Down for the count

February 12, 1992

It doesn't matter that it was boxing star Mike Tyson who was convicted of rape Monday in an Indianapolis courtroom. What matters is that a wealthy and well-known man -- accused of violating a woman who had consented to be in his company -- is facing jail time for rape, a scenario many women thought unlikely.

At the core of this trial, like that of William Kennedy Smith, were some basic questions about how Americans view rape, and the values that underlie those judgments. Does a woman relinquish her right to press rape charges if she agrees to accompany a man to his home? His hotel room? Does he have a right to imply from her behavior, the way she dresses, the lateness of the hour, that she has consented to sex?

It is a mistake to overstate the parallels between the Smith an Tyson trials. The Smith case boiled down to a he-said, she-said argument that did little more than inflame public debate. The Tyson trial answered the questions succinctly. But together, these two highly publicized cases became a kind of morality play for America. As a result, perceptions are changing.

Tyson, for instance, claimed his accuser must have known he wanted sex because the day before he had bluntly told her with a four-letter word what he wanted to do to her. He said her acceptance of his invitation to party was consent. The prosecution argued that the victim -- a middle-class, suburban Sunday School teacher and a Miss Black America contestant -- would be unlikely to respond to a stranger, even a celebrity, who approached her with crude, sexually explicit language -- and that she was so trusting of Tyson she had even brought a camera to take pictures of famous people she thought she was going to meet that night, and invited her roommate along.

It might have been easy for the jury to go along with Tyson'implied what-did-she-expect defense. But that wasn't the central issue. At the heart of this case was the question: Did Mike Tyson brutally force this woman into having sex? The jury wisely focused on that point of contention, and the evidence was convincing -- from an emergency room physician who testified the victim suffered injuries consistent with rape, to character evidence and a roster of witnesses, including the chauffeur for Tyson in Indianapolis, who said the woman appeared scared and shaken when she emerged from Tyson's hotel.

Tyson's conviction will, of course, be appealed. But the case should have a ripple effect, nonetheless -- encouraging other women who have been raped to come forward, and warning men who share Mike Tyson's braggadocio that, as one juror put it, "rape is rape," and society now seems to have finally recognized it.

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