Kobe and the New Currency of ‘No’

Paula Kamen

In debating the high-profile felony sexual-assault case against Kobe Bryant over the past months, media commentators have been largely been preoccupied with one single issue of social consequence:

What does this mean for the Nutellas and the Nikes?

But what about the bigger-picture story beyond the lost corporate endorsements of nut butter and sneakers?

This case is still controversial. But the fact that it made the light of day is unprecedented. Society has begun to accept the criminalization of acquaintance rape in its most traditionally dismissed form: an encounter that both parties admit started off consensually.

Meanwhile, but much more under the radar, the growing authority of a woman’s “no” has surfaced in other public arenas. In late July, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich approved a law stating that a woman has a right to change her mind at any point during sex—probably the first of many similar state laws. While it has become nationally controversial, the law is merely meant to make existing legislation clearer to victims, offenders, prosecutors and juries. Lawmakers want to avoid the confusion that resulted from such a California case involving two 17-year-olds, that had dragged on for years in the courts and was finally settled in the state Supreme Court in January.

Or, as one young female Court TV reporter put it to a very leery John Hannity on a Fox News discussion of Bryant’s case: “If I give you $5, that doesn’t mean I have to hand over my whole bank account.” I especially took note of the spirited debate on Hannity and Colmes because a few days earlier I had witnessed the same one take place almost word for word, in an entirely different forum—among the audience after a performance of Sex Signals, a partly improvised and largely comedic play.

Since 2000, thirty-something producers and actors Gail Stern and Christian Murphy have made this play an innovative export of Chicago’s improv scene by turning it into some of the most influential and popular anti-rape programming in the country. So far, they have performed the play before hundreds of student groups, and thousands of freshmen starting college this fall are seeing the show as a part of their orientation.

The complexities and subtleties of Sex Signals reflect how far the issue of date rape has advanced, even since I was in college in the late ’80s, when the very concept of date rape was in question. In Sex Signals, with the central male character actually being portrayed as likable (just like Kobe Bryant clearly still is), this play stands in stark contrast to comparable educational dramas from even the ’90s. Then the men were characterized simplistically, as the purely devilish Sigma Chi with the Roofies. (A common scenario was the guy taking the woman out to an expensive dinner of steak and lobster, to weaken her resistance. As a result, the primary lesson that many of us absorbed was limited to indelibly associating felony-sexual assault with surf and turf.)

In this updated drama, the central case-study being debated involves a first date between two affable college students. The audience quizzes an actor, playing the male protagonist Matt, about just what took place that night. He reveals that he had ignored the woman, Joelle, when she told him to stop at the start of sexual intercourse. Just like in life, the situation seems complex. Joelle was not a passive bystander before quietly asking him to stop.

Clearly, the audience for this Chicago performance was not in complete agreement over every issue. And the laws in this country are often ahead of some popular opinion, especially among older women, who think that all bets are off once a woman visits a man’s hotel room, no matter how the “vibe” has changed. But the fact that this dialogue is taking place in such detail and with such new sophistication is very revealing.

While speaking at college campuses, I have observed a major generation gap. Young women take this issue of consent as being basic to their sex lives—not being anti-sex, or neo-Victorian, as some critics have accused—but being “pro-control.”

Unlike their “elders” from the ’70s sexual revolution, they define true sexual liberation as not only being able to say yes, but also being able to say no. The reframing of date rape is a part of the same growing “pro-control” and more clearly “pro-sex” philosophy of young feminists campaigning for student access to the “morning-after” pill or Emergency Contraception (EC)—also a major focus of today’s campus activism.

Yet, at the end of Sex Signals, Stern actually tells her audience to forget the legal issues, exact definitions of what does and does not define rape, and look at what is moral, how we want to treat each other. She asks if forcing sex means more to us than “hurting someone we like.”

Such public discussions about rape have replaced external social controls of the past, such as strict dorm codes that separated the sexes in the ’60s, and social norms that blamed the woman for immodesty. Instead, we are progressing toward establishing a simple Sexual Golden Rule. And that’s the very true type of sexual liberation for which this generation is striving, in their overwhelmingly unpublicized—and improvised—everyday lives.

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Paula Kamen is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and playwright and the author of Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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