By Kelly Kimball
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Last week, the nation was witness to Kobe Bryant’s final game of his career and Orange County at-large was alive with celebration and wide-eyed reverence at a man whose legendary sports career has spanned over two decades. It seemed as though nearly every commercial, every Facebook post, Twitter hashtag and every jersey worn that day was in honor of a man who is astoundingly talented at moving a ball back and forth across a court.
Little to no dialogue was made in regards to one of the most high-profile rape cases of all time involving Bryant. Whether or not these allegations were legitimate pales in comparison to the unfounded bout of hatred directed at the woman who made this allegation, a hatred pivotal to the types of activities American campuses engage in today, UC Irvine included.
ThinkProgress’ Lindsay Gibbs in her article “The Legacy of the Kobe Bryant Rape Case,” asserts that “as fun as it is to reflect on his career and the mark he left on the sport…the Kobe Bryant rape case left behind a legacy of victim blaming, media sensationalism and image repair that still influences society — and other high-profile rape cases — to this day.”
Survivors of sexual violence not only bear the burden of their assault, but also the burden of victim blaming, slut shaming and other forms of accusatory distrust.
As alleged victims who strike cases against high-profile suspects continue to be violently smeared by the media and community members, it creates an unwarranted stigma against speaking up in a means to seek justice. According to RAINN [The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network], studies have shown that as many as 68% of rapes still go unreported; other studies suggest even higher numbers than this. These numbers reveal that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States today.
In her essay “The Spectacle of Broken Men” Roxane Gay writes, “While our justice system is predicated upon the notion of the presumption of innocence until the establishment of guilt, there should be limits to what a highly visible figure can do to establish that innocence outside of the court of law. There aren’t, though, not really.”
How many survivors of sexual assault and gender-based violence of all kinds remember the Kobe Bryant rape case, or the Kesha case, or the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky case, or the Bill Cosby case, or or any other widely reported cases that were swept under the rug with little to no punishments given to the suspects? While an average of 293,066+ cases of rape and sexual assault occur each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), how many of these situations are prematurely dropped due to the survivor’s fear of blame, judgment, isolation and abandonment inspired by what was demonstrated in the majority of these broadcasted cases?
Gibbs also states that “in the immediate aftermath of the [Kobe Bryant rape case] hearing, it was no surprise that sexual assault reporting declined dramatically at the alleged victim’s school, the University of Northern Colorado.”
Historically, survivors of such crimes are not afforded the agency and legal advocacy they deserve. Whether or not a survivor chooses to bring these experiences to court is their decision alone. However, we at the very least should offer the space for all survivors to convene, share their story, re-cultivate love of oneself and others, and break out of the isolation and shame these crimes often impose.
Arguably the biggest and most consistent space of all spaces offered at UC Irvine is that provided by the UCI Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) Office through its largest event of the year, Take Back the Night. Appropriately so, even more efforts have been made this year for extended community outreach and participation. In light of the fear, stigma and ignorance wrapped around rape allegations, there at least exists pockets of resistance where stories are spoken in efforts to disseminate the burdens that gender-based violence brings.
Take Back the Night is a candlelight vigil and march happening Wednesday, April 20 to raise awareness about sexual violence, and to honor survivors of such violence. The event also consists of two keynote speeches, free time to visit educational booths and stations and an array of artistic performances addressing various aspects of sexual violence.
Maria Nguyen, a Right to Know student peer educator with the CARE Office and one of the main event organizers, shares her take on the importance of this annual event.
“Take Back the Night has been successful due to the consistency in how the event is structured from year to year — the messaging that we put out in terms of education, boothing, and keynote speakers; and also the fact that it culminates with survivors of sexual violence. [This gives them] the opportunity to speak out about their experiences. And that continues to build community and increase awareness.”
Above all, American culture is driven by the damaging ethos of rugged individualism; choosing to go through any type of difficult struggle alone is often seen as a sign of true independence, evolutionary elitism and strength. The opposite couldn’t be more true. Like it or not, people actually need one another in order to carry the weight of trauma, and that requires a certain amount of empathy even when stigma is at its utmost.
In one circumstance, this translation was literal. Carrying the Weight Together is a group of student activists who are raising awareness of sexual assault on college campuses through the organization of nation-wide demonstrations and awareness days. Their group was inspired by the viral story of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz who carried a mattress around campus until her alleged rapist was expelled from the school or left on his own terms. Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress from September 2014 through May 2015, and it was meant to show the emotional weight many survivors of assault must endure. Often times this burden is carried alone.
One of Emma’s rules of engagement was that she would not ask for help to carry the mattress, but that she would accept help if it was offered.
True to her word, and loyal to her campaign, Emma received the help of the nation and world.
Emma’s mattress became the viral story we all know today because others were willing to literally and figuratively carry the weight that is imposed by sexual assault and gender-based violence of all kinds.
In bell hook’s book, “All About Love: New Visions” this American author, activist and feminist talks about “healthy interdependency.” She argues that in any context of recovery — be it from alcohol addiction, heartbreak, the loss of a loved one, or a sexual assault, the survivors of these burdens “seek a place of recovery and find that the affirming community that surrounds them creates an environment of healing.” For hooks, this community “offers individuals, some for the first time ever in their lives, a taste of that acceptance, care, knowledge and responsibility that is love in action. Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation.”
Throughout this book devoted specifically to the transcendental power of love, hooks asserts, “Healing is an act of communion.”
More than a space of education and awareness, tomorrow’s Take Back the Night is a healing place. It’s consistency in offering communion through nearly 2,000 spectators, two keynote speakers, 30 event organizers, 20 volunteers, eight performers, over 30 community sponsors and dozens of student-run educational booths is testament to this need for multiplicitous healing — especially in the wake of systemic problems within our justice system that are stacked against sexual assault survivors.
In previous years, as many as 30 students from within and outside of UC Irvine have shared their personal stories of survival in front of event spectators not as a means to re-invite the repercussions of these traumatic experiences, but to accept the invitation of a space where talking cures and sharing diffuses the burden. The private space of confession no longer remains in the taught knot of internalized shame; instead, the space becomes a sacred platform of healthy interdependence, where sheer presence is an active effort working toward a collective good.
Nguyen notes, “[This year,] we’re not just in our UCI bubble. Rather we are connecting and reaching out to people in the community…it makes it personal for people when they can see another human being share their experience, especially if they themselves have not had direct contact or are not aware of someone who has experienced sexual violence.”
Wednesday night, let us carry the weight of our peers. Let us not allow the benefits of this event to exist in isolation and let us not allow the reverence of high-profile social icons soften allegations of violence made against them. As cheesy as it may seem, the act of opening the heart — however broken and wounded and silenced it may be — enables everyone to receive the healing, love and care they deserve.