Trigger warning for sexual violence.
The terms “sexual violence” and “perpetrators of sexual violence” are used to refer to complex experiences that go beyond a legal understanding of sexual assault and rape in this piece.
In my small duplex in North Miami, basketball was inescapable. Basketball players flooded my TV screen in games and commercials, dribbling was the rhythm to my play in parks, and basketball constantly dominated conversations in my community. So upon hearing reports about Kobe Bryant’s death, a sense of disbelief filled my heart. For me, basketball players were invincible superhumans who towered over the average person and graced my TV screen with amazing athletic feats, not subject to the fickle nature of the human body. It is truly a tragedy to lose such a talented person, along with the lives of the many others lost in the accident, such as his daughter, Gianna.
However, as news coverage surfaced surrounding Kobe’s death, one piece of information, in particular, shocked me: his 2003 sexual assault case. I was too young to remember, but this very public case stirred my community, and 17 years later, it has deeply impacted me. I couldn’t help but feel conflicted, especially as a survivor of sexual violence myself. After reading the horrible backlash that reporters, particularly black women reporters, received for even acknowledging this case, I felt a deep sense of anxiety. The discussion turned to delegitimizing and discounting the event in the name of preserving Kobe’s legacy. People asserted that he was a good father, kind to others, and a generous community leader, in order to erase the difficult realities of his sexual assault case.
However, I slowly came to terms with the fact that this person, who did all of those wonderful things and who was someone I looked up to, could also be capable of perpetrating violence. Our idols are fallible humans, and I understand why focusing on Kobe’s community engagement and talent as a part of his legacy is a valid response to his death, as it made up a sizable part of his life.
Yet to erase his public sexual assault case, along with the implications of the dismissal of the case and his public apology, does a disservice to the nuanced ways we understand sexual violence. By acknowledging the complex realities of Kobe Bryant’s past, I am able to question why I had trouble with the idea that successful, talented, and “good” people are capable of perpetrating sexual violence.
On our campus, nearly one in four students experience sexual violence after matriculating to Columbia, with women, non-binary, trans, and queer students being especially vulnerable. Yet the answer to who the perpetrators are seems to elude us in public discourse.
Who are the rapists? Are they shadowy, faceless, nameless, masculine, often racialized figures that come out in the veil of night—are they monsters?
In reality, rapists can be trusted intimate partners, loyal friends, peers who we share laughs with, athletes that we cheer for, queer and nonbinary folks that experience marginalization, activists who build communities, femme people who we don’t suspect, and everyone in between.
The idea that perpetrators of sexual violence can be people that we like, know well, and idolize is essential when understanding rape culture. As a victim of sexual violence, I was abused by people that I deeply trusted as intimate partners. This belief that rapists are monsters made it extremely difficult for me to identify and validate my own experiences of sexual violence as such because I didn’t see my assaulters as monsters. When I confronted them, like many perpetrators of sexual violence, they couldn’t believe it either. Even though they understood that they objectively committed an act of sexual violence, they simply could not conceive of themselves as arbiters of such actions, therefore, as rapists.
We must realize that we live in a society that constantly perpetuates rape culture, and we are influenced by it. Is our first response to hearing about a perpetrator of sexual assault on campus—the stories we have all heard of—to uphold the person’s character in order to absolve them of such claims? When faced with accusations of perpetrating some form of rape culture, do we arm ourselves with a list of “good qualities”? Or do we understand that we can be complicit in rape culture, even if we are not rapists ourselves? Are we pushed to examine our actions in a place of growth, instead of one of defense, to unlearn and be held accountable?
To be clear, I am not advising anyone on how to react to or cope with sexual violence—I just want to highlight its complexities through my own experiences with them. I am not promoting the normalization of sexual violence, but rather a humanization of sexual violence to produce a culture of accountability.
Within our realities, we rarely know monsters. However, we know a lot more people. We can only hold those people accountable, not fanaticized monsters. If rape exists in a fantasy landscape, it makes it difficult to create space for victims and hold rapists accountable for their actions on our campus. If it exists in reality, we can take better steps in addressing and dismantling rape culture. In this reality, our friends, family, idols, ourselves, and even Kobe Bryant are all capable of perpetrating some form of rape culture and are held accountable for unlearning it.
Kwolanne Felix is a student organizer and a sophomore at Columbia College studying history. For inquiries on her work on campus or ways to get involved, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot her a DM on Instagram @Kwolanne. You can take a sip of Intersectionali-Tea on alternate Tuesdays.
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