A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial

A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial. 1996. New York: Doubleday.

From the Book Jacket

The venerable and often misquoted phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” continues to haunt American women who accuse men of sexual harassment and rape. In this bracing study of American sexual culture and the politics of acquaintance rape, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday identifies the sexual stereotypes that continue to obstruct justice and diminish women.Beginning with a harrowing account of the St. John’s rape case, Sanday reaches back through British and American landmark rape cases to explain how, with the exception of earliest colonial times, rape has been a crime notable for placing the woman on trial. Whether she is charged as a false accuser, gold digger, loose or scorned woman, stereotypes prevail. American jurisprudence and the public at large remain divided on acquaintance rape. And now, as the Violence Against Women Act–the most important legislation for women in twenty years–has been passed, a new breed of antifeminists has stepped up to the plate to subordinate women’s bid for sexual autonomy and freedom.A groundbreaking work of scholarship that coherently challenges the anti-rape backlash and its rhetoric, A Woman Scorned brings a broader perspective to our understanding of acquaintance rape and envisions, finally, a new paradigm for female sexual equality.

Preface to Paperback Edition

A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial
Peggy Reeves Sanday
University of California Press, 1997.

“Just say yes,” he whispered. “Just tell me yes, tell me yes. Say yes to me. Say yes, oh god say yes.” David Guterson. Snow Falling on Cedars. (New York: Vintage, 1995), p.214.

“Words [are] unnecessary in love….But in spite of all she had said, he still saw love in her eyes….He believed her eyes more than he believed her words.” Hermann Hesse. Narcissus and Goldmund. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), p.110.

This book looks at the history of American sexual behavior from the point of view of acquaintance rape. Human sexuality, I argue, sits on the precarious divide between biology and culture, between individualized sensations and cultural meanings; it is both physiological and preeminently social. By tying the frequency of reported acquaintance rape to popular sexual culture, which defines male sexual aggression as “natural” and puts a woman accuser on trial in the courtroom, this book demonstrates the power of culture in shaping sexual behavior.

Historically, Americans have been remarkably voluble about human sexuality, passing sex through the endless mill of speech in our theories and popular beliefs. But we have been remarkably silent when actually “doing it.” Rather than talking with our partners about our desires, we are likely to move ahead wordlessly, guided by nonverbal cues–a look in the eyes, a quiver of the lips, an intonation of the voice, a scent. Although such cues emanate from the body, because their meaning varies according to a partner’s interpretation they are preeminently cultural.

Wordless sex is full of social consequences and meaning. For one thing, it carries the tremendous risks of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. To mention just one of any number of social meanings, sometimes sex is played as a game of conquest. In this game the man who moves ahead without obtaining verbal consent acts as seducer, wielding power not just in the sexual activity itself but also in the boasts to his buddies about his latest sexual conquest. Some women go along with this social game because submitting wordlessly to a man’s seduction allows them to maintain the allusion/appearance of sexual innocence. Other women feel violated if the sex is unwanted and against their will.

The term “acquaintance rape” was coined in the 1970s to distinguish rape involving strangers from forced, nonconsensual penetration involving people who know one another. Surveys conducted in the 1970s found that a high number of women answered affirmatively when asked if they had experienced nonconsensual sex, including rape. Since then, numerous surveys of local and national populations reveal that on average between 13 and 25 percent of the participating females report having been raped, usually by men they knew. Most of these surveys employ the legal definition of rape as nonconsensual penetration by the use of force or threat of force or the taking advantage of someone incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. One of the most respected national studies, published in 1992, found that acquaintance rape was a “tragedy of youth,” involving women below the age of twenty-one. The most recent study (1994), using a scientifically designed national probability sample and compared in its scope to the famous Kinsey studies of male and female sexual behavior, found that one-in-five women surveyed considered themselves to have been “forced against their will to do something sexually.”

This book places acquaintance rape within the context of the history of American sexual culture. I examine the testimony presented in high-profile court cases from Puritan times to the present against the background of popular sexual culture and unfolding theories of human sexuality. I analyze the “boys will be boys” explanation of acquaintance rape, arguing that our tendency to excuse male sexual aggression by reducing it to hormones gives males the power in the sexual game because it removes any responsibility for the sexual activity from the male and places it solely on the female. I chart how we have explained male and female sexuality to ourselves and then used these explanations in the courtroom to excuse male aggression and place women accusers on trial.

Rape is one of the few charges in the criminal justice system where reasonable doubt is induced not so much by the character of the evidence as by fantasies regarding the complainant’s motives for bringing charges. It is not uncommon for rape juries to overlook the prosecution’s evidence of force in favor of the defense’s suggestion that the accuser “wanted it” or that she brought charges because she was “a woman scorned.” The most recent high-profile acquaintance rape case, tried in November 1996, after this book was first published, fits a common pattern. In this case the defense argued that the accuser’s inhibitions had been released by the four small glasses of beer she drank at the party where she met the defendant, Alex Kelly. The young woman, barely sixteen and a virgin, met Kelly an hour before the alleged rape and was with him only because she needed a ride home and he offered to drive her. Thomas P. Puccio, best known for his defense of Claus von Bulow against the charge of attempting to murder his wife, argued that she wanted to have sex with Kelly because he was popular and handsome. He explained away the girl’s injuries as consistent with first-time sex and suggested that her charges were the inventions of a strict Catholic girl who chose to lose her virginity in the back of a car and then felt guilty the morning after. He argued that the pain of intercourse only increased her sense of having sinned. In his cross-examination, Puccio added the element of revenge, suggesting that the young woman was jealous because Kelly had a girlfriend and there was no future in the relationship.

It’s difficult to reconcile this story of a sexually repressed, vindictive woman with the evidence of violence presented by Bruce P. Hudock, the prosecutor. The accuser’s sister testified to seeing white marks like handprints on her throat when she returned home that night. The gynecologist who examined her the next day observed bruises, lacerations, dried blood, and cuts in her genital area as well as tender areas in her neck; an internal examination was not possible because of her pain. Others also related evidence of bruises. The young woman’s blood, which the gynecologist said could not have been menstrual blood, was found in the car. The gynecologist testified that the injuries she observed suggested repeated “forceful penetration” that would have been “excruciatingly painful.” It is hard to imagine how a young woman, a virgin, would not have said “Ouch, stop,” she concluded.

In light of the cases examined in this book, both the defense’s claim that “she wanted it” and the prosecution’s description of rough sex meted out by a man blind to all but his own pleasure are very common. Based on a historical examination of well-known rape cases, it’s fair to say that male sexual aggression, along with wordless seduction, was part of the foundation of the nation, an integral part of the definition of American manhood. From the beginning of U.S. history, a sexual caste and class system prevailed. Slave and Native American women were fair game, raped at will or subjected to aggressive seduction. White women fell into three sexual classes: prostitutes; “sluts,” usually working class women out for a good time and treated as fair game by men of means; and proper women of genteel backgrounds, who were expected to have no sexual desire. Regardless of their class or caste, women were usually held responsible for the sexual aggression of an acquaintance. Even the young ladies schooled to become “affectionate wives and rational mothers” were blamed for sex that got out of control, on the assumption that a fallen woman is at heart a slut.

The twentieth-century sexual revolutions collapsed this sexual class system by encouraging all young women to be sexually active. But the old notions that they were responsible for sex and were sluts if they appeared to like it did not change. Although these revolutions liberated women to have sex, they did nothing to neutralize male aggression. Women often found themselves having sex against their will. Between 1935 and 1956, arrest rates for rape nearly doubled, as did the rates for other sexual offenses, while those for prostitution fell by two-thirds. During the 1960s, the decade in which the sexualization of everyday life accelerated, the rate of reported rapes increased more than a hundredfold. Between 1970 and 1980, there was another 100 percent increase. The increase began to slacken off only in the 1990s, showing a drop in 1995 to pre-1980s levels.

A good part of this book focuses on a history of the anti- rape movement and the backlash against it in recent years. The movement was born as part of 1960s feminist activism for sexual equality on all fronts–from the boardroom to the bedroom. Revamping outmoded rape laws, along with naming and studying acquaintance rape, occupied the first two decades of the anti- rape movement. Despite progress on both the legal and the social fronts, the high-profile rape cases of recent years examined in this book show how much further we have to go. Americans continue to be divided over whether rape involving acquaintances is “real rape.” On one side are those who believe a woman has to show signs of fighting a stranger within an inch of her life before rape can be established. Jurors holding this view can be counted on to vote for acquittal in cases of acquaintance rape.

Increasingly, however, American society is coming to the conclusion that any man who keeps on despite a woman’s “No” is committing rape. The jury deadlock in the Alex Kelly case–at first 3-3 and then 4-2 for conviction–suggests that this view is beginning to infiltrate the courtroom. Even more progressive is the idea, enunciated in some recently revised rape laws, that “No means No” is not enough; sexual partners (whether of the same or the opposite sex) must hear a “Yes” before proceeding with sexual activity. Unfortunately, such positive developments have been sidetracked in recent years by a backlash that interprets anti- rape activism as anti-sex and labels anti-rape feminists as “victim feminists.”

As much as this book is about the history of acquaintance rape, it is also about solutions–imagining a way out for future generations. Today’s anti-rape activism in the form of peer education in high schools and colleges around the nation is part of a new chapter in our sexual history. This movement constitutes a sexual revolution far more profound than the so- called revolution of the 1960s because men and women, gay and straight, are working together for the first time to create open, honest sexual communication, not only in the interest of verbal consent but also for the sake of safe sex. How this movement has changed communication on some college campuses is part of my story.

The reader should not jump to the conclusion, based on U.S. rape statistics, that all societies or even all college campuses are rape prone. I have lived for nearly two years in a relatively rape-free society (by comparison with the United States) in West Sumatra, Indonesia. I have also visited campuses in the United States where students work hard at interpersonal relations and young women feel free of any danger of nonconsensual sex. A comparison of these environments with more rape-prone settings demonstrates that peaceable sexual cultures are embedded in different social patterns. Rape free environments are characterized by greater respect for women and a marked social emphasis on civility and concern for the common good. Individuals are less likely to be obsessed with sex for the sake of sex alone; it is not for conquest but for pleasure and romance. On rape-free U.S. campuses the social factors promoting male insensitivity are either muted or absent. For example, all-male groups such as fraternities or athletic teams do not dominate the social scene. The student culture does not tolerate homophobic, racist, and sexist attitudes. Women play visible roles in student government. If a sexual assault occurs, administrators act quickly and decisively. Rape-prone environments, on the other hand, emphasize the solitary high of individual pleasure irrespective of a partner’s desire or lack of it. Drinking and hypermasculine behavior, research demonstrates, are frequently associated with sexually aggressive behavior often involving men who affiliate with all-male groups.

I begin this book with an incident in which a group of lacrosse players living in a common house and attending St. John’s University, a commuter school in Queens, New York, used alcohol to facilitate what they claimed was an act of seduction. By the time the case reached a Queens courtroom in 1991, this incident had become known as the St. John’s Lacrosse Team sex assault case. The steps taken by the St. John’s administration in response to their investigation–for example, turning the matter over to the police and suspending the alleged abusers, pending the legal outcome of the case–is a model for how a campus wishing to be free of rape might respond. Unfortunately, few campuses confronted with similar incidents act so decisively. At the end of the legal proceedings, St. John’s took the additional step of expelling all but one of the students who asked for reinstatement, on the grounds that they had violated the student code and displayed, in the words of the school’s president, “a serious lack of respect for others and even one another.” The one student whose request for reinstatement was granted had cooperated with the authorities.

The St. John’s sex assault case introduces us to the problems, attitudes, and courtroom practices women in American society face when they bring rape charges against acquaintances. This case sits on the divide between past and future, between justice sidetracked onto the slippery slope of sexual stereotypes and justice decided on the grounds of the evidence. On the brink of the twenty-first century, this and the other cases I describe show how far women have traveled in their search for justice and how far there is still to go.

Philadelphia, March 1997.

I am grateful to Julie Sanday for her insightful critique of drafts of this Preface.