Date-Rape Gains Attention After Years as Taboo Topic : Crime: Authorities aren’t sure whether the problem is increasing or victims are just more willing to speak up.


When 17-year-old Meg Nugent went out on a date with a college student from her church youth group in 1976, the evening ended in a terrifying incident she now calls rape. After the attack, she put the horror out of her mind for more than 10 years.

After 18-year-old college freshman Katie Koestner was attacked last autumn by a date she had invited back to her dorm room at the College of William and Mary, she reported the incident to the college administration within the week. Unhappy with the Williamsburg, Va., school’s subsequent actions, she called local law enforcement agencies. When they did not provide satisfaction either, Koestner went public and told her story to local media. Now she has a lawyer and is considering civil suits against the school and the alleged rapist. She allowed her name to be used for this story.

These sharply contrasting reactions to the same violation--a woman being sexually assaulted by someone she knows--illustrate a dramatic change in attitudes toward the crime. Once a taboo subject discussed only in whispers, date-rape (or acquaintance-rape, as some experts now call it) is emerging as an under-reported but frequent occurrence. Against the backdrop of a steady increase in rapes reported to police, authorities believe that the number of reported rapes by acquaintances is growing even faster. But they’re undecided on whether it’s a higher incidence in assaults--or a heightened willingness to report them--that’s most responsible for the increase in the rape statistics.

Incidents of forcible rape--as tabulated by the FBI’s uniform crime reports, which measure the number of violations reported to the police in the United States--increased in all but five years of the last three decades. In 1989, the last full year for which data is available, the FBI recorded 94,500 forcible rapes--the highest ever and up from 92,490 in 1988. For the first six months of 1990, total rapes were up 10% over the previous year’s first half, the FBI said.


A report last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s majority staff estimated that the number of rapes reported to authorities last year exceeded 100,000 for the first time. A 6% increase from the previous year would be the largest in more than a decade.

Neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Justice Statistics--which conducts a national crime census by household interviews in an effort to measure all crime, not just what is actually reported to police--categorizes rapes according to whether the victim knew her attacker.

But building on figures from studies conducted by Dr. Mary Koss, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, Robin Warshaw, author of “I Never Called It Rape,” estimates that women “are actually four times more likely to be raped by a man they know than by a stranger.”

Susan Estrich, campaign manager of former Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis and now a law professor at USC, says that the increased attention to acquaintance-rape is a manifestation of a changing society, which she says is far more likely to take women’s issues seriously then even 10 years ago. “What is changing is that people are beginning to recognize forced sex as rape,” Estrich contends.


But others argue that society remains profoundly misogynistic, with movies, the media, television and commercials all suggesting that rape is acceptable behavior.

Nugent, the date-rape victim who was attacked by a boy she knew from her church group, says, “The cultural message for men is to be sexually aggressive.

“Look at ‘Gone With the Wind,’ where the incredibly sexy Clark Gable picks up the kicking and screaming Scarlett O’Hara and carries her off and rapes her. The next morning she wakes up humming and singing and happy. These cultural messages are very powerful. The message is if you just keep going they’ll come around and dig it,” says Nugent, now an assistant director of the Women’s Center at Towson State University in Maryland.

The special problems presented for police, prosecutors and defense lawyers by acquaintance-rape are emerging in the current case involving William Kennedy Smith, who has been named a suspect in the alleged rape of a 29-year-old Jupiter, Fla., woman at the Kennedy family’s beachfront mansion. Smith is a nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Except for the fact that Smith’s family name is nationally known, the allegations have all the characteristics of a typical acquaintance-rape.


“It’s a real hornet’s nest to figure these cases out,” says Paul F. Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and past chairman of the criminal procedure and evidence committee of the American Bar Assn. “The issue is intention and nobody has a direct window on the position of the victim and the defendant, so the jury is in the position of inferring it.”

A 1984-85 study performed by Koss involving college students found that four of five rape victims were previously acquainted with their attacker and more than half were raped by a date. Another study in which Koss participated, published last year, concluded that one in five women is likely to be raped at some point in her life--the vast majority by men they know.

Even so, legally it still remains difficult to prove the crime of rape when it is alleged by a victim who is previously acquainted with her attacker.

“One of the biggest problems is that juries have a tendency to say (that) if a man and woman knew each other and were out on a date, then she must have invited it,” Georgetown’s Rothstein says.


There are also generational differences, Rothstein points out. “In our polyglot society, there is a wide range of behavior and different people infer different things” from the same actions, he says. An older jury may interpret circumstances differently from a younger one. A woman may think that moving her hands a certain way is simply “coquettish,” but the man may come from a different background and “interpret the movement with macho expectations.”

Adding to the difficulties is that there is usually no eyewitness and physical evidence may not answer crucial questions, such as whether the act was consensual or forced.

“A semen sample doesn’t tell you (whether) the act was consensual,” Rothstein points out. Even injuries in the woman’s genital area may not settle the matter--"unless they are extreme"--because they could be the result of “strenuous or energetic sex in our society.”

“I’m truly convinced that there is a male and a female reality and that we view things very differently,” says Denise Snyder, director of a Washington, D.C., rape crisis center. “We get calls from women who describe date-rape situations who say that after he raped me and I was getting dressed he will say: ‘Let’s see a movie next Saturday night.’ ”


Author Warshaw remembers one woman interviewee who recalled struggling all through the rape. When it was over, her attacker said: “Gee, do you always struggle so much during sex?”

Estrich argues that some of the confusion and anger of date-rape victims and perpetrators alike is that society is in the process of changing its standards of behavior. “Change can be very painful and it can seem very unfair in some cases,” she says. “Some men are caught in cross-currents of behavior that (once) was acceptable and laudable (and) has now become unacceptable. There’s a feeling that the rules of the game have been changed in the middle.”

Warshaw credits feminist Susan Brownmiller’s book on rape, “Against Our Will,” published in the mid-1970s, with bringing attention to the crime. “In the early 1970s, the problem was getting anyone to take the issue of rape seriously at all,” she says.

But Snyder argues that society still has a long road ahead in combatting the problem of acquaintance-rape. “If one out of three of us were drug addicts, or one out of three of us got AIDS, it would be in the media all the time. But it’s only women and only rape so it only gets coverage when someone’s last name is Kennedy,” she says.


Until the accusation against Smith made national news, most of the attention given to acquaintance-rape centered on the nation’s university campuses. In part, this was because of the victims. A majority staff report of the Senate Judiciary Committee found last year that the average rape victim is 18 1/2 years old. And the National Crime Survey, carried out by the Department of Justice, reports that 61% of rapists are under 30.

Last fall, Brown University in Rhode Island announced plans to include discussions about the issue in future freshman orientation sessions after a group of women, convinced that the university was ignoring the problem, began scrawling the names of alleged student rapists on the walls of campus bathrooms and attracted national media interest.

This semester, Brown is conducting internal disciplinary hearings on four alleged rapists. The last time there was an administrative hearing at Brown on the subject was seven years ago, says Toby Simon, an assistant dean of student life.

Legislation on violence against women--introduced by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman--contains several provisions to counter rape and make it more costly for the rapist. Besides doubling the penalty for those rapes prosecuted in federal courts, creating new penalties for repeat sex offenders and raising restitution for sex-crime victims, it would require states to pay for medical examinations to determine if women have been raped and would authorize millions of dollars for rape prevention, education and police investigations of sex crimes.


The measure, introduced last year, won committee approval but was lost in the end-of-session budget crunch in the Senate. Biden has reintroduced the bill, and it is scheduled for a committee vote later this month.

Many victims, such as Nugent, don’t tell anyone about what happened to them for years--if they discuss it at all--with the result that the incidents don’t appear in any rape survey data. Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center, says that she has seen a constant influx of women seeking treatment years after they have been raped.

Particularly in cases of acquaintance-rape, victims are pressured not to report the incident to authorities or make a fuss in any way. Victims are often blamed for provoking the attack and must struggle with feelings of guilt and shame, Abarbanel says. “We see a lot of cases where friends turn against the victim and get angry with her for causing trouble.”

Koestner says that her experiences support the notion that people tend to blame the acquaintance-rape victim for what happened to her. She said that she moved to new quarters on campus a couple of months after her attack because of lack of support from her roommate and others in her all-female dormitory. She is now considering transferring to another university.


But even Koestner sometimes wonders why she did not just tell her attacker to leave her room at the first signs of trouble. “I get angry at myself for not kicking him out,” she says, “but it was like being in a car wreck--you don’t think of all the rational things you have to do.”

Nugent’s own evening of terror began when her date offered to share a marijuana cigarette with her, she recalls. Unknown to her, the marijuana was laced with PCP, a powerful hallucinogenic drug. She says that it left her unable to fight when her date parked the car in an isolated area and began to attack her.

“When he was finished, he drove me home and dropped me off and that was our date,” Nugent says. “He called me up and asked me out again but I said I was busy.” Although Nugent fell into a severe depression after the attack, she put the incident out of her mind.

It wasn’t until 1989 when she was reading Warshaw’s book that Nugent consciously recalled the incident. Something clicked, she remembers, and she related the event in detail to her husband for the first time. He told her that she had been raped. “I had to have outside confirmation to recognize that it was rape,” she says.


Like Nugent, Koestner was also attacked by a date. After a restaurant dinner, she invited the young man--also a freshman--back to her room to dance and talk. But he quickly began to pressure her by asking her to “make this night special.”

When she confronted him, he would apologize. But moments later, he would ask her to have sex again. He finally forced the issue near dawn. “I was very tired and had no strength left,” Koestner remembers.

Koestner reported the attack to the administration. After a hearing, the young man was found guilty of attacking her. His punishment: He was forbidden to enter any dormitory or fraternity other than his own for four years.

Koestner thought that his punishment was minor compared to what she had suffered and vowed to go public with her experience. Says Koestner, the daughter of an FBI agent: “I decided not to take it anymore.”