A remarkable new documentary exposes viewers to the ambiguities of a US rape case.
Can a woman who has been hired to strip by college students, then voluntarily gone to a college fraternity house, consensually engaged in sex acts with several of the students, drunk copious amounts of alcohol, and never once said the words ‘no’ or ‘stop’ in response to any of the students’ advances, rightfully claim to have been raped by one of those students on that night?
This is the question raised by Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, a new US documentary that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the USA, and at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in the UK.
The documentary concerns an alleged rape, said to have taken place on 26 February 1999, at a University of Florida fraternity house. That evening, exotic dancer Lisa Gier King was hired by the students to perform at a party, after which she stayed the night. The following morning, she ran from the house half-naked and claimed she had been raped by Michael Yahraus, one of the students. Yahraus and his fellow students denied the claim.
From this point on, the case became a matter of King’s word against Yahraus’, with the authorities weighing up all the available evidence. But what made this case exceptional was the nature of the evidence that was available. The students had captured several hours of the evening’s festivities on camera.
You might assume that a video recording would provide evidence of whether somebody had consented to sex or not – but you would be wrong. The police who first watched the videos took them as clear evidence of consent on King’s part, and even arrested her, on the misdemeanour charge of filing a false report. But King’s legal representatives thought the recordings did not invalidate the rape allegation one jot, and continued to push her case.
Raw Deal is a remarkable documentary, because not only does it follow the history of the case and interview the main protagonists, but it also features excerpts from the videos themselves, including much of the alleged rape. Viewers are allowed to make up their own minds about what happened, and to compare the actual video footage with the contrasting interpretations of events by the interviewees.
The footage doesn’t make for easy viewing. The music is loud, the partying wild, and King’s predicament horribly ambiguous. The students – who epitomise every negative stereotype of misogynistic, beer-swilling fratboys – unashamedly treat King as the commodity that they paid for when they hired her to strip. As they film each other with her, one of them announces: ‘the raping of a white trash, crack whore bitch.’
Lawyers leapt upon phrases like these to claim that King was obviously raped. But when you consider the levels of intoxication and the students’ smutty fratboy humour, nothing is so certain. Yahraus is seen to have rough sex with King, and he is clearly strong enough to overpower her physically. But although it appears that she may be distressed, and too scared or too intoxicated to actually say so, it is impossible to tell for certain.
The case made a big impact in the USA, because of the way it subsequently became politicised. In such cases, it is common practice for the evidence to be available for public viewing, on the premises of the legal authorities, on request. In this case, as debate grew around the allegations, Alachua county state attorney Rod Smith came under attack for his handling of the case. And on 26 April 1999 he made an extraordinary announcement – he would authorise the duplication and release of the video recordings to any member of the public who requested them. King filed an emergency petition to prevent this from happening, but the petition was rejected.
If Smith thought his action would avert controversy, he was wrong. The demands of various feminist and women’s rights organisations that King be recognised as a rape victim only grew more vigorous – and radio shock jocks who didn’t believe King’s claims organised raunchy keg parties around screenings of the video.
People on both sides of the case come across badly in Raw Deal. King’s supporters use the (admittedly loathsome) behaviour of the intoxicated fratboys as a cheap way of dismissing the students’ case – with one of the interviewees insinuating that Yahraus is a potential child molester. They seem to forget that the law does not exist solely to protect people whose manners and lifestyle you approve of.
Meanwhile, representatives of Yahraus and his fellow students use the fact that King was working as a stripper, and that she consented to sex acts with several students, to dismiss her case out of hand – talking about her sarcastically, as though she were less than human. They seem to forget that the law does not exist solely to protect people whose profession and sexual habits you approve of.
The lives of King and the students have been dominated by this case over the past two years. They have also suffered the humiliation of their video-recorded sex acts being publicly circulated. Yahraus declined to be interviewed for Raw Deal, but his fellow student Tony Marzullo, who who hired King to perform in the first place, did speak – and is utterly scathing of King, going beyond the issue of rape to make snobbish remarks about her lack of education and lack of good character.
King, meanwhile, who is interviewed together with her family, comes across as having endlessly relived her unpleasant experiences through the eyes of the feminist lobby, for whom she became a cause celebre. Whether or not you accept her account of events, you cannot help feeling profoundly sorry for her – as much for the media circus that has surrounded her as for the alleged rape itself.
In legal terms, the eventual outcome of the case was a compromise. Six of the students (including Yahraus and Marzullo) received three charges: soliciting and engaging in prostitution, lewdness and assignation, and remaining in a structure of prostitution. Apart from one, whose prosecution was deferred, the students received sentences consisting of probation, community service and court costs.
King was charged with prostitution, assignation, and operating an escort service without a license. She pleaded guilty to one of these three charges, and received a sentence of six months probation and court costs.
Raw Deal director Billy Corben deserves to be congratulated for not presenting any significant bias of opinion. The film is often unpleasant to watch, but it aspires to objectivity and it respects the intelligence of its audience, which is unusual in a contemporary treatment of an issue as emotive as rape.
By the end of Raw Deal, you are left with the conclusion that whatever happened on the night of 26 February 1999, nothing good came of the subsequent involvement of the police and the courts. It is possible (though not certain) that Lisa Gier King wound up frightened, in a situation out of her control, having unwilling sex with a particularly intimidating student, and sustained some minor injuries at his hands.
But even if that did happen, in retrospect King would have done just as well not to go to the police.
Sex crime and punishment, by Sara Hinchcliffe
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