On an April day during the college spring break last year, a
woman was sunbathing with a friend at Jacksonville Beach.
About 20 men approached. They asked if she would pose with them
for a picture, a police report recounted.
The woman agreed, walking with them to the water's edge.
Suddenly, the young men ripped off the woman's bikini. She was
groped by three of them. Police said they searched for suspects
but to no avail.
Several similar events occurred that weekend. A lifeguard
summed up the situation this way: "Apparently, some of the guys
got carried away."
Consider the nonchalance of this observation.
Or the endless assaults and rapes depicted on television and in
Or the vulnerable women portrayed in countless magazine ads,
their clothing half-on or half-off, their eyes glazed and
Or the steady stream of college and professional athletes
accused of sexual assault.
While the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office reports rape and other
violent crimes have decreased, an underlying current remains,
described by women's advocates as a societal blessing of
violence against women.
Yet while children are inundated with information that depicts
relationship violence as normal, there are also efforts to
present another view of life.
A refuge for battered women is teaching children to understand
alternatives to violence.
As part of an experimental program backed by the Florida
Attorney General's Office and the Department of Education,
volunteers are befriending students at three Jacksonville
schools and talking to them about healthy relationships.
Beyond education, a lawyer in a landmark case has another
answer, a surefire method to send a message to perpetrators. The
attorney's solution: lawsuit.
`Mistakes of errant youth'
There was a New Jersey case four years ago involving a
17-year-old mentally retarded girl, raped by a group of young men
she knew. Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Delaware, who introduced the
Violence Against Women Act, drew upon this case when speaking to
a Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993. "The nonchalance displayed
by the young men during and after the attack reveals the
attitude that this incident does not constitute serious criminal
activity," he said.
After the case became known, members of the community defended
the young men's conduct on the ground that "boys will be boys."
In sentencing three defendants as "youth offenders," a judge
made reference to the attackers as successful high school
athletes who presented no threat to society, Biden recalled.
It is one example, he concluded, of how our system "normalizes
rape as the mistakes of errant youth or negligent men . . .
shaping women's perception that the system simply does not
accept that violent acts against women are serious crimes."
Sexual assault is a crime rich in hatred.
"I think it is easier to do that kind of crime [sexual assault]
when you look at the victim as less than, or not as human as,"
observed Shirley Webb, a coordinator of the Women's Center of
Jacksonville. "It is devaluing a portion of the population."
`They'll hate you stronger'
Judy Schmidt clearly remembers a student who gave her his
interpretation of how a relationship works:
"I told my girlfriend not to wear tight dresses," he said. "If
I get to her house and she's wearing a tight dress, I would have
to put her in check."
He then popped his hands together, Schmidt recalled, "to show
that he would have to slap her. …