- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

It is legal canon in this country that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests with the public prosecutor.

Having gotten that fundamental “Law for Dummies” lesson out of the way, however, the visceral, knee-jerk reaction to basketball star Kobe Bryant’s accuser deserves to be put on public trial long before he sets his expensive Nikes in a Colorado courtroom.

“She’s just a gold digger” became the maddening mantra. Fans are “shocked” by the sexual-assault charges leveled against clean-cut Kobe. Excuse me, but I have been awed and appalled by some of the off-the-cuff comments being made about the 19-year-old hotel clerk — also clean-cut by local accounts — who filed a complaint against the 24-year-old basketball player after their encounter in the wee hours of the morning June 30 at the posh Lodge and Spa at Cordillera.

Only two persons on earth really know what went on in that room.

“He didn’t have to force her. He can get anyone he wants,” was the rallying chant.

This the most damaging and injurious of defenses, because as experts in this awful arena will tell you time and again, rape and sexual assault are violent crimes that are actually not about getting sex at all. They are crimes in which sex is used as a weapon of power and control.

So quick was the judgment against her that you’d think the unnamed woman, who everybody will soon know, was the perpetrator rather than the victim.

Already stories are circulating about the former cheerleader, “American Idol” contender “seeking the limelight” or being unstable or being suicidal. Is this fast and furious finger-pointing because most don’t have a clue what constitutes rape? Is this because too many people put too many athletes on pedestals? Is it cynicism or fear that drives society’s discomfort and disdain when celebrities are called into question, particularly with sex-related crimes? Witness how Paula Jones was turned into a pariah when she accused Bill Clinton of untoward sexual advances. Nobody believed her either, until the infamous intern Monica Lewinsky disclosed the dress.

Remember who said “the bitch set me up”? Remember Jodie Foster in “The Accused”? Remember sportscaster Marv Albert in a Virginia hotel room? These high-profile cases have a chilling effect on lesser-known victims who are reluctant to come forward and file charges against their attackers because they know that they will be immediately ridiculed by either their parents, their peers, their partners or the police.

Does anyone really believe that someone would so lightly set themselves up for such scrutiny and scourge? And, no one blames the victim more than she blames herself. Most troubling was that some of the most rabid ranting came out of the mouths of women. “It’s just Mike Tyson all over again,” said one woman who called into a local radio station seeking instant reaction to “breaking news” that Bryant had been formally charged Friday.

Granted, Kobe is no Madman Mike, but a rape by any other nice name is a “sexual assault” or having “inflicted sexual intrusion or sexual penetration causing submission against the victim’s will.” Granted, the tearful sports idol fessed up about his “mistake of adultery.” Good move. Slam-dunk. But he just as swiftly denied the assault charges with his betrayed wife by his side. He may well be acquitted claiming that what happened was between two consenting adults.

Still, the only supportive and protective comments for the victim — yes, the victim — heard above the hue and cry about Kobe’s career and advertising contracts came from Eagle County (Colo.) District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who asked the media to respect the victim’s privacy.

Yesterday, I checked with the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Mine was the first media call they received. Ditto over at Men Can Stop Rape headquarters.

Jonathan Stillerman, co-founder and co-director of Men Can Stop Rape, said that he hopes the Bryant case will present “an opportunity to elevate the issue of sexual assault in the public’s eye so people see this as something to be taken seriously.” He explained that “a lot of people see [sexual assault] as rough sex rather than a crime. They think the rapist is hard up and the crime comes out of some desperation to get some kind of sex.”

Not so. In fact, the statistics show that the majority of sex offenders were involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with one or more partners at the time they committed their offense, Mr. Stillerman said.

“Fundamentally, this is not about sex. It is about using sex as a weapon to gain power and control or to express anger,” which very often comes out a sense of entitlement.

“It makes perfect sense that someone in a high-profile position who is worshipped and has hero status may feel entitled to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to whoever he wants,” he said. “It’s that sense of entitlement that can fuel sexual coercion or sexual violence.” Therefore, “It comes as no surprise that someone with that same sense of entitlement may not end up thinking much about somebody else’s boundaries, wishes or limits,” he said.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Stillerman points out, “we don’t have a radar to detect the safe man from the dangerous man,” because sexual assailants cross all economic, class, race and cultural lines.

More often than not, we let our hero worship blind us in an attempt to deal with our discomfort and feelings of helplessness. We live through our idols, and when they fall, so do we. The result is an overriding tendency to defend and protect. Nonetheless, in his dozen years’ experience in this field, Mr. Stillerman said it is rare for someone to file such a claim falsely. In fact, he said, the statistics indicate that only 2 percent to 3 percent of filed reports end up being false assertions.

No doubt “victim blaming is all too common in sexual assault,” as he said.

The next time we’re tempted to say “She’s just a … ,” we should give great pause.

For information about Men Can Stop Rape, go to www.mencanstoprape.org or call 202/265-6530. The D.C. Rape Crisis Center can be reached at 202/232-0789.

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