The observation that subjects carry histories and narratives distinct from what they have done as individuals is not new, nor is it an original idea that predetermined narratives are attached to those who are identified as villains and victims. The circulating narratives about sexual violence in the United States have historically demanded that victims be perfect and virginal and white and that rapists be strang(ers) and clearly marked as dangerous.5 When Kobe Bryant, a famous, African-American basketball player was charged with felony sexual assault in July 2003, the pre-existing and overlapping narratives that circulate about race, gender, and sexual assault caused the general public to form judgments that were not based on knowledge about what specifically went on in that room.
A willingness to judge with little evidence is demonstrated by the results of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll that was conducted shortly after the assault. The only information people had was that Kobe Bryant, a popular NBA basketball player who seemed to have a pristine reputation was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year old female employee of a luxury hotel near Vail, Colorado. Alleged perpetrator Bryant claimed that it was consensual while the alleged victim claimed that it was sexual assault. Everyone knew that Kobe Bryant is African American, and most people suspected from the demographics of the area, interviews with her friends, or knew from media coverage that his accuser is white. They also “knew” a number of narratives about black athletes, rape, and intimacy or violence between black men and white women. The poll results from one-thousand adults were demonstrated significant statistical divisions along racial lines. Forty percent of whites believed that the charges against Bryant were probably true, while only twenty-four percent of black respondents believed he was probably guilty. Sixty-eight percent of blacks believed that the charges were not true, while forty-one percent of whites believed that he is probably innocent.6
These responses, while representative of widespread beliefs about sexual violence, nonetheless do not demonstrate that there is a homogenous response on the part of any racial group to this event. The readings of a sexual assault accusation, trial, and of the people involved are determined by a number of factors. It is impossible to produce a homogenous narrative about U.S. citizens’ understanding or reading of rape. We can make some general claims. Studies indicate that rape myths continue to influence responses to rape narratives.7 Men are more likely to hold women responsible in scenarios that rape activists would categorize as acquaintance rape than women are, but many women can also believe in rape myths that hold women responsible. The more that people believe in rape myths, the more responsibility will be a factor in determining if someone is sexually assaulted.8 Race continues to be a factor in whether or not people view some scenarios as rape and in terms of the punishment allotted. The breakdown of responses is not as predictable as one might think: one study of college students showed black participants were more lenient towards the white rapist than the black rapist.9 This speaks to the ways in which stories about rape are internalized by many different kinds of people—even those who would presumably see through rape myths which apply to their own identities. When discussing the Bryant case, it is also important to address the fact that the whiteness of the alleged victim does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the results of the poll might not be similar if his accuser were an African American woman. Black women have often been characterized as being destructive to black male agency and success.10
As the pre-trial labor continued and stories circulated, both Bryant and the hotel employee were described as victims. The case then became a means by which longstanding policies concerning alleged rape victims were challenged. A number of websites named and provided contact information on Bryant’s accuser, and Los Angeles radio talk show host Tom Leykis identified her on his syndicated radio program. Leykis argued that he did not believe the woman’s story and that revealing protecting her identity and Bryant’s was inherently unfair. At the same time, Leykis demonstrated his knowledge of the scholarship and rhetoric that anti-rape workers have produced: “We're told that rape is violence, not sex, and if that's true, there's no reason she should feel shame or embarrassment." Leykis voices a widely believed argument, that protecting the victim’s identity ignores the ways in which Bryant is harmed by the accusation. Any critic of the criminal justice system can easily recognize the ways in which being accused of a crime causes harm, this conversation could have produced a productive conversation about the ways in which someone accused of a crime might have a right to have their identity protected until conviction. The accused does have certain rights of privacy. Bryant, however, as a celebrity gives up some rights to privacy as a public figure. This critique of the treatment of the accused and accuser could have produced and argument about expanded privacy practices, instead Leykis chose to support the further erosion of privacy. And Leykis presumes to make an argument about what a rape victim’s proper feelings should be—ignoring the consistent shame-producing treatment of rape-survivors.
The uncovering of her identity was the beginning of highly publicized attacks on her character and discussion of what a “rape victim” would do. Evidence that Bryant’s accuser had had intercourse with someone else the day of the assault as well as stories about her sexual history were circulated. Both Bryant and the woman reportedly received threats, and while Bryant was constantly in the public eye because of the NBA playoffs, his accuser was continually discussed because of her reported depression, moves, and harassment that she experienced.
The media depicted Bryant’s accuser as increasingly unreliable, and when she filed a civil lawsuit against Bryant that was treated as evidence of her monetary motives. Reports continued to question her sexual history, and on September 1, 2004, the prosecutors dropped the charges because Bryant’s accuser chose decided not to testify. In response, Bryant issued this carefully worded statement:
First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colorado. I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way that I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even hearing her testify in person, I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent to the encounter.11
This apology should be understood as the precursor to a possible legal settlement, but despite the strategic nature of it, it is interesting because it configures the incident an ensuing events as a result of a sincere misunderstanding. This is one narrative that did not popularly circulate after the event. It makes consent a matter of vision. Anti-rape activists would largely dispute this possibility or consider it immaterial, and many suspicious of the Bryant’s accuser would doubt that she did not know what she was doing. This strategic reading of the events that took place in that hotel room is not totally implausible. Bryant and his accuser may have begun a consensual encounter and it may have been totally unconceivable to him that she—or any woman—would have stopped consenting at some point during the encounter. But for purposes of this article, I want to emphasize that the guilt or innocence of Bryant or his accuser are immaterial. The problem with acquaintance sexual assault trials is that many people continue to believe or doubt regardless of the outcome. Admissions of guilt or perjury that Perry Mason and his descendants dramatically garner on television never occur in real life. Despite the dropped charges, and regardless of the outcome of the civil case, people will have differing positions on Bryant’s guilt or innocence.
This paper is about those positions, and what informs them. Responses to rape by the general public indicate that there are some clear patterns even as reactions may vary. Some discourses, however, demonstrate consistent approaches to reading and responding to sexual assault accusations. Anti-rape and anti-racist responses are fairly coherent, and discriminatory histories inform the reations to the Kobe Bryant case.