WITH most crimes, from robbery to murder, the only question is: Who did it? With sexual harassment or date rape, the offender is known, but the question is: What exactly was the crime?
Two new rulings continue the struggle to define rape - a crime unambiguous in its hurtfulness but blurry as to legal precision.
The California Supreme Court ruled recently that a rape had occurred when the circumstances ``so paralyzed the victim in fear and submission'' that she was too frightened to fight back or even cry out.
By contrast, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a rape had not occurred, even though the woman repeatedly said no, because ``forcible compulsion'' could not be proved. If the defendant in this case had been tried in California, his conviction likely would have been upheld. Instead, he was convicted only of a second-degree misdemeanor for ``indecent assault.''
It used to be that for prosecutors to get a conviction for rape, the crime had to be committed at knifepoint in a dark alley.
The victim was expected to struggle, or at least scream - and it helped if there was a witness, though there generally wasn't.
Police officers and judges have come a long way from the days when the presumption was common: She ``asked for it.''
But the Pennsylvania case suggests that not everybody has come far enough. Women's groups are properly concerned that this decision ``invalidates the reality that any nonconsensual intercourse is rape'' - no less a violation whether committed by a stranger or an acquaintance, with or without a weapon or brute force.
It also must be recognized, as other women as well as men have acknowledged, that the boundaries between somewhat mutual seduction and the crime of rape can become confused.
This makes a false accusation of rape a serious crime too, considering the damage done to a man's reputation, not to mention the punishment by law.
The most effective tool for cutting through such confusion is individual consciousness. A change of attitude as well as a change of behavior is required.
The governing factor in any relationship must be respect for the other person - man or woman. Without that respect, any court-defined resolution of conflicts within those relationships may continue to be grudging and incomplete.