A Dangerous Precedent

For most students, Harvard is a relatively safe place. Compared to other college towns, Cambridge has few violent crimes. Yet incidences of sexual assault have always been a concern on college campuses—especially on ours. According to the Harvard University Police Department, last year there were 12 reported incidences of sexual groping and 16 reported sexual assaults. The real question, however, is how many survivors of sexual assault have not spoken up?

One of the most surprising facts about sexual assaults is how many go unreported. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics estimated that 248,000 people were raped or sexually assaulted but that only 39 percent were actually reported to law enforcement officials—only one of every three cases.

As startling as these statistics are, even more upsetting is how court cases—like the recently aborted Kobe Bryant sexual assault trial—continue to encourage an environment in which survivors increasingly fear to report sexual assault. For the young woman involved in this specific case, reporting her story to the police threw her in the middle of a media circus. She was subjected to a brutal environment where rape shield laws were unable to prevent sensational revelations of her name, graphic details about her sexual history and endless questions about her character and mental stability.

Given the countless mistakes made and manipulation tactics employed in the Kobe Bryant case, why would any survivor of sexual assault want to come forward?

Last fall, the Glenwood Springs hospital where the accuser and Bryant were examined accidentally turned over her medical records to attorneys in the case. In June, a court reporter accidentally e-mailed transcripts of a closed hearing to the Associated Press and six other news organizations, revealing details of defense arguments about the accuser’s sexual activities and money received from a victims’ compensation fund. And last month, a sealed order by the judge was mistakenly posted on the Web site, divulging her name again and information about DNA evidence collected during Bryant’s hospital exam.

Yet, many will argue that however unfortunate the mistakes are, such detailed information about the accuser is for “the public good” and crucial for the defense team. Given the fact that Bryant is a rich, successful basketball star, he has the right to question the credibility of his accuser. It is possible the accuser is telling the truth, but it is also possible that she has fabricated a story of rape in the mere hopes of not only damaging Bryant but also securing some of his wealth and fame for herself.

As the trial judge, Chief Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle of District Court, ruled last month, rape protection laws do not prevent Bryant’s defense team from revealing details about the woman’s sexual behavior in the 72 hours before her medical examination. Ruckriegle agreed that such details could be used by the defense to account for the woman’s physical bruises and to question her credibility in the context of the events of that time period.

But the problem is precisely that—Bryant indeed has a right to question the credibility of his accuser but no one is questioning the credibility of Bryant. While we should keep in mind that a person is innocent until proven guilty, we need to remember that the accuser is not the one on trial here. Few have publicly condemned Bryant for his act of adultery or his promiscuity. Yet many have gone out of their way to scrutinize her and subject her to countless attacks.

Since the day Jane Doe came forward with her claim against Bryant, she has been constantly taunted by her peers and members of her local community. She has not been able to return to her academic studies due to safety concerns, and she has tried to move to four different states in the last year. The accuser has received hundreds of death threats on the phone, in the mail and by e-mail. Three people were arrested for threatening her life. Moreover, she continues to receive thousands of obscene messages from Kobe Bryant fans—fans who stand by Bryant and proudly wear “Free Kobe” t-shirts even though they have never met him or the accuser.

This is exactly why rape shield laws were enacted over 25 years ago—to prevent the disclosure of the survivor’s sexual history and the degrading cross-examination that focuses on the survivor’s behavior—how she acted, what she wore, whom was she with—but Bryant’s powerful team of lawyers managed to find cracks within the shield.

However, at its heart this case is not about Jane Doe’s lifelong sexual history. Being sexually active with several men does not make a single act of rape acceptable in any way or form. This case is also not about whether sexual intercourse took place—Bryant admitted that much in a press conference last year. Rather, this case deals solely with the question of consent—whether or not this act legally constituted a rape. The only question that should be debated in this “she said-he said” case is whether or not the accuser, Jane Doe said no to Bryant that night.

Unfortunately, no matter the outcome of the Bryant trial, no matter who is telling the truth, the damage to rape survivors may already be done. Reporting a rape is a complicated act, and many survivors are hesitant to discuss it. The Department of Justice found that many women choose not to report rapes and sexual assaults because of the “belief that the victim was herself responsible, fear of social consequences, and the belief that the police would be ineffective.” The Bryant case has only confirmed these fears are well-founded.

This court case is unusually complicated and should be considered the exception rather than the rule. But the way this case has played out so far has only made it much more challenging for future victims of assault to hold on to the one belief that can empower them to come forward—the belief that justice can prevail.

Anat Maytal ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government and women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Leverett House. She is on the board of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence.