Say it Ain’t So, Ko!: Kobe Bryant and the Incommensurability of Anti-Racist and Anti-Rape Advocacy

Embracing Advocacy and Rejecting Neutrality: The Anti-Rape Gaze

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Embracing Advocacy and Rejecting Neutrality: The Anti-Rape Gaze

Anti-rape rhetoric, by its very definition, discusses a rape allegation in terms of the prevalence and effects of sexual assault. The anti-rape advocate supports the alleged victim/survivor and privileges her claims and needs.25 It is not a neutral or balanced position—nor should it be. Neutrality and balance are phantom ideals that are held up as standards for those who claim commitment to “facts,” thus journalism and the law are central fields that allegedly offer neutrality. The conservative Fox News Channel calls itself fair and balanced and is a station that patently presents the conservative attachments of its staff as the standard for neutrality. While Fox News cannot be the standard for a press that may aspire towards neutrality, the channel’s adoption of and attachment to its slogan emphasizes the producers’ belief that their audience sells itself on the idea that a balanced neutrality is key to receiving factual and logical information. Many feminist and critical race theorists have critiqued the idea that the law is neutral, but what the law offers is a tradition that quite imperfectly models justice through a tradition of advocacy which is adversarial and requires that participants in the legal process reject neutrality to make their arguments.26 Fairness requires that varied advocates argue for an individual or constituency, and arguing from a particular political position does not mean that facts are not being offered or that logic is being circumvented. Advocacy does mean that another side will not be equally presented, but citizens need to learn that this is not the job of advocates for sexual assault survivors.

A document produced by Jackson Katz and the California Coalition of Sexual Assault demonstrates the work that the anti-rape advocate does and does not do. In “When You’re Asked about the Kobe Bryant Case,” Katz sees writes that the Bryant case is an opportunity for “a teachable moment” about sexual assault.27 He argues that popular coverage will“emphasize the legal issues” such as “rules of evidence” and the credibility and effectiveness of witnesses. The counterdiscourse he offers is characterized as “broaden[ing] the conversation to talk about the societal context in which rape is common.” He is indeed broadening the conversation about rape beyond the law, but he is narrowing it at the same time by turning a discussion of a rape allegation to an interrogation of why rape happens:

Some questions we should raise whenever we get the chance: why is the rape rate so high in the U.S? Why do so many men rape women? If over 99% of rape is perpetrated by men—whether the victims are female or male—why is rape considered a “women’s issue?” What is going on with American men—whether we’re star athletes or just average guys—that causes so many of us to assault women?

These are the questions that he thinks are important when discussing the Kobe Bryant case, and they are vital questions that our society should continue to ask. The questions in themselves nonetheless provoke critique as none of them suggest that Bryant may not be guilty.

In his role as a rape advocate, Katz would be more open to believing the charges against Bryant are true because he will adhere to the central premises of the anti-rape movement: rape is ubiquitous worldwide, the absence of consent during a sexual encounter is the indicator that a rape took place, false sexual assault claims are rare, and that the violence affecting women is not only a woman’s issue but human concern as the physical, psychological, and cultural harms produced by rape affect everyone. Katz has a great deal of evidence to support these claims, but he performs some a rhetorical slight of hand when he asks Kobe Bryant’s fans to be fair when judging the case:
. . . people who know a lot about rape—from the perspective of victims as well as the perspective of the criminal justice system—know that false reports of rape are rare. Rarer still is the situation where a victim falsely reports rape, then sticks to her/his story long enough for a district attorney to file charges and commence the prosecution of a case. It is understandable that Kobe Bryant fans are hoping that their hero will be exonerated. But if they have any sense of fairness, these fans have to support a fair trial, and withhold judgment until all of the evidence is presented in a court of law.

Katz moves from the claim that those who possess knowledge (false reports are rare) are in a better position to judge Bryant, to arguing that fans should withhold judgment until the trial is completed. But by positioning himself in the know, he has indicated that he and other anti-rape activists do not need to withhold judgment—they are already in a position to judge. He is careful not to say that Bryant is guilty or that the alleged victim is telling the truth, but it is implied.

Someone who is performing the role of an anti-racist advocate may question how the issue of racial discrimination affects the trial. Katz addresses the issue but subtly reveals an unwillingness to admit that it could affect the prosecution of African American men accused of rape. He argues that racism has resulted in lynching and “other racist outbursts” that should be denounced and acknowledges the whiteness of the environment where the alleged rape took place, but he suggests race might only be a factor in the courtroom “depending on the strategy of the defense.” This implies that it would never be an issue of the prosecution—even as a subtext. His acknowledgment of race in this document does not seem to go beyond acknowledgment; if he is concerned with intersectionality his use of it means that he only gestures towards race without integrating it into his argument.

Despite the elision over spaces where other arguments could be made, Katz presents productive approaches to dealing with rape myths that will circulate around the Bryant trial. The claims made by the movement about prevalence, consent, veracity, and harm have been effective in educating the public about rape and transforming the law, but rape myths still widely circulate and the movement—as a necessity—has simplified complicated concepts like consent. There is no room for a poststructuralist reading of “no means no” in anti-rape activist rhetoric. This rhetoric has focused on making concepts clear and producing systemic responses to oft heard arguments so that sexual assault could be more legible under the law.

The definition of rape nonetheless remains, as Eric Reitan has argued, “an essentially contested concept.”28 As even the concept is contested much of the work done to make rape legible has involved proving that it is an extensive problem. One of the first claims that anti-rape activists use when presenting arguments to the public is present proof that it is a widespread problem. Depending on which research you look at, statistics have indicated that half of all U.S. women will fall victim to sexual violence. An often assailed study by done by Ms. magazine in 1985 argues that 1 in 4 college women will victims of rape or attempted rape.29 A report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000 indicated that fifty-two percent of women were physically assaulted in their lifetimes, while 18 percent of women said they experienced rape or attempted rape.30 This study places accounts of assault as a little over 1 in 6. Quantitative analysis is an important part of proving the relevance of a particular issue to a target population, but the variation in numbers has caused some people to accuse anti-rape activists of inflating statistics. The argument that anti-rape activists often make—which is quite supportable—is that the shame produced by sexual assault and unlikelihood of prosecution in many cases has resulted in the need to estimate numbers because reports of rape are more difficult for a survivor to make than reports of car theft. Reports of sexual assaults thus often come much later to counselors and other non-law enforcement listeners.

Despite the romance of unassailable evidence that quantitative analysis offers organizations that fund political and social work, quantitative analysis can be as questionable as qualitative analysis. The question is only whether or not rape effects enough people that it warrants institutional attention and support and cultural acknowledgment of its severity. The numbers, whichever you look at, indicate that rape is a social problem and has always been a problem. My desire to participate in an anti-rape movement committed to the possibility of progress prevents me from stating that it will always be a problem. The conflict around characterizing the extent of the rape “problem” has involved transforming the general public’s understanding and way of viewing rape, so that the crime of rape can be seen as indicative of how power maintains itself. In other words, a review of history and the ways in which narratives about rape support claims that women exist in a virgin/whore dichotomy, work to destroy powerful men, and irrationally exaggerate the harms done to them show that we live in a rape culture.

It is the “rape culture” idea that is most contested. Critics of the anti-rape movement often focus on three claims that they take out of nuanced contexts: Susan Brownmiller’s landmark claim that rape is the means by which “all men keep all women in a state of fear,” Marilyn French’s character stating that “all men are rapists”in The Women’s Room, and Catharine MacKinnon’s argument that rape is anytime a woman has sex and feels violated.31 These women have argued that rape facilitates the continued oppression of women first as the tool of both ideological and structural gazes which understand women as rapable and second, as acts which traumatize women while affirming men’s power. They see rape as serving a culture which supports male dominance and female subjection.

Catharine MacKinnon has served as the poster child and punching bag for many critics of the anti-rape movement. MacKinnon argues that men define women in relationship to sex and that the male subject treats sex as a relationship between dominance and submission. MacKinnon is one of the main scholars marked as a perpetrator who treats “all women as victims,” and denies agency to women. She has been accused of ignoring the complexities of relationships between men and women, and hyperbolically positioning men as the state and women as subjected under it by the very structure of law and everyday social interactions. MacKinnon and many fellow activists like Andrea Dworkin, critics argue, collapse the difference between rape and sex. They are producing, as Katie Roiphe states in a text she sees as combating “victim” feminism, a “utopian vision of sexual relations: sex without struggle, sex without power, sex without persuasion, sex without pursuit” (Roiphe 80).32 I use Roiphe, despite the unscholarly nature of her arguments, because she well articulates the kind of “common sense” arguments that circulate about rape.

Acquaintance rape has been a particular target because it has been identified as much more common than stranger rape, and the anti-rape movement has been accused of convincing women that “bad sex” is rape. Roiphe argues that it is a movement of “retrospective trauma” that convinces women that they were sexually assaulted long after the incident has passed. If, in the often cited Ms. study, 42 percent of the women did not identify what happened to them as rape, people who critique much of the rhetoric of the anti-rape movement argue that they are expanding the definition of rape so widely that regret is now classified as sexual assault. Roiphe argues that the rape crisis “on campus is more a way of interpreting, a way of seeing, than a physical phenomenon. It is more about a change in sexual politics than a change in sexual behavior” (53).

In answer to this critique, MacKinnon and those in sympathy with her politics would certainly agree—yes, the anti-rape movement has been about change in vision. Roiphe and others make the claim that a change in sexual politics is self-evidently wrong, when it is that very change that has resulted in the removal of marital rape exemptions, the creation of laws that recognize domestic violence and stalking as crimes, and an “expansion” of an understanding that rapes do occur that don’t involve a stranger attacking with a knife or gun. A change in “seeing” has been MacKinnon’s project for her entire career. She has fought for people to transform the legal and social gazes on sexual harassment, rape, and pornography. Roiphe is being disingenuous to imply that “a way of interpreting, a way of seeing”—sometimes called consciousness raising—is not a part of any political change.

MacKinnon’s feminist theory of the state requires that people take seriously that sexuality is at the core of legal and social organization, and that a hierarchy of dominance and submission is central to the configuration of sexuality. Her arguments require that structures of power be taken seriously. Her many critics are right to point out that variations of desire and sexuality which “play” with dominance and submission are not truly accounted for in her theory except as relationships or events that do not really affect the power dynamic.33 Her critics are also right to point out that consent, given the ways in which coercion is often configured as sexy by both men and women complicates theories about consent and communication in intimate encounters.

While MacKinnon erases ambiguities, I want to go back to MacKinnon’s classic claim that “male power is systemic” and “coercive, legitimated, and epistemic” in the state.34 A great deal of important scholarship on sexual violence has been written since MacKinnon, and others have reviewed that work so I will not rehearse that here.35 I’m going back to her claims because they are still foundational to what I want to assert as an ethical imperative: the need for people to perform advocacy for a feminist position and not claim neutrality. MacKinnon models this position as an advocate for a class of citizens who are treated differently under the law.36

MacKinnon’s explicit rejection of neutrality as a valid criticism of her project or as the position she should take demonstrates the ways in which she forthrightly takes on the role of an advocate. Many people have also read her as adversarial to men, not just male power and have rejected the idea that the sexual violence survivor may need and demand a space that is hostile to masculinity. Thus while MacKinnon often gestures to intersectionality and the ways in which male power in the state subjugates people of color and the poor, but the very nature of her advocacy means that she does not put equal weight on all subject positions. By producing a totalizing narrative that positions gender at the center of state dominance, for MacKinnon gender will always trump race as a factor in state discrimination. MacKinnon’s stance cannot, if justice is to happen, be the stance that everyone takes. What all progressive people can adopt from MacKinnon is a theory of the state that understand it as the enemy in combating subjection, and her embrace of advocacy as a moral imperative in supporting women.

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