A Frightening Aftermath

Knocked down with brute force, a knife at her throat, a rape victim has every reason to believe she is about to die. Usually she survives, only to begin the torturous recovery from physical and psychological wounds. Now, however, a fatal new fear has exacerbated the aftermath of rape. "AIDS has made rape an even more frightening and traumatic experience," says Carolyn Holmes, a psychologist at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. "There has always been a concern about venereal disease, but now your life is involved."

In New York City, one woman's apprehension over AIDS apparently led to an unusual plea bargain--and contributed to a growing debate over the competing rights of rape victims and defendants. According to an issue of The Manhattan Lawyer published last week, a former Columbia University security guard named Reginald Darby, who pleaded guilty in March to raping a 17-year-old undergraduate at knife point in her dorm, has been promised a reduced sentence in exchange for an agreement to take an AIDS test and provide his victim with the results. While a number of women's-rights advocates were quick to criticize the Manhattan district attorney's office for giving rapists a bargaining chip, the deal underscored the frustration of victims and prosecutors, who in most states are not allowed access to rapists' AIDS tests. "Victims are really shocked to learn that they can't find out the health status of someone who is convicted of sexually assaulting her," says Linda Fairstein an assistant D.A. and head of the Sex Crime Prosecution Unit in Manhattan. "It adds another kind of trauma to the one she has already sustained."

How deadly is rape in the age of AIDS? "A sex offender walking around HIV-positive is like a loaded shotgun," says Gerald Kaplan, executive director of Alpha Human Services, a sex-offender treatment center in Minneapolis. Many rapists are partial to a number of high-risk behaviors, including IV drug abuse and anal intercourse. But rape victims may be less vulnerable than they think. "The fear is real and powerful," says Lt. Kristina Wraa of the Oakland, Calif., police department. But "the actual contraction of AIDS from a rape is rare." Some rapists wear condoms to avoid leaving semen samples--inadvertently practicing safe sex. And a number of AIDS experts believe that people are unlikely to contract the disease from a single exposure.

For rape victims who are still desperate for reassurance, however, the system adds insult to injury. Fairstein recently testified before Congress that her office is "besieged with calls from rape victims concerned about their exposure to the AIDS virus, whether their assailants can be tested and who will pay for their own tests and medical treatment following such exposure." By and large, such questions fall into uncharted legal waters. While most states cannot compel tests for either sex-crime defendants or convicted rapists, eight states have passed a variety of mandatory-testing statutes. Illinois, for example, requires anyone convicted of a sexual assault to take the AIDS test. In January, the New Orleans district attorney attempted--unsuccessfully--to level first-degree murder charges against an HIV-positive rapist.

The AIDS and rape controversy pits the defendant's right to privacy against the victim's interest in knowing if she's been placed at risk. "In a criminal case, if the victim doesn't have the virus, it's not relevant if the defendant has the virus," says criminal-trial lawyer Russell Gioiella, who has handled sexualassault cases. "The government has to have a compelling reason to force him to take the AIDS test." As a practical matter, knowing a perpetrator's HIV status doesn't really tell a victim whether or not she's been infected. Nevertheless, a number of rape specialists oppose placing the burden of testing on the victim. One reason: to prevent discrimination by insurance companies, which have been accused of penalizing people who even take the test.

Defense attorneys have always forced rape victims to prove they weren't asking for it. AIDS has upped the ante. "If a woman claims she got AIDS from [the rapist], it will open the door to examining her entire sexual history," says sociologist Pauline Bart, coauthor of "Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies." "The defense would attempt to prove she could have gotten it from somebody else." That could only prolong the healing process, in which victims have great difficulty resuming their lives. "AIDS is so insidious," says Oakland psychologist Eugene Porter. "It serves as a good metaphor for the sexual trauma of rape."

The deadly specter of AIDS can slow down the process of healing for rape victims. Women worry about resuming their normal sex lives or becoming pregnant. To set their minds at rest, victims are increasingly demanding that their attackers be tested.