His Date, Her Rape

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 03, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- I am told by those who can find the silver lining in a cloud of squid ink that there is some good news in the media storm centered over Palm Beach. It has focused attention on date rape.

Maybe so, but not every spotlight is truly enlightening. Date rape is the should-be oxymoron that we use to distinguish rapes committed by acquaintances from those committed by strangers. It is also a phrase that glues together the two sides of the story. His date and her rape.

Which story is the truth this time? What really happened in the Kennedy compound on Easter weekend? If this case gets to trial, I will bet big money on the courtroom scenario. The man will portray steamy sexual intercourse in the grass with just a spicy soupcon of rough stuff. The woman will describe sexual assault and a piercing violation of her will.

Moreover, if both of these parties go to the polygraph machine, it is entirely possible that they will separately and equally pass their lie detector tests with flying colors.

Because in fact both may believe what they say. This is what is so unsettling about this so-called ''gray area'' of sexual assault. Two people leave the scene of a sexual encounter, one remembering pleasure, the other pain.

In the most often cited 1985 study of 6,000 college students, University of Arizona Professor Mary Koss found that over 25 percent of college women had experienced a completed or attempted rape since their 14th birthday. Four out of five of these encounters were with men they knew. But among college men, only 8 percent admitted to behavior that fit these definitions.

It isn't that the same 8 percent of the men are assaulting 25 percent of the women. Nor are they necessarily lying. The kernel of the research suggests, rather, that many men simply don't believe they have used force. Not really. Nor do they believe that the women have resisted. Not really.

In alleging date rape, Ms. Koss says, ''The women reported that they had said 'no' forcefully and repeatedly. The men held out the possibility that 'no' meant 'yes.'

''The women considered the amount of force as moderately severe. The men, though they noticed a degree of resistance, believed it could be consistent with seduction. They believed women enjoyed being roughed up to a certain extent.''

How is it possible that there is such a perceptual gap about ''consent'' for sex? It is, in part, the Gone-With-the-Wind fantasy: Scarlett O'Hara carried to bed kicking and screaming, only to wake up humming and singing. It is the bodice-ripping, Gothic novel, rock-and-rape cultural messages. It is the ancient script of the mating game -- he persists, she resists -- that passes for PTC ''normal'' sexual relationships.

All of this leaves the burden of proof on a woman that she didn't really want it or didn't at least accede to it. But Professor Koss asks mischievously and seriously what would happen if the burden of proof were turned around.

''How could a man convince us that he went into the sexual encounter with the intention of a satisfying sexual experience?'' she asks. ''Did he try to determine whether she liked sex outdoors, liked it on the ground. What did he find out about disease and pregnancy prevention? Do you see the difference I am trying to suggest?''

What if a woman's pleasure were the standard of consent? And why is that the sort of question only asked by stand-up female comics?

There are women who like ''being roughed up.'' There are women who make false accusations. Probably in similar numbers. The FBI estimates that 2 to 4 percent of all reported rapes are false and only a small percentage of rapes are reported.

When date rape reaches the courtroom, says Ms. Koss, picking her words carefully, ''the only way to convince a jury that his force went beyond the 'normal' male assertiveness in pursuing his sexual agenda, and that her resistance went beyond the 'normal' female reticence in the interest of protecting her purity or inexperience, is if she sustained a lot of injury.''

Without such an injury, without a witness, we have only the two and opposing views of a man and a woman. Without a legal recourse, the hope lies on ''crime-prevention'' and that means closing the gap in sexual perceptions.

So, I am told, the Palm Beach story has focused attention on date rape. But I'm afraid that all we are likely to learn from this celebrated story is that we still live in a culture in which he says date and she says rape. And each fervently calls the other a liar.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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