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Women say verdict is a victory

Many women expected Mike Tyson to go free. They had watched Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation and William Kennedy Smith's acquittal. They knew how seldom sexual assault cases are prosecuted, and how seldom they are won.

"The way things have been going, I was sure the woman would be blamed," said Regina Thompson, a legal secretary in New York. "But finally the message is clear: No means no," added her friend, Cheryl Burger.

Tyson was convicted of rape Monday. It didn't matter that the woman was in his hotel room at 2 a.m. or whether he was sexually explicit with her and other contestants at the Miss Black America pageant.

"The Indianapolis jury acknowledged the right of a woman to think of herself as something more than a piece of meat, to think of herself as a human being whose body is her own," said Lynn Schafran, a lawyer with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "That was important . . . necessary."

Over the months, issues of sexual harassment and acquaintance rape have been brought into focus. That's healthy, activists say. More troublesome to many women, however, has been the discouraging bottom line.

"It was getting hard to have much faith that a woman could ever win," said Barbara Otto of 9 to 5, a national organization for working women. "Society still has this problem with women "wanting it' or "asking for it.' In a way, that's what makes this victory even more resonant."

Still, it was a victory tempered by questions of racism.

"Historically, this country has been much more willing to accuse and find black men guilty of rape," said Mary Beth Maxwell, who deals with sexual assault issues as a director of the U.S. Student Association.

"We have to ask: If he had a different last name _ like Kennedy _ or the color or his skin was different, then would Tyson have been convicted?" she said. "It isn't about race. The message is that women must come forward."

Rape remains the most under-reported of all major crimes. Only one in 10 sexual assault victims file complaints with police, according to the National Victim Center in Washington. Of some 100,000 such complaints filed last year, only a fraction went to trial.

Claire Walsh, an expert on acquaintance rape, has guided many victims through the often degrading process of prosecuting their assailants. She was encouraged by the Tyson verdict, but only slightly so.

"I would like to consider it as the door opening and letting in the light of change. But I'm not that optimistic," said Walsh, who directs a rape prevention program in St. Augustine. "The good girl-bad girl thing is still out there and very powerful."