The Kennedy Rape Trial

Newsweek, Dec. 5, 1991
Assignment: Rape charges were brought in Florida against William Kennedy Smith. The ensuing media frenzy demonstrated how difficult it is for accusers to get a fair hearing.

For the advocates of rape victims, for the victims themselves, these may be the worst of times. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings promised to raise awareness of sexual abuse. The testimony did just that -- the public now knows how difficult such cases are to prove and the awful price accusers must pay simply to be heard.

Comes now the William Kennedy Smith trial in West Palm Beach, with live feed of the alleged victim's sobbing, vivid testimony. A gray blob wobbles over her face, even as NBC and the slow-fingered censors at CNN broadcast her name to the world. A friend testifying on her behalf, Anne Mercer, has been shown to have profited from the tragedy. Defense attorneys now subject the accuser to withering cross-examination about her intentions that night, the subtext of which is that she had planned to go drinking and looking for sex. Terrified of looking less than a saint, she feels compelled to say, over and over, that she can't recall much of the evening. The next day, she is asked to recall the state of Smith's erection. The defense attorney, says CNN, is earning a 5.8 share.

These cases were supposed to advance our understanding of sexual abuse, of what harassment is and how to respond to rape. Instead, many experts fear they are only increasing the reluctance of victims to step forward and, worse, breeding a new cynicism about sexual crimes.

"I think the clock is going backward," says Susan Mooney, vice president of the National Coalition Against Sexual Abuse. "The Clarence Thomas hearings revealed that men are immune when women make these allegations. And that may be confirmed if there's an acquittal in the Palm Beach trial." Everyone loves to note that these cases have "raised awareness" -- but what sort of awareness is it (fear? righteousness?), and is it likely to benefit society?

Certainly both proceedings have frightened and angered women, even those who have had no personal experience with sexual abuse. Catherine Meynardie, 30, a school psychologist in Jacksonville, Fla., has followed both the Thomas hearings and the rape trial down the coast. She's not sure she likes what she sees. "I don't know if this is good for women," says Meynardie. "You would think long and hard before coming forward now. It's apparently a lonely battle, and it's open season on your personal life."

Says a dubious Julie Hairston, 38, a political writer in Atlanta: "All we seem to have won is the right to be humiliated in a courtroom or some other public forum. I can't say that looks like progress to me."

It's impossible to imagine that a victim of sexual abuse, past or future, could take heart from the treatment of Anita Hill or from the inquisition to which Smith's accuser has been subjected. "The immediate benefits of all this are questionable," says Lynn Randall, executive director of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Atlanta. "Anita Hill was one of the most believable women in the country, and she was not believed. Now here's the Palm Beach trial, and they've been showing footage of where the victim got her underwear! It all makes women wonder what it takes to get people to believe them."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, that task isn't getting much easier. True, two obstacles have been removed: the belief that sex crimes don't happen in nice neighborhoods to nice people (long gone, that one) and the notion that a victim is somehow responsible for her abuse (although Smith's attorneys seem to be doing their best to resurrect that myth). But many advocates believe these rubes being replaced in the public mind by a sort of confused skepticism.

The Thomas/Hill testimony marked the first time most folks experienced the he-said/she-said nature of sexual abuse cases and, like those who deal with sex crimes daily, they found it confounding and frustrating. "The Thomas hearings looked like a big victory at first, but the controversy left people very conscious of the ambiguities in harassment and rape situations," says Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, director of the Institute for Women's Studies at Emory University and author of the recently published Feminism Without Illusions. Her fear now is that the Kennedy rape trial -- which also features two compelling antagonists, one of whom is lying -- will cement a public perception that it's never possible to know who is telling the truth in such a case, and thus it's always best to err on the side of reasonable doubt. "Instead of just asking 'What if that were my daughter?'" says Fox-Genovese, "now they are wondering 'What if that were my son or my husband being accused?'"

Not unreasonable, but our inability to distinguish the lie is bringing on a sort of ethical paralysis, a collective throwing up of the hands. "The sexual revolution created a new world in which the rules were quite unclear," she says. "Lately the public response has been 'Up to what point should we micro-legislate these things?'"

Perhaps more damaging, the past two months have seen widespread acceptance of the statistically nonexistent proposition that some women accuse men in order to gain revenge. The truth is that nine out of ten rapes go unreported; the documented total alone exceeded 100,000 for the first time last year, and at least 60 percent were cases of acquaintance rape. Yet utterly atypical stories of sexual abuse have fired the public imagination: for instance, the woman at Texas A&M who last month recanted allegations that she'd been twice assaulted by male military cadets. Or the Florida woman who this summer claimed she'd been raped by up to 15 men, four of whom were later arrested, and then admitted that she had intended all along to trade sex for crack. Or the 11-year-old Florida girl who recanted her testimony two years earlier that she'd been raped by her mother's boyfriend, admitting that she'd fabricated the tale from a television drama.

These are bizarre tales, but increasingly many people -- especially men -- choose to believe that they are representative, that female accusers like Willie Smith's date must harbor psychological deviance to put themselves through the torturous process of pressing charges. Even Anita Hill endured the most unlikely, most unevidenced speculation about her mental state during just one day on Capitol Hill. "There's this notion now that women accuse men because they've been scorned," says Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington. "It's completely false."

Says Mooney: "One thing I cannot understand is where this concept of women lying about rape came from. What's happening in the Kennedy trial is the perfect example of what happens to women everywhere. Who would want to take the stand and be called a liar and a whore?

"Women are defined at the ends of a spectrum. We want them to be either perfect, like our mothers, or prostitutes. We want to keep them in these roles by believing lies about their liability for sexual assault, prostitution, and pornography."

The new, scary cynicism about sexual abuse echoes even in some intellectual circles. Aesthete-of-the-moment Camille Paglia, for instance, decries rape but insists that "date rape" is often a misguided feminist construct in what is now a post-feminist world. In an insightful book called Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, reporter Susan Faludi has chronicled a widespread assault on traditional women's issues, including harassment and rape. Says Dick Bathrick, director of Men Stopping Violence in Atlanta, a support group for men prone to domestic violence: "It has become more comfortable for us to focus on the credibility of individuals, normally women, and not the societal context that makes it likely that men will choose to commit violence."

Yet some see cause for optimism in these backsliding times. "I think we'll look back in fifty years and see this year as a turning point," says Wolfe of the Center for Women Policy Studies. "Women all over the country are livid about how Anita Hill was treated, and they will be angered by how this woman in Palm Beach is treated. They will demand change."

In other words, the only good thing about these incidents is they are so awful that they incite outrage.

Maybe. "In the end, all this will just leave people sad and confused," predicts Fox-Genovese.

The Kennedy Rape Trial