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Not sure about that man? Then trust your instincts

August 28, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

It often begins in a bar. A woman who wants to go home before her girlfriends are done bar-hopping accepts a ride from a fellow she doesn't know, but who seems nice.

Two left turns later, they're out on a country road and she's all alone, trying to fight off a man with one thing on his mind.

I've seen that story a dozen times over the years, in police reports detailing what happened when a woman decided to trust the wrong man.

The memory of those stories came back after the recent coverage of Kobe Byrant, the basketball star charged with raping an employee of a resort where he was staying.

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Is there some way, I wondered, for women to reduce their chances of being a victim of sexual assault?

The answer: Trust your instincts.

So says Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Inc., a nonprofit group founded in 1982 to address the needs of victims of sexual crimes throughout the state.

I spoke to Hill after reading a July 31 Associated Press story that reported that ABC news had quoted sources as saying that Bryant's accuser had had some consensual sexual contact with him, but had not consented to have intercourse.

No means no, certainly, but I asked Hill if there were behaviors women should avoid.

"It's difficult to say," Hill said, "because a victim can never have control. We advise folks to trust their instincts.

"If they have a feeling that something's not right, or that it's a risky situation, they need to leave," she said.

"The majority of sexual assaults occur between people who are acqauinted with one another in some capacity or another," she said.

Sexual atackers can be relatives, neighbors, co-workers and even people with whom the victim is romantically involved, Hill said.

No matter who it is, Hill said, if things don't seem right, "get yourself out of a potentially dangerous situation."

Drinking or drug use with someone you're not sure about can be dangerous, Hill said. Even someone who's familiar - who seems all right when you speak to him in a classroom or other social situation - may not be.

"We clearly know that intoxication blurs the line of risk. Sometimes you don't know whether you're communicating correctly whether you want things to go any further," she said.

Once you're in the middle of an activity that's consensual, there's a risk that a man who is physically stronger can continue on, whether his partner agrees or not, Hill said.

Even if things have advanced to a great degree, Hill said that "the victim can never be held responsible for the perpetrator's decision not to stop."

So what's the best defense a woman can employ? How about martial arts or a self-defense course?

"We certainly advocate for women to be as prepared as they can be," Hill said.

And when socializing in a bar or a tavern, Hill said, her group recommends the "buddy system," in which women travel in pairs, with one agreeing not to drink.

Even that is no guarantee, Hill said, adding that "it's difficult to put togethher any kind of a checklist. No matter what you do, there's no guarantee you're not going to be assaulted.

If the worst happens, Hill said MCASA recommends that women go to the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam - something Washington County Hospital is certified to do.

"They need to seek a medical examination for their health. There may be internal damage that is not apparent from the outside," she said.

"And if they're interested in pressing charges, they must have evidence," she said.

Will a victim face a defense attorney digging into her life's history?

Not in Maryland, Hill said, unless victim and perpetrator had a prior consensual sexual relationship.

Hill also advises victims to call their local rape crisis center, which they can reach by calling 1-800-656-HOPE or 1-800-893-RAPE in Maryland. You can visit their Web site at www.mcasa.org.

"We want women to know that they're not alone and they do have resources," she said.

For a woman alone, it is difficult to know who to trust. Like racists I've known who kept their beliefs hidden until they felt they have receptive audience, some men have a dark side they don't show until they're alone with a vulnerable woman.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't have fun, or that you should regard every man you meet as a potential rapist. But as Hill said, trust your gut.

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