This past summer, a 7-year-old girl was brutally raped by a 57-year-old deranged man who later told police he was infected with HIV. The little girl and her five-year-old brother had been lured to a secluded, abandoned building in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The man raped and sodomized the girl. Her brother, meanwhile, was beaten, tied up, and forced to witness his sister’s rape. After the man’s arrest, the defendant refused to be tested for the AIDS virus by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Incredibly — but not unusually — his refusal to take the test was permitted.
Under New York’s privacy laws — as well as those of many other states — a person accused of rape cannot be involuntarily tested for the AIDS virus until he is convicted of the crime. For a rape victim like the little girl in Brooklyn, that can mean months of waiting in fear for her own test results.
Surprisingly, the feminist organizations that have worked hard to make rape a prominent women’s issue, vowing that they will “no longer be silent” about this most despicable of crimes, are uncharacteristically silent when it comes to defending victims against HIV-infected rapists. This is because groups like the National Organization for Women have joined with AIDS activists to oppose any mandatory HIV testing and to protect the privacy rights of those infected with the deadly virus, even if they’re sex offenders.
So, for instance, NOW has failed to show support for the HIV Prevention Act of 1996, an HIV notification bill recently proposed by Republican congressman Tom Coburn, that would allow rape victims to learn the HIV status of their accused assailants after arrest, and would also hold rapists legally responsible for transmitting the HIV virus.
The AIDS Action Council, one of the largest AIDS advocacy organizations in the country, opposes the bill. In disturbingly cold language, the group asserted in a press release that, “Rape and sexual assault survivors need to take care of themselves and not concentrate on the HIV status of their assailant….Only by being tested themselves over a period of time will they know their own status.”
According to the national office of NOW, the group takes no official position on HIV testing of accused rapists. Spokeswoman Melissa Sheldon said that the organization’s response to the HIV Protection Act was not in any of her policy manuals and that she would have to confer with NOW’s national president to clarify their position on testing sex offenders. She did not call back. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the NOW chapter in New York City would say only that NOW is “not for non-voluntary testing and we’re not pro-mandatory testing.” She then referred me to Anne Connors, president of the local chapter, for further explanation. Ms. Connors did not return my calls. A spokeswoman for NOW’s chapter in New Jersey said the president of her chapter would get back to me. She never did.
NOW’s opposition to HIV testing is symptomatic of its approach to rape in general. NOW and feminist groups against violence tend to view rape as a social disease rather than a criminal act. Because they believe that most men are capable of sexual assault, it follows that they believe rapists are not intrinsically worse than most men.
These groups have therefore traditionally lobbied for solutions like “education” and “crime prevention” rather than stiffer punishments for serious sex offenders. These programs also have the added benefit of steering millions of dollars of public funding into the coffers of their organizations rather than into, say, prisons. In calculating the high cost of incarcerating a rapist, the Coalition Against Sexual Assault in New York State noted optimistically, “Preventing sexual assaults not only saves these survivor-related expenses but also enormous justice costs.”
Perhaps this is why feminist organizations have declined to protest judicial decisions that shrug off the AIDS danger to victims of rape. Just this past August, Maryland’s highest court went so far as to overturn a conviction of attempted murder against a man who had raped three women after having tested positive for HIV.
Dwight Smallwood, a violent, twenty-one-year-old sex offender with AIDS raped three women at gunpoint in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in September of 1993. During each attack, Smallwood threatened to kill the victim if she did not cooperate, and told her he would shoot her if she reported the crime to police.
Smallwood was sentenced to life in prison for the rapes, but because he knew of his HIV status and was aware that it could be transmitted to his victims, prosecutors successfully had him convicted for intent to murder and attempted murder. They argued, according to the Washington Post, “that Smallwood’s HIV-positive status was equivalent to a ‘deadly weapon’ and that for him to have unprotected sex with someone was the equivalent of firing a loaded gun at the person.”
Yet the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed these convictions, stating that “intent to kill” was never proven, since Smallwood did not verbally communicate his HIV status during the rape assaults — legal reasoning Gary E. Blair, the chief of the Criminal Appeals Division for the state’s attorney general, found absurd. As he told the court, if someone points a gun at another person, he need not say, “I hope to kill you,” in order to establish a charge of attempted murder.
Furthermore, Smallwood’s own medical records, released by Prince George’s County Detention Center, showed that he had been previously counseled by a social worker who told him that he had tested positive for the HIV virus and would need to practice “safe sex” to prevent transmitting his disease to others.
This was unpersuasive to the appeals court judge, who said that it could not be proven AIDS would result from Smallwood’s sexual assaults the same way death would be a probable result from firing a weapon. The current HIV status of the rape victims is not available.
Instead of protesting verdicts like this one, the self-proclaimed women’s advocacy groups prefer to cash in on federal “rape awareness” programs. The Safe Streets Act of the federal Violence Against Women Act has earmarked more than $28 million for rape education, with the requirement that at least twenty-five percent of the funds be targeted at students in middle, junior high, and high school.
This multi-million-dollar focus on education, at the expense of punishing and incarcerating offenders, will ultimately punish the victims — and not just the victims of rape.
Earlier this year, a six-year-old child sitting on a New York City subway with her parents was lunged at and stabbed with a dirty needle by a homeless man. The family was unable to obtain a court order to have the man tested for HIV because the accused had not yet been convicted.
Reacting to the public’s outcry, the New York Senate passed legislation that — like the federal HIV Prevention Act — would allow victims of crime the right to test their alleged assailants for HIV. The legislation is currently stalled in the state assembly’s health committee.
All too predictably, NOW is silent.
Deidre Raver is co-founder of Women Against Violence, an advocacy group for female victims of crime based in New York City.