Women Under Assault

The three teenage defendants just stared impassively, but over in the jury box, one of the 12 panelists grimaced and another shook his head. As the "Central Park jogger" trial continued in a Manhattan courtroom last week, key witnesses described the condition of the young woman discovered beaten, raped and left for dead on an isolated footpath. His voice breaking, police officer Joseph Walsh identified a blood-caked garment as the shirt he found tied around the victim's neck, twirling it into a long knotted rope from the witness stand. "She kept kicking out," said Walsh--as though she were still fighting off assailants. Later, a surgeon told the jurors that the jogger had lost three quarters of her blood on that night in April 1989. "She received a blow so severe that . . . her eyeball had exploded back through the rear of its socket," said Dr. Robert Kurtz. "The normal hills and valleys that appear on everyone's brain were flattened out, obliterated."

In an attempt to explain the inexplicable, some commentators initially attributed the Central Park "wilding" incident to racial and class tensions. But others now consider it a dramatic instance of gender crime; the National Organization for Women has concluded that the assault in the park was "far more clearly an expression of hostility based on sex" than black-white animus. The grisly testimony from New York last week riveted the nation's attention on a brand of violence as common as it is disturbing. According to the Justice Department, three out of four women can expect to be victims of at least one violent attack. FBI statistics show rape increasing at four times the rate of other crimes. While better crime reporting accounts for an estimated third of the upswing, the trend is alarming--particularly since as many as half of all sex crimes still go unreported. "Sexual assaults remain the most underreported cases within the criminal-justice system," said Manhattan Assistant D.A. Linda Fairstein, head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit.

With women gaining clout at the ballot box, politicians have become more sensitive to female concerns about crime. Congress is considering a bill that would make sexual assault a violation of federal civil-rights statutes. The "Crime against Women Act of 1990" would double federal penalties for rape and permit victims to sue for damages in federal court. It would also allocate funds for local law enforcement. But the underlying goal appears to be consciousness raising. "There's a need for the national psyche to acknowledge there's something horribly wrong and for the law to reflect that attitude," said Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, the principal sponsor of the bill.

During hearings on the proposed legislation last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony that illustrated the special complexities of sexual crimes. "The psychological violence at the hands of the defense attorney and judge was much worse than the violence on the street," said-Maria Hanson, the New York model whose face was slashed in a razor attack four years ago. In every rape case, the defense inevitably, if implictly, raises the question: did she ask for it' Women often end up feeling victimized a second time--by the legal system. Biden said that if he strolled through the Capitol grounds waving $100 bills and someone grabbed the money, it would still be robbery. But not everyone gets the point: according to a jury foreman in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he and the others recently acquitted an accused rapist on the ground that the lace-miniskirt clad plaintiff was "advertising for sex."

Efforts to change attitudes can themselves be controversial. Abducted and raped in 1988, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, a mother of two from Grinnell, Iowa, was initially reluctant to tell even her husband about the assault. But inspired by an editorial in The Des Moines Register calling on rape victims to help destigmatize the crime by coming forward, Ziegenmeyer last winter told her story to the newspaper in chilling detail. At the prodding of the Register, the Des Moines city attorney subsequently concluded that the names of adult assault victims are a matter of public record in Iowa. The paper has now adopted a policy of asking rape victims if they object to having their names used in crime stories. The new policy has caused an angry backlash among victims' rights advocates, who say it is unfair for reporters to contact rape victims at such a sensitive time.

The jogger case has raised privacy issues as well. Immediately after the attack, two local TV stations aired the victim's name. Since then, most major news organizations have voluntarily kept her identity secret. While it is still undecided whether the victim, who because of neurological damage has no memory of the incident, will testify in court, the presiding judge has ruled against live TV coverage of the trial.

TV staple: While Americans are becoming more aware of the prevalence of violence against women, they are also becoming inured to some of its horror. Sexual assaults are a staple of TV and movies; according to the National Coalition on Television Violence in Champaign, Ill., one out of eight Hollywood films depicts rape. In a survey of preteens, Coalition research director Thomas Radecki found that more of them could identify Jason and Freddy--the sexually sadistic monsters of, respectively, "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street," than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. In a University of Wisconsin experiment, men who watched it-rated films were less likely during a re-enactment of a rape, to think the woman was being brutalized than those who hadn't seen the movies. "It desensitizes them to the harm they're doing," says leading rape expert Pauline Bart, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For all too many women, fear is a fact of life. "Women are required to restrict their lives and give up a lot of things they want to do," says Stephanie Riger, director of women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If they don't do that and they get raped, they are blamed." Men, it is safe to say, do not live with the same degree of apprehension. When a University of Kentucky law professor conducting an experiment asked her female students how they protected themselves from sexual assault, the answers flowed freely: avoid shopping malls at night; use the library only during busy hours, sleep with the windows locked no matter what the weather. The men in her class met the question of how they would protect themselves with puzzled silence.


As common as they are disturbing, sexual assaults against women are on the rise. But they remain the most underreported cases in the criminal-justice system.

Every hour 16 women confront rapists; a woman is raped every six minutes.

3 to 4 million women are battered each year; every 18 seconds a woman is beaten.

3 out of 4 women will be victims of at least one violent crime during their lifetime.

More than 1 million women seek medical assistance for injuries caused by battering each year.

The United States has a rape rate 13 times higher than Britain's nearly 4 times higher than Germany's and more than 20 times higher tahn Japan's.