Let's not fall prey to victim-blaming
First of all, let me state unequivocally that I am a big fan of Wendy Murphy's writing, to which I've been fortunate enough to have access through CAVNET. Usually, I heartily applaud her perspective and her ability to articulate the often complex issues associated with sexism in our society. Having said that, however, I have a serious concern with the most recent op-ed on the Kobe Bryant rape case.
While certainly I agree that every stage of this case has been marked with tragedy, and that the dismissal of the case is, as Murphy suggests, emblematic of "checkbook justice," I find this most recent op-ed's characterization of the victim troubling. Suggesting that we know what she thinks, or can truly imagine the incalculable harm this entire process has exacted upon her, is insensitive at best, arrogant and matriarchal at worst. In fact, statements like "The saddest part of the story may be that the victim is foolish enough to think money will fix her problems" seems needlessly perjorative, too close to victim-blaming for my comfort. It reads to me like an indication that we are angry at her for not standing up for herself, and by extension, for all rape survivors.
Let me say that I am truly disappointed that the victim gave up her fight before the trial had even begun, and that a rapist will now go free, without sanction. I'm more than a little angry that money has changed hands, again demonstrating that justice is not blind to bright and shiny silver. However, I am neither disappointed in the victim herself, nor angry at her. I must acknowledge that the victim's fight had been going on for a long and intense time, and she was the most obvious and serious casualty of the battle so far. I like to hope that in her place, I would have gone forward and allowed justice to be served, but given the sorry and sexist state of our justice system, so evident in the mishandling of this case since the very beginning (not to mention the travesties of justice that abound in nearly all rape cases), that I can understand why she might decide to back out before enduring the public humiliation and pain of a trial.
Could it not be that the victim had simply had enough? Should we fault her for determining when she could take no more? Isn't it her right to ask for relief, even if we can debate whether criminal law actually allows for her request to be granted? As Murphy rightly points out, the rule of law was ignored in this case, repeatedly. The system gave in to her desire to back out, and we should rightly challenge that decision, but does her motivation have to be suspect? The discussion seems reminiscent of similar arguments for the imperfect, often victim-harming and potentially disempowering mandatory arrest statute here in New York.
Certainly, it is easy to assume that the victim sold out, and undoubtedly, there are many who will say so. Should those of us who consider ourselves domestic violence advocates and feminists be among those to level that particular charge? Does it not fly in the face of empowerment theory to do so? I don't pretend to know what is in the victim's head or heart, and while I have a lot of frustration with much of what happened here, I want to stay as far away as possible from saying anything that could revictimize her. The so-called justice system has done enough of that already.
Finally, given that undeniable victimization, if the pundits are right and she did decide to take the money and run, can we blame her? Do we really have the right to be angry with her, for not meeting our demand that she be the standard bearer for rape victims everywhere, striking a blow to patriarchy? Are we so sure we'd do so, if we were in her shoes? I, for one, am by no means sure what I would have done.
Catherine Shugrue dos Santos
Catherine Shugrue dos Santos is the Executive Director of HELP Haven and HELP Harbor and is President of the Board of Directors of the Coalition of Battered Women's Advocates in New York