On March 6, 1983, a woman customer at Big Dan's tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was sexually assaulted and raped by four men. The bartender was prevented from calling for help and made to lock the front doors. Two other male patrons watched and cheered, while another made one unsuccessful attempt to call the police. A ninth man, sleeping in a drunken stupor, awoke once to see what was happening and, too drunk to move, fell back to sleep. The police arrived at the bar with the victim a few hours later to find most of the men still there, seemingly unaware that any crime had been committed.
The incident and the two trials, which led to the conviction of four of the six defendants on March 17 and 22 of this year on charges of aggravated rape, became the focus of national attention. Media coverage, the response of some of the surrounding community, and the tone of the trials themselves made the convictions a bittersweet victory in the struggle to declare rape a violent and criminal act. To those who long for change in public attitudes and judicial policy regarding rape, the New Bedford trials felt something like two strides forward and many small steps backward.