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She Asked For It

[whitespace] Victoria Brown
Eyes of Justice: Assistant District Attorney Victoria Brown, team leader of Santa Clara County's sexual assault unit, says the penal code does not differentiate between acquaintance rape and stranger rape. She believes more women are realizing that their actions should not be used as justification for rape.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

'Date rape' has a name and a conviction record now, but not all rapes are deemed worthy of prosecution. How society's views lag behind the law, keeping the shame alive.

By Kelly Luker

BACK IN 1985, my friend Kimberly woke up at 3am with a gun pointed at her head by a masked stranger, who then raped and brutalized her for the next three hours. Another friend, Lauren, was hitching her way across the Big Island in the '70s when the Moke who offered her a ride pulled out a gun and raped her. And me, I was also hitchhiking in the late '60s, and one particular ride through Berkeley left me on the corner, raped--not the destination I was planning.

What's remarkable is how unremarkable Lauren's and my stories are. When we talk about it--and we rarely do--we still call Kimberly's experience the "bad" rape, the "real" rape.

As opposed to ours.

As opposed to what happened to Jodi Chancellor*, a sex worker who was raped at knifepoint near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk earlier this year. After this all-too-real attack, she called the boss of the outcall dating service she worked for. She was in hysterics, and he insisted she get to the hospital. The Santa Cruz Police Department's Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) was called in, which included a specially trained nurse examiner. No one doubts she was raped, including the district attorney and the investigating detective. But Jodi didn't get her say in court because charges were never filed against the assailant, even though he had prior arrests as well as a restraining order against him by a former girlfriend because of violence.

Four women, four different decades. In some ways, the attitudes about sexual assault have changed light years according to those who read or write about rape, who prosecute rape or who are raped. In some ways, things haven't changed much at all.

Known Dangers

PLUG THE WORD rape into one of the Internet's search engines, and it will chug its way through "adults only" Web sites like "XXXRape!" or "Awesome Rape Page!" offering evidence that the act of forced sex feeds a secluded fantasy life for men and, some argue, women, too. Yet the Web also yields up vast repositories of medical, sociological and statistical information about sexual assault. There are definitions and subclassifications of this most intimate form of violence--date rape, acquaintance rape, stranger rape, male-on-male rape--as well as resources and the requisite online support groups for victims.

The most commonly quoted stats are from the National Victim Center, which estimates that about 700,000 women in this country are raped each year. With rates four times higher than Germany's and 13 times greater than England's, one might conclude that rape is the quintessential American pastime, like football or county fairs. Most importantly--for this is the fuel that feeds the secrecy--chances are at least four out of five--locals peg it closer to nine out of 10--that the female victim of rape knows her attacker.

Kimberly's experience is the anomaly, it turns out, though this is the awful experience women arrange their lives around preventing. Don't go down that street, don't go out alone at night, lock all the doors and always, always watch your back. But rape is much more likely to follow on the heels of foolish choices and bad decisions--accepting rides from helpful strangers, getting too drunk at a party or, even more controversially, as in Jodi's case, making a date to sell sex, yet ending up raped instead. It is these situations that breed not only self-contempt but silence: The University of Chicago estimates that only 1.7 percent of the victims of acquaintance rape ever report it.

Kimberly, if authorities had ever caught her attacker, could have been assured of an aggresive prosecution on her behalf. Yet that the man who raped Jodi was never charged is not so much an indictment of the justice system as it is a statement of how we still view the majority of women who are raped--the majority who are, we're sure, in some way at fault.

Prosecution Complex

PATTY BAZAR LEANS forward in her cluttered office, talking passionately about her work on behalf of victims of sexual assault. Until her recent transfer, Bazar was assigned to the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Sexual Assault Unit, created in July 1996. Stacks of files containing graphic evidence of forcible sodomy, brutal beatings and a whole menu of violence disguised as sex sit oddly juxtaposed with pictures of Bazar's sweet-faced children looking down from the walls.

Bazar is forthcoming about the special problems posed by prosecuting acquaintance rape in general, Jodi's case in particular. A warm and open woman, Bazar strikes me as one I would have felt safe talking to about my experience almost 30 years ago, had I even considered reporting it. And there's good reason. Bazar was also sexually assaulted, it turns out, the victim of a friendly stranger offering the young freshman a ride to tour the campus. That she was also assaulted in Berkeley provides a black-humor bonding moment between us.

Like so many, she told no one, least of all the police. "I remember thinking I was going to die," she muses, giving voice to the common link among most rape victims. But she figures those moments of terror and its aftermath have given her a special empathy for sex-crimes victims and perhaps has guided her to what she calls this "neglected" corner of prosecution.

"Years ago [sex-crimes prosecution] was not an assignment that anyone wanted," Bazar says. She will be the first to admit that prosecuting rape--particularly acquaintance rape--is much harder than murder.

"To put it bluntly, in homicide, the victim is dead," Bazar says. "But with sexual assault, the victim is an open, bleeding wound. And rape, by its nature, has few witnesses." And Bazar must figure on how it's going to play for the jury, a pool made up of people who, she notes, "have such different opinions of what's right and wrong in the sexual arena."

Bazar handled Jodi's case and says she believes that the outcall worker was raped. "If not, she'd have to get the Academy Award [for acting]," says the district attorney. According to interviews conducted by Bazar and detectives, the alleged rapist requested Jodi from an outcall dating service. When Jodi showed up, the 23-year-old man asked her to turn around so he could look at her body. When she did, he pulled her pants down, pulled a knife on her and demanded both intercourse and oral copulation. When he was done, he rummaged through her purse, writing down her address from her driver's license and then taking her money.

When questioned, the alleged rapist says that he had hired Jodi once before and that Jodi was lying about the rape because he did not tip her $75 on top of her usual $200 fee, like he did the time before.

But after 18 years as a prosecuting attorney, Bazar says she has a pretty good idea of who's making up a story for payback and who isn't. Jodi fell into the latter category. The problem was that Jodi steadfastly denied that the "escort service" she provided included sex, even though she was arrested only a month before for soliciting an undercover cop. In the prosecutors' eyes, the young woman shaped up to be a lousy witness and a less than sympathetic victim.

"This doesn't have to do with whether you're a victim," Bazar says. "My decision [to not prosecute] is based on what 12 people are likely to believe." She pauses for a moment. "It's unfortunate, because it's a trauma."

And the trauma isn't over. Jodi's employer says that the alleged rapist has called back numerous times leaving abusive messages. And, yes, the employer says, the rapist defended his actions toward Jodi by saying "she asked for it."

Regretted Sex

RAPE, LIKE ALCOHOLISM or incest, has found its way out of the closet and is now taking its turn in the media spotlight, spilling over onto talk shows, numerous Lifetime movies and periodic confessionals from celebrities. The topic has become popular enough to spawn its own backlash, with authors like Katie Roiphe, who wrote The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus. In that controversial 1994 book, Roiphe questions the excesses of some factions of the feminist movement that wield the definition of rape, in Roiphe's opinion, far too broadly. When coeds get too drunk and sleep with guys that they normally wouldn't, this act should more rightfully be termed "regretted sex," not rape, Roiphe says. To do otherwise not only trivializes the brutality of experiences like Kimberly's, but feeds a generation of young women into the maw of victimhood. And victimhood, Roiphe correctly posits, is the antithesis of the goals of true feminism.

Gillian Greensite, the coordinator of UCSC's rape-prevention education program, agrees with some of Roiphe's basic tenets. Since founding the program 18 years ago, Greensite has talked with more than 700 women who have been sexually assaulted.

"I've been very outspoken and clear on what we should call rape and not call rape," Greensite says. "Some feel that anytime a woman is drinking and sex happens, then it's rape. That's a problem, because it minimizes the seriousness of rape."

Victoria Brown, the assistant district attorney who is team leader of Santa Clara County's sexual assault unit, wants it emphasized that the penal code also does not differentiate between acquaintance rape and stranger rape--nor should juries.

"Somebody does not have to say no and does not have to physically resist," Brown says, clarifying the legal aspects of the crime of rape. Like most experts, the attorney notes that, overwhelmingly, the victims know their assailant. Yet she believes that more women--like Jodi--are realizing that their actions should not be used as justification for rape.

"I don't see too many adult women saying, 'I shouldn't have let him buy me a drink' or 'I shouldn't have gotten in the car,' " Brown says. "I think the whole sexual assault arena has changed."

Santa Cruz DA Bazar agrees with Brown that, in spite of cases like Jodi's, things may be getting a little better for sexual assault victims. She tells of one woman dumped out beside Highway 1, having been raped and beaten while in an alcoholic blackout. Although she was last seen dancing topless on a table in a bar before being 86'd--shades of Jodie Foster's role in The Accused--the jury found in the victim's favor. It may have helped that the rapist said he had to smash her head into the wall to "get her in the mood."

That acquaintance rape is still a hard sell when it comes to getting a conviction may be due not only to our timeless desire to hold women responsible for the temptation of men--think Adam and Eve--but to problems inherent in the legal system itself. Although Brown points out that in the eyes of justice, there is no difference between stranger rape and acquaintance rape, Bazar wonders if it is time to rethink statutes that were written before the turn of the century.

"There needs to be degrees of rape [recognized by the legal system]," Bazar says. Such a move would give juries the latitude to convict when such a choice wouldn't demand automatic prison time. She knows that she is treading controversial ground, that critics say such a move would trivialize the seriousness of rape. On the contrary, she insists, it would allow more victims to be heard in the justice system.

"One of the reasons it's difficult to prosecute is we're limited by an 'all or nothing' game. And it's helpful for victims that they're heard, that there's punishment."

Andrea's Fault

PERHAPS BAZAR is right. There's the guy who smashes a woman's head into the wall to get her in the mood, and at the other end of the spectrum, there are radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin who apply the term rape to just about every act or thought of sex in a patriarchal society. But somewhere in the middle are presumably millions of women for whom life just didn't go as planned. For some, like Kimberly, it had tragic consequences. She took years to recover, ending up twice in a psychiatric hospital when that night just wouldn't go away.

Lauren and I, on the other hand, never gave much thought to being rape victims--or, in recovery-speak, rape survivors. As Jill Ginghofer says of her younger days, long before she ever worked at the Santa Cruz Women's Crisis Support Agency, "Everybody I know was raped." It has become some post-'50s rite of passage, like a quinceañera or bat mitzvah, only without the party and well-wishers. While Lauren doesn't go so far as to say we asked for it, she says the unspeakable in these politically correct times.

"Look, we were dumb bunnies, running around out there without a lick of sense," Lauren says, somewhat ruefully. "What did we expect?"

Certainly less than what Jodi expected, which was justice. As Lauren's statement reflects, it did not even occur to my friend, or Patty Bazar or me that the legal system would even have a passing interest in a crime that we had, we were convinced, brought on ourselves.

But Jodi knew better. Unfortunately, her rapist is walking around free while Jodi lives in that little prison that the memories of a knife at your throat and the rape that follows will surely build around your soul. As Bazar says, "All violence traumatizes, but sexual violence traumatizes in its own special way."

In these enlightened times, it would appear that the myth still endures. Although women may no longer believe they asked for it, the rest of society still has a little catching up to do.

*The name of this victim was changed to protect anonymity.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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