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PARENTING

Today's Lesson

What's a mother to tell a daughter about the Kobe Bryant case?

August 15, 2004|Sandy Banks | Sandy Banks is an editorial writer for The Times.

The news that Kobe Bryant's accuser is now suing him in federal court drew a snort of derision from my 19-year-old daughter, who has followed the rape case casually and decided that Bryant should walk. "I don't believe her," she said flatly, citing reports of multiple sex partners and unidentified DNA. "A girl like that, who had all that sex with all those people...." She shrugged. The implication was clear.

I find myself momentarily relieved by her moral judgment -- clearly she's not "a girl like that" -- then disheartened that she has missed the point of 20 years of rape law reform: A woman can say yes to sex 100 times. But once she says no, the man has to stop. If he doesn't, he's committing a crime, and the woman is not to blame.

I sense that this case provides what we parents think of as a teachable moment, a chance to hammer a lesson home. But just what message do I want to deliver? It would have been much simpler a generation ago. My mother would have had no trouble distilling the lessons for her children: Young women shouldn't visit a man's hotel room late at night. Married men shouldn't cheat on their wives. Break the rules and suffer the consequences.

But my three teenage daughters are operating in a different world, with blurry boundaries and flexible rules that make this case more like a soap opera than a morality play.

They're forced to wrestle with their emerging sexuality against the backdrop of the promiscuity that is the subtext of the music they like and the shows they watch on TV. In their lives, 13-year-old girls flash thongs as they "freak dance" at suburban bar mitzvahs, and 15-year-old girls pierce their tongues because they think that makes them better at oral sex.

I've tried to arm them with rules that even I recognize are out of sync with their realities. We talk about consent, about expectations, about the differences between women and men. I fall back on the stereotypes of my youth. "When a man invites you to his hotel room, there's only one thing on his mind," I warn. And they respond with stereotypes of their own: "And what do you think was on her mind? It's Kobe Bryant, Mom. He's gorgeous." And famous. And rich. A conquest, in these young female minds.

They perceive a sort of equality that casts women as sexual aggressors as easily as men. But how does that translate in the real world, with its mixed messages about sexual accountability? Women today may have the right to flaunt their sexuality. But that right cannot be uncoupled from the responsibility to understand its power and the value of self-control. So I struggle to synthesize some sort of message that will transcend the jury verdict and the gossip-mongering. Who did what wrong? And what can we learn?

None of us knows all that happened during that hotel room encounter between Bryant and the 19-year-old clerk. They flirted and kissed; on that both agree. He says that led to consensual sex; she says that she told him no and he raped her as she tried to leave. Given the devastating fallout in both young lives, I'm sure they wish they could turn back the clock and revisit the choices they made that night.

I think about all I try to control in my daughters' lives -- the way they dress, the places they go, what time they come home -- and about all the things I cannot know. One cuts class to go to the mall and winds up with a girl caught shoplifting. Another takes a ride home from a boy she barely knows and winds up seeing a gun up close. They are scared and chastened ... until the danger fades. I have waning power over their decisions and no magic wand to keep them safe. So I seize this case, this imperfect tool, to fashion a lesson I hope they will use.

The message is not about sex or legal rights, but about the unintended consequences of thoughtless choices. It's easy to live in the moment, I tell them; to go with what feels good to you. It's wiser, however, to think things through; to play your choices out a few steps down the road and imagine where they might lead you. That doesn't mean you won't make mistakes, but it might help you sidestep some of the trouble that's bound to be out there waiting for you.

In the end, the message isn't all that different from my mother's. The context may have changed, but the idea is the same. Let your mind, not your body, think for you.

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