After Palm Beach: Winners, Losers

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 13, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- The trial is over. It's safe to leave the front page around where the kids can see it. The only phrase that will send them to the dictionary this morning is nuclear proliferation.

Now, in the aftermath, we have a phalanx of analysts talking about winners and losers. The defense and the prosecution. Willie and the woman. The Kennedys and the media. Men and women.

It's the last set of ''opponents'' that seems the most curious to me. The idea is going around that Mr. Smith's acquittal sends a ''wrong signal'' to the country. That it's ''bad for women.'' A handful of activists have said that this proves how hard it is for any woman to be believed. And at least one rape counselor intimated that the verdict is: It's open season on women.

Well, hang on a minute, please.

It is hard to convict a defendant in a rape case when there are only two people at the scene, or on the lawn, if you prefer. It's supposed to be hard to find someone guilty. If I had been on the jury, listening to the admissible testimony, I'd have let Willie walk.

And spare me the analogies to the Clarence Thomas hearings. The issue was whether a man would go to jail for a few years, not whether he'd go to the Supreme Court for life.

The jurors' doubts don't mean they thought the accuser was a pathological liar, a vicious seductress, or a head case. If she had been charged with making a false accusation, they would have acquitted her too. So would I have. But they had to make a decision and anything close to a tie goes to the defendant. They gave him the benefit of the reasonable doubt. Innocent, as they say, until PROVED guilty.

Will that scare off women who are victims of rape? Will it make them think thrice before going to court? Maybe so, maybe for a while, but there's nothing new in that unhappy fact. If anything we are seeing a slow shift in the balance of believability toward women. I don't buy this notion that the verdict was generically ''bad for women,'' that it ''set back women,'' and all those phrases used by the scorekeepers of female progress.

What is progress after all in the course of sexual politics? Is it marked by an increase in the number of men in jail? Or by a decrease in the number of assaults? I don't want to choose between law enforcement and ''crime'' prevention, but I would chart the long run of progress by the change in attitudes and behavior.

This case raised a warning flag to men. William Kennedy Smith was no masculinist hero. Even in the best scenario, his behavior won no citation for sexual sensitivity. Even in the most positive light, we still saw a young doctor having a one-night stand of unprotected sex with a stranger and dispensing of her with post-coital post-haste. No stamp of approval came on his acquittal.

If this case made a lot of ordinary men uneasy, if they reran old sexual tapes in their heads -- Did she or didn't she consent? Did she or didn't she say yes? How did I behave? -- that's all to the good. If a lot of ordinary women flashed back to sexual encounters of a third kind -- neither rape nor desire -- that, too, changes behavior. Before the fact, or at least, the next fact.

Date rape, after all, occurs in a context, a culture that -- still -- expects men to be assertive and women to be resistant. A rape conviction requires that a woman prove her resistance. But a decent sexual experience assumes much much more than not saying no. We've heard more conversation about men, women and sex, swirling out of the Florida courtroom than ever in my memory. So we can mark progress less by one ruling of guilt or innocence than in the public sense of what is right and wrong between men and women.

You can't win them all. You don't deserve to win them all. But the verdict in Palm Beach has done nothing to change the evidence: Sexual standards are, slowly, changing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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