Rape On Trial

In a new book, Communication's Cuklanz says the media have added victim's perspective to public discourse

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

In the two decades since legal reforms gave rape victims more leverage in the courtroom, society has come to see the crime from a more enlightened perspective through another highly visible forum, says Asst. Prof. Lisa Cuklanz (Communication): the media.

In her recent book, Rape on Trial: How the Mass Media Construct Legal Reform and Social Change , Cuklanz examines the role of news and entertainment media in introducing the perspective of rape victims to public discourse. She traces this development to the rape law reform movement of the early 1970s. As a result of these trends, Cuklanz said, society's views have moved past stereotypes of rapists and victims and tend to be more sophisticated and often more sympathetic to victims than in the past.

"News coverage of rape trials has increasingly focused on elements of rape reform, including the concept that marital rape is possible and that victims are heroes for coming forward, even if it is at great personal cost," said Cuklanz.

Asst. Prof. Lisa Cuklanz (Communication)-"News coverage of rape trials has increasingly focused on elements of rape reform, including the concept that marital rape is possible and that victims are heroes for coming forward, even if it is at great personal cost." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

But in certain instances - such as when a woman recants a rape accusation - the media and public may fall back on past myths about rape, she adds, and stark, rigid characterizations for both rapist and victim.

"[While] we're ready to accept certain things, like victims with significant sexual experience," she said, "when it comes down to deciding innocence and guilt, we're still using the old portrayals."

In rape cases, American society and its legal system had long put the onus on women to demonstrate virtue as a requisite to proving their allegations, Cuklanz said. But by the early 1970s, feminists had managed to shift the focus onto rapists and the culture that produced them, and several important rape law reforms were enacted. These reforms barred victims' sexual history as evidence in rape trials, for example, and developed a graduated scale of sexual assault crimes aimed at increasing the chances for conviction.

In the book, Cuklanz examines three highly publicized cases - all recreated as books or popular movies - which she said illustrate the changed climate surrounding rape: the John and Greta Rideout case; The Big Dan's Tavern trial; and the Cathleen Webb-Gary Dotson case.

Cuklanz said the news coverage in each case provided the public with only a partial understanding of rape law reform and the forces underlying it. The dramatizations, however, tended to present issues surrounding rape in a thought-provoking way and offered fresh, usually sympathetic insights into the experiences of rape victims.

"You can't fault news writers entirely," Cuklanz said. "News is at a disadvantage for presenting the entire reform view, simply because of its limited format. It's easier for fictional representations to build on the news accounts and present both sides of the case in detail."

Still, Cuklanz points out that the media coverage did indicate changed attitudes concerning rape and violence toward women. Reporting on the Rideout case, which raised the question of whether marital rape is a crime, mainstream news media enthusiastically supported the idea that wives deserve protection from violent husbands, she said. In the Big Dan's gang-rape case in Massachusetts, the media focused on the brutality of the crime and referred to the victim as "a '21-year-old mother of two,' instead of some other, less flattering possibilities," she said.

This fresh perspective was even more evident in the two dramatizations based on the Big Dan's case, she said. "Silent Witness" argues for female solidarity while depicting the negative effects of a rape trial on the victim, who breaks down in court and later commits suicide. "The Accused" portrays the victim drinking and dancing with the men who later rape her. Her behavior was clearly unacceptable in the traditional view of rape, but the film depicts her as a hero for coming forward.

The Webb-Dotson case, in which Webb recanted her rape allegations against Dotson after his imprisonment, raised even more complex issues, Cuklanz said. Recounting her story in a book, Webb evoked traditional myths about rape - that it is routine for women to falsify charges, or that only men of a certain character commit rape - even as she pleaded for more enlightened attitudes. The media coverage, which questioned the effects of rape law reform, reflected this tension, Cuklanz said.

Several other famous rape trials have taken place in recent years, including the Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith cases, and the Central Park "wilding" incident. These trials have introduced more elements of rape law reform to society, Cuklanz said, and in doing so have presented more opportunities to examine the experiences of rape victims.

"In addition," she said, "the range of what is considered rape is widening and people are willing to consider more situations as possibly constituting rape. These are all significant steps forward for victims of rape."

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