A WOMAN SCORNED by Peggy Reeves Sanday


Acquaintance Rape on Trial
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 An intriguing though overly schematic history of date rape in America, from colonial times to the present. According to feminist scholar Sanday (Anthropology/Univ. of Pennsylvania), if you want to understand what happened one March night in 1990, when six frat brothers at New York City's St. John's University gang-raped their intoxicated black classmate, you have to ``journey through the centuries'' and study the sexual culture of the Puritans and their ancestors. And if you want to understand why the St. John's defendants were either acquitted or sentenced to probation, you have to study the misogynist jury instruction about false accusations devised by the English jurist Matthew Hale in the mid-17th century. Sanday's thesis is an academic conceit of the highest order; her insistence on historicizing both the crime of acquaintance rape and its disposition in courts of law results in vast oversimplifications about trends in gender ideology and criminal jurisprudence. Nevertheless, the author's approach yields some provocative insights: For example, she draws a convincing parallel between the 1793 case of Lanah Sawyer, a teenage sewing girl raped by the libertine son of an aristocratic family, and the 1991 case of Patricia Bowman, who accused William Kennedy Smith of date rape after a brief encounter at a Palm Beach bar. Like Bowman, Sawyer was excoriated in court as the archetypal working-class gold digger with a questionable sexual history--and despite the popular perception that the famous defendant was guilty, he was acquitted. Sanday is less successful in demonstrating how the contradictory theories of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, Hugh Hefner, Kate Millett, Camille Paglia, and Katie Roiphe have melded to inspire the 20th-century sexual Zeitgeist, as well as the opposing verdicts in the St. John's and Mike Tyson rape trials. Better for the analysis of specific cases than for the tourist-class ``journey'' through intellectual and legal history. (Author tour)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-385-47832-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1995