Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Want to know why women don’t report sexual assault? Look at the Kobe Bryant case

Published:Monday | February 10, 2020 | 12:19 AM

The tragic and sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant has plunged countless fans into mourning. Bryant was exceptionally talented, and few have even approached his achievements on the court.

However, his legacy is complicated. Kobe inspired millions by his activities both inside and outside the sporting arena, winning an Emmy and an Oscar, among other awards.

But an incident from 2003 was more than just a blip on the radar tracking his amazing life.

That year, a 19-year-old woman accused Bryant of raping her in a hotel room in Colorado. Many will recall that the case was dropped after his accuser decided not to testify and that an out-of-court settlement was reached.

Perusal of the legal and court documents, however, will reveal that even though Bryant was not found guilty in a court of law, his accuser was not proven to have been lying either.

For example, when questioned by police, he denied three times that he had sexual contact with his accuser. However, when he was informed that she had made an allegation of sexual assault against him, he asked the investigating officers, “Is there any way I can settle this whatever it is, I mean…?” And expressed about his wife finding out about the accusation.

When police informed him that the accuser had submitted to a physical exam and that semen and blood evidence had been taken from her person, Bryant admitted that they had sex, claiming it was “totally consensual”.

The medical report, however, stated that there were several lacerations to the victim’s vagina and that two of the lacerations were approximately one centimetre in length. The examining nurse said the lacerations were “too many to count” and that the injuries were “consistent with penetrating genital trauma” and “not consistent with consensual sex”.

The accuser also had a small bruise on her left jaw line, and blood found on Bryant’s T-shirt had the same DNA profile as the alleged victim.

Despite existing laws to protect the identities of persons like the accuser in this case, her name was repeatedly leaked, including being accidentally posted on a court website. Reporters literally camped out at her door and one journalist even tried to infiltrate her therapy sessions by offering money to a session participant.

Death threats and relentless pursuit by the media eventually forced her to move out of Colorado. Meanwhile, her sexual history and mental state became headline fodder.

Not surprisingly, after 18 months of pre-trial motions, and one week before opening statements were to be made, the complainant opted not to testify. She agreed to dismiss the sexual assault charge, provided Bryant issue an apology, which he did through his lawyer, claiming, “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 I did.”

A civil case was later settled out of court, and Bryant went on to become a sports icon.

His sudden death this year prompted an outpouring of praise and appreciation of his life’s work, and rightly so, as he was an extraordinary human being. However, the sexual assault charge has not been forgotten.

Shortly after Bryant’s death was announced, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter from The Washington Post, tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast story about the case. The newspaper promptly suspended her, and after receiving death threats, she sought refuge by checking into a hotel. Following protests from other journalists, she was reinstated.

Sonmez was not the only woman to be harassed after daring to bring up that chapter of Bryant’s life. Gayle King of CBS This Morning, during an interview with female basketball player Lisa Leslie, asked her if Bryant’s legacy is “complicated for you, as a woman, as a WNBA player?”

Leslie responded by saying it was not, adding that in all her dealings with Bryant, she never knew him to be “the kind of person that would do something to violate a woman or be aggressive in that way.”

Like Sonmez, King was also attacked, receiving death threats and feeling the need to travel with security.

Rapper Snoop Dogg, in a video message to King, called her a “funky dog head b***h” and warned her to back off “before we come get you”.

CHILLING REMINDERS

The treatment of Bryant’s accuser and the harassment of women who dare speak of the alleged incident are chilling reminders of the misogyny and patriarchy that protects men and leaves women vulnerable to sexual assault.

Many women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they accuse a man, they are often dismissed, blamed or threatened, and if they do not report the assault at the time, but speak of it later, they are chastised or ridiculed for not speaking up earlier. And, as we see with Bryant’s case, when the alleged perpetrator is a popular or powerful man, it is even more difficult to obtain justice.

Indeed, in Eagle County, where Bryant was supposed to be tried, there was a significant decrease in sex assault reporting following the case, according to Mark Hurlbert, the prosecutor at that time. He also claimed that when victims spoke with advocates, they would say they opted not to report because they were afraid they would be treated like the victim in Kobe Bryant’s case.

I suspect many women who are survivors of sexual assault have been triggered by Bryant’s death and the simultaneous adulation and attempts to silence women who even mention the accusation levelled at him. My heart goes out to them.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to show empathy to those who report being sexually assaulted and remember that most victims never get justice.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams