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Scripting a Counterattack : Education: Film professionals and a hospital join to produce “Campus Rape,” a movie to fight violence against women.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One after another the four college women face the movie camera and recount their stories of rape.

Michelle (as with the other students, her last name and university are not mentioned) tells how she awoke one night to find her assailant on top of her in her dormitory bed. She describes how he knocked her unconscious, stuffed a sock in her mouth and sealed her lips with a strip of duct tape.

For an instant, her gaze flicks away from the camera. “I didn’t want him to beat me up again, so while he raped me I had to pretend I was still unconscious.”

At her school on the other side of the country, Janice tells how a stranger forced her at gunpoint down a dark empty dormitory corridor.

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The memory still causes her to choke. “He said, ‘Remove your pants.’ I said, ‘Please don’t.’ I had to do it. I was afraid he was going to kill me.”

Beverly was raped by a man she knew. She was on a blind date with a medical student who was specializing in gynecology. “I didn’t want to make him feel foolish in any way. I didn’t want to cause any waves with the group,” she says.

Christina, studying to be a marine biologist, describes how she was raped by a fellow student who was helping her with a math lesson in his room.

When it was over, she says, “I ran back to my dorm room and crawled into bed with all my clothes on and just shook and cried.”

Still, she swore her roommate to silence. “I thought it was my fault,” she explains, on the verge of tears. “I thought I’d done something wrong by being in this man’s room, by being on his bed.”

The four testimonials form the heart of a 20-minute film, “Campus Rape,” produced by the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center.

It is the result of the combined gratis efforts of “L.A. Law” principals Susan Dey and Corbin Bernsen, who host the film; producers/writers Allan Burns and Seth Freeman (“The Lou Grant Show”), and actress Kelly McGillis (“The Accused”), who speaks publicly of her own assault as a student eight years ago.

The movie is targeted for fall orientation programs for incoming freshmen and has currently been ordered by 1,100 of the 3,200 schools contacted by the center.

“We feel very strongly that this film should be mandatory for freshman orientation programs,” says Gail Abarbanel, who founded and directs the Santa Monica program.

According to a recent study, one of every six college women is the victim of rape or attempted rape. About 90% of campus assaults are made by acquaintances of the victims and nine out of every 10 rapes go unreported.

(As recently as last week, officials at USC said they would conduct an investigation that could lead to disciplinary action against a fraternity where a female student alleges she was a victim of date rape last December.)

Speaking out is essential for the victim, rape-trauma experts say, both in the healing process and in seeking redress. “There is no reason why anybody who experiences this kind of criminal violence should feel they have to remain silent,” says Abarbanel.

Yet college students, she says, typically experience a lack of support from their schools and a feeling of shame from the stigma still attached to being a victim of rape.

By using personal testimonials by former clients of the Rape Treatment Center, the film’s presenters hope to achieve an impact on students--not only the women but the young men who could become the assailants.

“The trick in making this film was not to make the young men looking at it think of themselves as potential rapists, but as those who would never do that,” says producer Burns.

As a man, Burns says he understands youthful aggressive behavior, but, “maybe if this film got through to me it will get through to them.”

Freeman further ponders the young men who say ‘ “The girl was promiscuous so it doesn’t matter, and she wasn’t really hurt.’ I think anyone who watches this film has to see that the victims are very much hurt.”

Adds Bernsen, who attended UCLA, one of several campus locations used in the film, “I can understand the impulses of young men and how we can misinterpret women’s signals. I think it’s important to get to these guys and let them know that date rape is just as violent and wrong as a stranger raping a woman.”

For the women who participated in the film, comprehending the motivation behind the assaults was difficult.

“I could never understand the young men,” says Susan Dey. “What you get from them is, ‘Hey, it’s a moment. For the girl, it’s a bad experience in sex, so what.’ ”

Dey says she eventually realized that “these men are also young and impressionable and uneducated. In their minds they’re just experimenting with sex. They have to be told rape is not sex, it’s an act of violence.”

For the rape victims, the courage to speak out on film was perhaps second only to the ordeal itself. McGillis waited years to talk about being assaulted in her New York apartment when she was a student at Juilliard.

“Up until that point I never had any reason to talk about it publicly. I know people have criticized me for not saying anything before, but what am I supposed to do, in the middle of an interview come out with ‘and by the way I was raped’?

“Certainly the whole reason I did ‘The Accused’ (the 1988 film based on the gang rape of a young Massachusetts woman) was because I was myself a rape victim.”

By keeping silent so long, McGillis allows on film, “I suffered far more than I should have.”

Facing the issue, however, does not mean fully repairing the damage, victims say. Michelle has had constant support from her family and friends during the three years since she was assaulted in her freshman year. “I never tried to deny it,” she says. “I never hid or ran from it. I faced it head-on. But my life’s not normal the way it was before even now.”

Abarbanel observes that victims of acquaintance rape typically experience greater social stigma than those who were assaulted by strangers.

Beverly, who did not seek help for a year (“Because I knew the person and trusted him, I thought it couldn’t have been rape”) says, “People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ I did. But they ask, ‘Why didn’t you fight back harder?’ ”

Since her assault in her freshman year, she says, “I’ve had time to accept peoples’ reactions and not be shocked any more by their scrutiny, hesitancy or even hostility.”

The support and months of counseling at the Rape Treatment Center made it possible to speak out “and not be damaged by the reception,” she says. “What’s needed is long-term professional care versus crisis centers.”

Of the four victims, however, only Janice’s assailant has been apprehended and received a maximum prison sentence.

Christina’s school held no hearings and undertook no disciplinary action against her assailant, a prominent campus athlete. She has been repeatedly harassed by the young man and his friends who have followed and taunted her.

Beverly’s assailant is pursuing his gynecological studies and she declines to discuss the matter for publication, saying nervously, “It’s a sensitive issue on campus.”

Still, the film’s creators are optimistic that by educating both men and women, as well as university officials, acquaintance rape particularly can be reduced.

“You feel so helpless about crime,” says Burns. “But this is something we can attack.

“Women have the right to say ‘no.’ ‘No’ means ‘no.’ It doesn’t mean maybe or try harder.”


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