Lessons from the Smith Verdict

December 13, 1991

Now that the titillation is over, the question is how William Kennedy Smith's rape trial will affect the way Americans treat one another or, more specifically, the way American men treat American women. Viewed in that context -- and only in that context -- it can be compared to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill battle over sexual harassment in the workplace.

In our view, the Thomas-Hill dispute did indeed raise male awareness that their female colleagues often are annoyed, embarrassed, even traumatized not just by blatant pressure for sexual favors but by unseemly jokes or language and unacceptable terms of endearment. Reports from around the country after the Supreme Court nominee was confirmed suggested that not only employers but co-workers became more circumspect in their attitude toward women in the work force.

To that extent, the Senate circus and the explicit language it projected into the living room became less important than the prospect of improved behavior and sensitivity on the part of many Americans. The fact that Mr. Thomas squeaked through to confirmation will become less relevant over time than the impact of Ms. Hill's testimony on human relationships.

To avoid drawing too close a parallel to the Thomas trial, it must be noted that the "alleged victim" (as CNN repeatedly described her), who claimed she was raped by one of the scions of the Kennedy family, was a far less compelling witness for women's rights than Professor Hill. With testimony on the sexual past of both principals ruled out, it became a he-said, she-said affair in which, as is usual in rape cases, the doctrine of reasonable doubt predictably led to acquittal.

Yet now that the jury's verdict is in, of greater importance is how this highly publicized event will affect ordinary people. If men, having watched Mr. Smith's ordeal, start taking "no" as a serious demand from women to stop the sexual advances, this will be a step forward in American mores. If women, touched by the victim's story, become more careful and more militant in defending themselves from date rape and other unacceptable assaults upon their persons, this too will be a plus.

All the old verities -- kindness, understanding, respect, decency, nonviolence -- still apply.

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