Waking Up To Horror


LAST WEEKEND a young woman stopped into a New Bedford bar to buy some cigarettes. She stayed longer than she'd expected Police say that as the 21-year-old woman headed for the door to leave, she was assaulted by four men, who stripped her from the waist down, forced her to commit oral sex, and raped her repeatedly. After more than two hours the woman managed to break free and ran out of the bar for help.

That rape, and especially gang rape, is a crime of terrifying seriousness need hardly be repeated. But the particularly heinous and peculiar nature of this rape merits special attention. This rape had an audience. In fact, there were at least a dozen men in Big Dan's Tavern that night who watched and cheered as the victim suffered. Not one man, not even the bartender, moved to stop the rapists. No one called the police. Their reaction, or rather lack of one, to what must have been a gruesome spectacle is more than reprehensible it is mind-boggling.

The New Bedford rape has become the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back for area feminists, who marched on New Bedford City Hall in protest Monday night. Their march came less than two weeks after feminists at several Boston area campuses, Harvard included, staged "Take Back the Night" marches protesting rape and other violence against women. These marches were staged in support of a march at Brandeis University, where there have been more than half a dozen rapes in the past year. The barroom rape in New Bedford is bringing a lot of media attention to the problem, but the frightening incidence of rape in this area should have been getting attention for a long time.

But it hasn't been. Rape is a crime with a long history, and, it appears, a promising future. Like most problems that won't go away, it lacks glamor. It is dismissed as a "women's problem," and it is ignored until a particularly brutal incident like this New Bedford rape brings it with a crash into our headlines and consciousnesses.

The task then is to keep it there, and to make it an issue that judges and juries and policemen cannot forget. For steps must be taken now by lawmakers and law-enforcers alike to reform and improve the handling of rape cases--specifically, the implications of victim-responsibility which often sway juries--if victims are to be encouraged to testify and if the ratio of rape convictions to rapes is ever to improve.

Action is needed now, for soon the uproar will die down; it always has in the past. And meanwhile attendance will keep dropping at women's marches, posters will keep featuring degrading "teasers" to titillate ticket-buyers, and men will continue to rape women, quietly perhaps, in dark alleys--not with a cheering barroom audience, but with a silent and much larger one.