't come forward, especially when they were raped by someone they know."

Style says observers may distance themselves from their own fears by deciding rape survivors share the blame for their own victimization.

"If you say someone was raped because she dressed a certain way, you can believe it won't happen to you. We really don't want to face the fact that this crime could happen to us or to someone we love."

To increase community awareness and support of rape survivors, the Sexual Assault Recovery Center will sponsor a "Take Back the Night" rally at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Rash Field in the Inner Harbor. In the 1970s, "Take Back the Night" became the slogan of feminists who promoted womens' rights to public safety with the campaign to "reclaim" their right to travel at night without fear. The two-hour program will include talks by rape survivors as well as officials from SARC, The House of Ruth, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and The Women's Alliance of Maryland.

The Sexual Assault Recovery Center was formed in 1972 to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and alleviate its effects. Its services include a 24-hour crisis intervention hot line: 366-RAPE; individual, family and group counseling and medical, legal and police advocacy.

During the past few years, as the media has increased its coverage of sexual assault, more rape survivors have begun to talk about their experiences.

"What encourages recovery is when the rape survivor begins to make decisions about what happens in her life," Style says. "It's important to the recovery process that it's her choice to make her name public."

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