From Kobe Bryant to Campus Rape
Nobody knows what happened between L.A. Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and his Colorado accuser, but everybody with half of an opinion knows that public attention around this case is not just about what happened between the two of them. To be sure, Bryant was a $45 million “good guy” athlete whose high-flying career on the court and in the endorsements arena has been slowed, if not stopped, by rape accusations. Further, Bryant is a married Black man whose actions raise questions about his character whether they are rape or not. A decade after O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and furious commentary about race, gender and justice was unleashed, the Bryant case seems less about race than it does about a culture of rape and athlete entitlement that permeates our society.
Bryant’s attorneys have focused on the character of the woman who has made the rape accusations. That’s no different from what happens on campuses, when women who make rape accusations often shoulder the burden of shame and campus disapproval. Even though laws have been passed to protect young women — who are most at risk for rape — from sexual assault on campus, many young men think they can rape without consequence. Thus, the Campus Security Act of 1990 (now known as the Jeanne Clery Act), which requires campuses to report serious crimes on campus, and the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights of 1992, have raised awareness about campus rape, but the legislation has hardly stopped rape. The combination of adolescence, alcohol, drugs, entitlement and male privilege have made rape an all-too-likely occurrence despite the fact that many campuses now make rape prevention classes a mandatory part of freshman orientation.
While Kobe Bryant is not a campus athlete, the many ways that the public has responded to his rape allegation mirrors incidents on campuses. People who do not know Kobe Bryant have been involved in threatening the woman who has accused him, even though they have nothing to do with his case. The men who are generating threats seem to be White, young and wedded to male privilege. Their actions seem to shout out a protest against a woman who would dare accuse their icon, attack his privilege.
Does race matter here? Somewhat. Our nation’s history of White women “crying rape” on Black men when they don’t get their way can be appropriately invoked in both the Bryant case and in campus rape cases where the Black athlete is the villain and the White woman is the victim. But history should not demand acquittal because, despite history, it is certainly possible for White women to be raped by Black athletes. It is also possible for Black women to be raped by Black athletes, but these cases, somehow, garner less attention. If the woman accusing Kobe in Colorado were African American, would the media buzz be different? Probably.
Violence against women is a problem both on campuses and in our society, and combating this violence seems an uphill battle, especially when stereotypes against women are embedded in our culture. Among the biases is the notion that “‘no’ does not mean ‘no,'” the notion that women can’t change their minds, the notion that “everybody wants it.” I have heard too many folks suggest that iconic athletes don’t have to “take” sex because so much is offered to them. But if someone is unaccustomed to hearing the word “no” from the world, can they hear it from a woman they see as a sexual partner? Campuses can deal with this by offering sexual assault awareness training, but according to a recent study, “Campus Sexual Assault: How America’s Institutions of Higher Education Respond” (Department of Justice, 2002), fewer than half of all institutions of higher education report providing new students with sexual assault awareness education, or provide an acquaintance rape prevention program. Fewer than 40 percent of campuses require sexual assault training for campus law enforcement and security officers. Half of all schools provide no training to faculty and staff on ways to respond to disclosures of sexual assault. In some cases, there is vague awareness that sexual assault may be a problem, but absent training, these problems are crises waiting to happen.
Men, especially athletes, need to be aware of what constitutes sexual assault. Women, too, should be aware of the ways that they can prevent assault. I am among the feminists who have argued that women’s lives should be as unfettered as men’s, that we should be able to walk down any street, dance to every tune, close the bar with the men if we like, and do all of it unharmed. Still, possibility and practicality sometimes collide in what I call the damn fool theory of crime. If I dance the night away while imbibing in a frat house I am a damn fool. If the frat decides to gang rape me because I am there and because they can’t hear “no,” they are criminals. I have a right to be a damn fool, to be sure. But my foolishness is likely to have adverse consequences that will have an impact on my future, whether my assailants are prosecuted or not.
Too many women have been blamed for their “damn fool” behavior, and too many men have been let off the hook for theirs. Boys will be boys, we say, especially those athletic boys who have been coddled by a culture of privilege and entitlement. Though he has been charged with rape, Kobe Bryant may well be innocent of the crime. Still his case is instructive for those who work with those athletes who have been taught by our culture that women are available for their pleasure. And the commentary around his case is a reminder of how much work we have to do to change the ways we deal with men, women, sex and consent both on and off our nation’s campuses.
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