The Oracle of the Gray Spot


December 10, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — The women in this case fill a Rolodex of roles. Presiding over the courtroom: a woman judge. Prosecuting for the state: a woman lawyer. Testifying as an expert witness: a woman emergency-room physician.

On the front bench, a phalanx of females named Kennedy: mother, aunt, family defender. And looming over them all, the accuser: woman as victim or vixen. Old roles, new ones, traditional, and even post-feminist -- how many female images can fit into a courtroom? What do they say about how much life has changed for women, and how little?

I will not attempt to scoop some redeeming social message from the hazardous waste oozing out of Palm Beach. The trial of William Kennedy Smith has been stripped of any such pretense. Neither CNN -- the station that gave us the war in the Persian Gulf -- nor the press even attempt any longer to flavor this story with any greater issues. The people who line up for seats have come not for social insight but for a glimpse of her undies and his uncle.

But what of the women who read about this case . . . despite themselves? What of the young women who were glued to the strange, talking gray spot on their television sets -- the spot that blocked out the accuser's face, turning her into Everywoman or Nowoman? What about their body language as they watched and listened and thought about rape, violence, consent, sex and their own vulnerability and responsibility?

In the months since this story first emerged, and in the days since the trial opened I have talked with a number of young women about the complexity of their own changed lives. They have grown up being told that they can be the judge, the lawyer, the doctor AND the rape victim. Why, they can have it all.

If there is one thing that unites these women in an era when much of sisterhood has been shattered by success it is the fear of sexual violence. This is the chill in the campus air, the threat in the garage late at night, the tension on their faces as they listen to this woman's story.

But there is also enormous confusion around the words that infiltrate their single lives with less terror than the word rape: words like sexuality, sexiness, and the nature of ''consensual sex.'' It is as if another huge gray spot has covered up these topics too, making it hard to see clearly.

Any woman under 40 has grown up with the disintegration of the double sexual standard. But it didn't evolve into a single standard but into a thousand smaller ones. Cultural cues are no longer universal and the likelihood that two people who meet will share the same assumptions isn't as high as it once was.

Today, one woman gives her daughter black lace underwear to lift her spirits. Another considers this underwear proof that this daughter was looking for love in all the wrong places. One woman feels free to sit in a bar past midnight or go home with a man if she wants. Another woman, man or jury, asks, ''What was she doing there at 3 o'clock in the morning?''

We have increased exponentially the number of messages hand-delivered to women. Be free and safe. Be sexually attractive -- but careful. Be sexually active if-you-must -- and more careful. Even Disney's updated heroine, Beauty, is given the contemporary mythic task of fending off one overbearing man's attention while turning another, a Beast, into a prince.

In Palm Beach, the jury is being asked to determine if this was rape or consensual sex. But I hear young -- and not so young -- women talk about the contour of consent, the nature of not-saying-no in their own experience.

They hear of a woman being ''tackled'' on the lawn, of a brief encounter in which the standard of pleasure was his own, and another woman left worried about pregnancy. They talk about the times they did not say no and the men who didn't notice that they didn't say yes. Even now-and-future doctors, lawyers and judges talk about the difficulty of setting their own sexual standard in such uncertain times.

There is no crime for sexual mis-manners, for thoughtlessness or the absence of tenderness. But there are personal penalties we hear about every day. In a time of fewer norms the only way to bridge the gaps of changing sexual mores is through public and private conversation.

So we have the case with a giant gray spot. In this year's on-going dialogue about men and women, the Palm Beach trial has become another unhappy, unseemly and riveting conversation piece.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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