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Sexual assault: are we still making excuses?

Opinion Piece by: Isabel Loubser

There is no denying that since the development of the #MeToo campaign in 2017, awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment within everyday society has increased. But have attitudes towards victims and accusers actually changed at all? It seems that the public are still all too ready to make excuses for those rich and powerful individuals who are facing allegations of sexual assault. 

Over the past five years, rape offences reported to police in England and Wales have risen by 65%. This highlights that there has been a shift in attitudes surrounding rape and sexual assault in general. The public discussion about these types of crimes has given a renewed sense of hope to victims and has provided a basis for more women to file police reports when they have experienced harassment. However, during the same period, the proportion of cases making it to court has more than halved. This figure reveals that our legal system is fundamentally flawed in relation to prosecuting sexual offences. It is clear that we continue to fall short of achieving justice for victims of any type of sexual assault in society, but, does the problem become even worse when the perpetrator is famous? 

#MeToo march in Hollywood, LA, with founder of the movement, Tarana Burke front and centre.

Kobe Bryant’s tragic death has sparked a renewed discussion about a rape charge brought against him in 2003. Whilst Bryant always maintained that the encounter was consensual and the case was closed after a financial settlement, his actions still should be subject to scrutiny. To be clear, there was evidence of rape. When the 19-year-old was examined at a hospital, she had bruises on her neck and tears in her vaginal wall. There was blood on her underwear and on Bryant’s shirt and Bryant admitted to the police that he had not asked for consent. We can only speculate about why the case was not brought to trial, but, the fact that it never reached the courtroom certainly does say a lot about how power can exonerate one’s actions. Even in a society with a fair justice system, there is no doubt that being in a position of fame, wealth or authority provides a level of intimidation that influences the outcomes of cases like these. A CEO, an actor or a sports star have a huge number of resources at their disposal. They can exert their power over their accuser, not simply by buying them off using their financial resources, but through a subtler type of coercion that is intrinsically linked to being universally revered. This is where the problem lies. A power imbalance exists; one that cannot be altered. 

Following the helicopter crash and the subsequent death of the American basketball star, Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post journalist tweeted a link to a piece published in 2016 about the rape case. After this she was put on leave. Not only this, but she was subject to widespread backlash from Bryant’s fans, some of whom even sent her death threats. Whilst Bryant’s basketball career continued, uninterrupted, following the sexual assault allegations, this female journalist faced criticism after simply highlighting the issue. This does seem like a bit of a double standard. It appears that we want to make excuses for someone who is publicly admired for their talent, making us reluctant to question their private actions in fear of having to completely amend our perception of them. 

Felicia Sonmez, the Washington Post reporter who was placed on leave after her comments regarding 2003 rape allegations against Kobe Bryant.

 Loyalties to celebrities such as Bryant leads fans to defy rational logic and simply dismiss accusers as attention-seeking or fame hungry. We have seen this happen time and time again. Donald Trump has faced at least 23 sexual misconduct allegations and has still managed to become president of the United States. Is it that society is trivialising these incidents, branding them as unimportant? Or that we still haven’t been able to get rid of a culture of victim shaming and an immediate assumption that the accuser is untrustworthy and dishonest? #MeToo was an incredible way to start changing the narrative of sexual violence but we still have a long way to go. It is necessary that the conversation continues and we work towards creating a society where the first reaction towards victims is not to question their motives, but to provide support and applaud their overwhelming bravery. 

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