The lessons to take from Owens verdict

July 25, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

If there is a lesson to be learned from the acquittal of Navy quarterback Lamar Owens on rape charges, it is this:

Young women, if you choose to drink yourself into oblivion, you bear some responsibility for and expose yourself to whatever happens next.

The female midshipman who accused Owens of raping her in her bunk in Bancroft Hall in January admitted to drinking so much that night that she blacked out. She had seven drinks, including hard liquor, in a two-hour period, and she was out of it. Totally. And not for the first time, witnesses testified.

That night, according to testimony, she was too drunk to resist Owens or cry out for help from a sleeping roommate. And she passed out in the middle of whatever happened next.

She was not walking back from the library alone at night. He did not leap out of a darkened corner and overpower her. He did not drug her drink at a party. He did not trap her in a locked bathroom with three of his teammates.

She was vulnerable - most women are physically vulnerable to men - but when she made the decision to make herself more vulnerable, she ceased to be blameless.

I have a son who graduated from the Naval Academy, and I understand the lesson that the prosecution of Owens was meant to teach: that women who are harassed or assaulted at that place should not fear to come forward because the offending male midshipman, no matter what his stature, will be punished for all to see.

But this case is more complicated than that.

This was about the Naval Academy scapegoating a star football player to repair its reputation for institutional prejudice against women.

This was about how midshipmen are held to a higher standard on their campus than other college students are on theirs.

This was about a female midshipman who was granted total immunity for all her ancillary misconduct in exchange for her willingness to pursue a rape charge, and the impact that alone had on her credibility and will have on the credibility of any future rape victims.

This was about the bruising of a young woman's reputation to mitigate a young man's behavior. (There was so much testimony about her binge drinking and her previous relationships that any female midshipman will now think twice about prolonging the ordeal of rape with a military trial.)

This was a case of two young people who might have been too drunk - Owens testified that he had been drinking, too - to have any good judgment left that evening, let alone any clear recollection of what happened.

This was not about a woman saying No! after having said Yes before. This was a case, at least in part, about the changing nature of sex among young people. It has become a devalued currency, and young people just the ages of the midshipmen in this case have been instrumental in its devaluation.

If young adults trade sex the way we once traded phone numbers, don't be surprised if a jury doesn't think what happened in a case like this is any big deal. Don't be surprised when nobody in the courtroom can agree on the definition of consent.

And don't be surprised if a jury is not willing to condemn a young man to life in prison for something you might have agreed to, if you hadn't been so drunk.

It is not that a man is free to have sex with a woman who is too drunk to object. It is not that a woman who gets blind drunk deserves to be raped. It is that a woman who gets blind drunk is that much more likely to be raped, or to have her purse stolen or to step off a curb and sprain her ankle.

If she knows that and gets blind drunk anyway, what are we to say to her? Can she expect to be consoled as the victim? The verdict in this case suggests not, and I do not fault that verdict.

Yes, I have a son who graduated from the academy, but I have no special sympathies for Owens because of that.

I also have a daughter. And the lesson for her and for all her young women friends is this: If you don't want to wake up in the middle of a nightmare, don't drink yourself into oblivion.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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