Sexual Assault, Film At Eleven

This time we got to see it. And seeing it was not pretty, at least unless you were as twisted as the men captured on the videotapes. They were on the hunt in Central Park, and their prey was women, women crying, women screaming, women with their arms crossed over their denuded chests so they would not be as exposed as they felt. They were the prey, but it was the men who behaved like animals.

Exactly how many women were sexually abused by a mob in the wake of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City is still unsure; at last count it was around 50. But some of the amateur videotapes examined by prosecutors show women groped and stripped and molested who have not yet come forward. Some of those who have been questioned have testified to "digital penetration," a clinical term that makes your skin crawl and your stomach roil. "Get them!" the men shouted as they chased their victims down the park pathways and surrounded them with a ring of inexorable hands. "Get the bitches!"

What happened after the parade happens in this country, in every country, every day. Oh, it doesn't often happen in broad daylight, and the numbers are not usually so huge, except in war zones: dozens of predatory assailants, dozens of weeping women. And we don't usually have film to testify to what actually happened.

But this turning women into meat puppets, no more than the sum of breasts and buttocks and genitalia, is as common as rain. Never mind the effects of Jerry Springer or MTV. That is sand upon bedrock, and the bedrock is this: that there are still many, many men who feel, deep inside, that women as a group are just something--not someone--something to be used and humiliated. They grope on the subway; they beat up at home. They rape and sodomize, male against female, the world's oldest bias crime.

"Welcome back to the cave-man times!" you can hear one of the guys yelling hoarsely as a woman runs by clutching her torn shirt.

Cave-man times and medieval times and Victorian times and war times and peace times. To suggest that this is a product of our times is an excuse for behavior that has been with us always. There's no evidence that there were fewer sexual assaults in olden days when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; there's only evidence that it was secret then, that no one told.

While Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's first response to the park rampage was to talk about how crime in New York was down, rape has not decreased markedly in the way other violent crimes have. And while Central Park is safer than it has been in years, it is dotted with green and quiet places where some of the bloodiest sexual assaults in recent years have taken place: the lawn where Robert Chambers left Jennifer Levin's body, the place where the Central Park jogger lay unconscious after being gang-raped, the area where a Brazilian runner was murdered by a still unknown assailant.

But there is no point in picking on the park. There was also the basement in a New Jersey suburb where a group of popular high-school boys molested a retarded girl, the pool table in New Bedford, Mass., where a group of working men took turns raping a woman one night. Dorm rooms and bleachers. Kosovo and Johannesburg. White, black, professional men, habitual convicts, well-spoken, crude, strangers, acquaintances, even friends. Read the case files and they are all there, sharing some peculiar sense of violent entitlement.

Over the centuries the excuses for this have been many and various: she was a servant, a slave, a prostitute, an infidel, a wife. A century ago sexual assault was explained as the inevitable explosive acting-out of men in a repressive sexual atmosphere; now it is supposed to be the inevitable effect of a permissive sexual environment. When we natter on about our culture, about how this is a corollary of violent lyrics and explicit movies, it is no more than a different kind of excuse. It is not entirely their fault; rap music made them do it, or halter tops.

Nonsense. When skirts were longer and necklines higher, certain men were still holding women down and forcing themselves upon them in an age-old act of power and dominance. And humiliation, of course: the men on the videotape laugh while the women weep and scream. There is no mystery about whether this is wrong, and what is the right thing. The difference between the woman in a wet-T-shirt contest and the woman with the wet T shirt being ripped from her body as she pleads for mercy, for respect, for humanity, can be contained in a single word. That word is consent. Why is it so simple for some boys to learn they cannot lift a person's wallet and yet so difficult for them to understand they cannot lift a person's skirt?

There is only one good thing about what happened in Central Park, and that is that this time we got to see it. This comes at a cost; what was the deal, really, with the guys with the video cameras, many of whom seem as though they were producing amateur bachelor-party films for the emotionally stunted instead of creating evidence of a crime? But at least what is on film cannot be minimized, or denied. "This is not a crime that occurs in broad daylight with many witnesses," wrote Linda Fairstein in her book "Sexual Violence." But Fairstein, who runs the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit of the Manhattan D.A.'s office, has seen it all in her line of work -- a defense attorney who once held up a pair of leopard panties during his summation to prove that a Wall Street worker was asking for it, a rapist who came back to the restroom stall where his victim still cowered because he had put down his newspaper during the act and wanted to retrieve it. Now she is overseeing a broad-daylight case, with a VCR as both investigator and witness. That is new. All the rest of this horrid spectacle is as old as earth.