Thank feminists for rape reforms

August 13, 2002|By Susan Jacoby

ANYONE WHO denigrates the feminist movement of the 1970s -- including young women who declare, "I'm no feminist" -- should take a look at a tape of an interview with two teen-age heroes who appeared together last week on the Today show.

Tamara Brooks, 16, and Jacqueline Marris, 17, were abducted at gunpoint from a lover's lane in Lancaster, Calif., driven to a remote location, raped and held captive for 12 hours before sheriff's deputies shot and killed their kidnapper. The young women, who did not know each other before they were taken from separate cars, kept their wits and worked together, communicating by tracing letters in each other's palms, to distract the kidnapper.

Heads held high, Ms. Brooks and Ms. Marris looked into the camera and spoke of their struggle to survive with a frankness and absence of shame that would have been unimaginable for rape victims a generation ago. They patted each other and their mothers on the arm and concentrated not on the rapes but on the fact that they felt lucky to be alive.

That frankness is a victory for all women but especially for older feminists, now in their 50s and 60s, who set out three decades ago to change the culture's entrenched and pervasive "blame the victim" approach to rape.

In the 1970s, young women like Ms. Brooks and Ms. Marris were so ashamed of having been raped that they often failed to tell their families -- much less the police. In her pioneering 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, the author Susan Brownmiller describes the ridicule initially directed toward radical feminists who organized "speak-outs" on rape in the early 1970s: "You're talking about rape? Incredible! ... You're actually having women give testimony about their own rapes and what happened to them afterward, the police, the hospitals, the courts? Far out!"

Then, Ms. Brownmiller recalls, the "nervous giggles that betray confusion, fear and shame disappeared and in their place was the dim recognition that in daring to speak the unspoken, women had uncovered yet another part of our oppression, perhaps the central key."

I remember the secrecy and shame that surrounded even a rumor of rape (a word we never actually used) when I was in high school in Michigan in the early 1960s. There was a rumor that a classmate, parked in our local lover's lane with her boyfriend, had been dragged from the car by a motorcycle gang and forced to submit to unspeakable acts. No one knew whether the girl had really been raped. She and her boyfriend weren't talking, and the motorcyclists (whom we called hoods) were the ones who spread the story. But the mere rumor was enough to ruin the girl's reputation, and a swift breakup with her boyfriend added to the speculation.

Indeed, the very fact that a girl had been parked with a boy -- even though we all did it -- was enough to suggest that she was "asking for it."

It was especially moving to me to see Ms. Marris and Ms. Brooks flanked by their mothers on national television. Ms. Brooks' mother had been in Korea visiting her elder daughter, an Army sergeant, at the time of the abduction. She had feared that she would be returning home for a funeral, in view of several recent instances of young girls who were kidnapped, raped and then murdered.

Both mothers talked about how proud they were of their daughters, and that, too, was a revelation of how much has changed since I was a teen-ager. I am certain that most of my high school classmates would have been afraid to tell their parents that they had been raped.

We might have been wrong about our parents' reaction, but the expectation that we would be blamed for having placed ourselves in harm's way was inculcated by the culture in which we were raised.

The private pain of a woman whose physical and spiritual integrity are violated by a rapist has not changed since I was a teen-ager, but, as this case demonstrates, the public humiliation attached to being a victim has diminished considerably.

In most areas of the country (though there are ignominious exceptions), a woman who reports a rape can count on two things -- that she will be able to tell her story to a female police officer and will receive appropriate medical treatment in a hospital emergency room. In court, many rape victims are still humiliated by being asked about their past sexual histories (particularly if their assailant was not a stranger), but the burden of proof has shifted considerably since 1965, when a police officer told me that "the ideal prosecution witness to rape is a 14-year-old certified virgin -- and it'd be better if she was 11."

Our society has the feminist movement to thank for all of these structural reforms. But the most important change brought about by the women's movement is abandonment of the antediluvian notion that rape is "a fate worse than death." Nothing is worse than death, as these two courageous teen-agers understood when they joined forces to save their lives.

Susan Jacoby is the author of Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge.

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