British criticize laws in date rape cases Outpouring of sympathy goes to defendants in 2 acquittals

November 09, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Date rape is agitating the British these days. But much of the sympathy is going to the accused young men rather than to their victims.

And American-style political correctness is coming in for some abuse in the process.

Two recent acquittals of college men accused of rape have fueled the debate.

Austen Donnellan, 21, a history student at London's King's College, was cleared of charges of raping a fellow student allegedly too drunk to remember whether she gave consent.

A jury took just 35 minutes to acquit Matthew Kydd, 21, a computer student at City College in Norwich, who was accused of raping another student who said she said no to "full sex" after considerable passion.

The current controversy about date rape was sparked by an earlier conviction of a 37-year-old lawyer charged with raping another lawyer who allowed him to bunk in her room after a dance.

"Sex as an issue, obsession, public activity and the subject of interminable chatter seems to have become an essential element in the public realm," says Bryan Appleyard in the Independent newspaper.

The acquittals have prompted calls for review of rape laws and for removing anonymity from women who bring charges, or giving anonymity to alleged victimizers.

Lord Taylor, the lord chief justice, called the existing law unfair to the accused man.

He told a Law Society conference recently that both complainant and accused should be protected by anonymity as they were before the Criminal Justice Act of 1988. Public disclosure of the defendant's name was then allowed only after conviction.

Home Secretary Michael Howard, the Cabinet member responsible for the judiciary and law enforcement, has ordered a review of the 1988 law. Anonymity for the accused and the woman or allowing disclosure to be decided by the trial judge will be considered.

Mr. Howard will also ask Parliament for new legislation ending the practice of warning juries of the dangers of a conviction based solely on the victim's testimony.

But in the press, on TV and in the pubs and wine bars, the argument can hardly proceed without raising the issue of "political correctness." In Britain, that's become a catchall phrase used mostly pejoratively for everything from objection to racial stereotypes to support of unemployment insurance to condemnation of date rape.

Political correctness is widely seen as a baleful U.S. import. A clutch of U.S. feminists is presented as the matriarchy of political correctness. The complex dating rules from Antioch College, the progressive Ohio liberal arts college that figures prominently in the U.S. debate, are deemed as exotic as the mating habits of the three-toed sloth and as widespread on U.S. campuses as Levi's.

Katie Roiphe's book, "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus," -- "written from the bizarre and specialized perspective of the American university," in the words of one commentator -- has been widely cited in condemnation of political correctness.

The Times on Sunday printed excerpts from it twice, approvingly quoting Miss Roiphe's "attack on the most cherished fundamental belief of militant feminism: that all men are potential rapists and all women potential victims."

"If Austen Donnellan were an American student, he would very likely be scrapping a living waiting on table now," Margarette Driscoll wrote in an expansive essay in the Sunday Times.

"He could forget his hopes of a decent degree. . . . His former friends would avoid him," she said. Posters "denouncing" him would be distributed around the campus from which he had been expelled.

"For in America there would have been no doubt of Donnellan's guilt," Ms. Driscoll wrote.

"The dead hand of political correctness has fallen on sex, reducing romantic adventure -- the delightful first heady journey into the unknown -- to a series of prescribed moves to be negotiated and performed according to written rules."

Many Britons, including more than a few female columnists, seem to regard date rape as little more than a morning-after hangover that is part of the learning process.

"To wake up and find yourself in bed with someone whom sober you wouldn't touch with a barge pole is not such a big deal," wrote Nigella Lawson, a columnist for the Evening Standard.

"We've all been there, honey," she said. "It's called student life."

In the Daily Express, Rosemary Carpenter wrote: "For years, students have been to parties, had too much to drink and ended up in bed with each other.

"If either one regretted it -- and it was usually the girl -- she put it down to experience and resolved to be more careful next time," Ms. Carpenter said. "Now she cries rape."

In the two rape case acquittals in Britain, a considerable amount of the plaintiff's sexual history was admitted into evidence.

Answering defense counsel's questions, the 18-year-old plaintiff in the Kydd case admitted she had been nominated "Slut of the Year" at Norwich City College.

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