In a trembling voice, a slight Charlottesville woman this week described to a group of middle-aged, male Virginia legislators this week how she had been raped at knifepoint two years ago when she was 19.
"I'm very nervous," she told the lawmakers. "I don't know how I can relate this terror so you can understand it."
The rape itself has "changed my personality and my lifestyle," she said, but the aftermath was almost worse.
After reporting the crime, the woman said, the local newspaper printed her name and address and "people came and gawked in my window all day long." The police took things from her apartment as evidence that have never been returned, she said, and the prosecutor's office did little to keep her informed of hthe progress of the investigation.
She was served with a subpoena at her office in front of five coworkers to testify at the trial, she said, and at the hearing she was seated "two feet from my attacker, who was laughing at me."
When she'd finished, a Senate committee chairman, William F. Parkerson (D. Henrico), told her, "you're a very courageous little lady."
The woman was testifying in favor of a proposed revision of Virginia's rape law that would, in the words of another witness, shift the emphasis of the law from sex to violence. Sexual assault would be classified in four different categories, depending on whether the attack involved sex or just contact and the type and amount of force involved.
The proposal would also, in the words of Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), emphasize as "the public policy of the commonwealth . . . that in every instance the victim shall be treated with dignity and respect at all times."
Penalties would be as severe for assaults on men as they are for assaults on women; under the current law the most a person can get for attacking a man in 20 years while an attack on a woman can result in life imprisonment.
"Aggravated circumstances" leading to more severe charges and penalties would be expanded in the states rape law to include such things as a victim's mental and physical incapacities, from retardation to lack of sleep or pregnancy; a parental relationship, and the participation of more than one attacker.
Also, if a rapist was in a "position of authority" to the victim, such as that of an employer, he or she would be treated more severely, because that position "implies acquienscence."
For the victim, the new law would elimiate any need to prove resistance against an attacker, such as by screaming or fighting back. The sexual history of the victim would be admissible as evidence only after a closed hearing proved it was relevant. That the attacker and victim were married could no longer be used as a defense against a charge of rape. No longer could Virginia juries be given the instruction handed down from years of legal history that "a charge of rape is easy to make but difficult to prove."
"Prosecutions for criminal assault have been referred to too often as the victim's second rape," Gartlan told the senate committee considering the proposal this week.
Gartlan was introducing more than two hours of public testimony in support of the proposed rape law revision. The bill, the result of three years of task force and subcommittee work, has been landed by community workers, educators, and even, at the hearing, by a police officer. But it is expected to encounter opposition for some lawyers. Nonetheless, it is given a good chance of passage, at least in the Senate, and would be a major milestone of this legislative session it is.
Among the aspects of the proposed law that are expected to be controversial are the so-called "evidentiary" limitations. This includes the prosecution's not having to prove resistance and that the testimony of the victim "need not be corroborated by other evidence."
Judging from questions asked during the hearing, some legislators are concerned that false rape charges would be easier to prove and that under the new definitions it would be easier to change someone with a sexual assault.
"Suppose a young man at a fraternity party Saturday night: finds himself next to an attractive young lady and pinches her in what this law defines as 'intimate parts,'" Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington) suggested to Frank Johnstone, chief of the University of Virginia police force, who testified in support of the bill. "Would he be charged with rape?"
"Under the current law that would be simple assault," Gartlan answered. "This law wouldn't make any difference in that situation."
"This law shifts the emphasis from the sexual nature to the violent nature of these offenses," Johnstone said. ". . . I live in the real world. I speak for a number of victims; they are as much afraid of the processes (of the system) as they are of the attack."
The legislation will next be debated in a joint House-Senate subcommittee.