Rape victim advocates say the experience of Kobe Bryant's accuser -- whose name and sexual history were disclosed in the past year -- signifies a major setback in a three-decade effort to persuade women to report rape and to stop defense lawyers from attacking a victims' credibility with details of their sexual histories.
"I feel like we have stepped back in time 30 years, back to a time when confidentiality was not guaranteed and when the victim's sex life was up for scrutiny," said Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, a 29-year-old group.
The case has exposed loopholes in rape shield laws in Colorado and across the country, according to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. As a direct result, California this summer passed a tougher shield law that prevents defense lawyers from disclosing a rape victim's sexual history in pretrial motions.
Already, however, young women in Chicago who have been sexually assaulted are telling counselors they are afraid to go to the police as a result of what happened to Bryant's accuser. Moyer predicts that fallout from the Bryant case will "create an atmosphere that will allow sexual offenders to move around more freely and arrogantly."
The most serious consequence of the Bryant case, Moyer predicts, will be the unwillingness of women to come forward with accusations because of the fear of losing confidentiality.
"Perception is often as good as reality in America, especially among people who are victims of trauma," Moyer said. "If women think their personal information is going to become public, then that is their new reality."
After more than a year of pretrial arguments and sometimes sensational publicity about the case, a single charge of rape against the Los Angeles Lakers superstar guard was dropped Wednesday when his accuser decided she did not want to testify. Bryant apologized to the woman, who is still pursuing a civil lawsuit against him.
Because of mistakes by court staff in tiny Eagle, Colo., information about the accuser was inadvertently released.
At Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago group that serves 16 hospitals and is the largest rape crisis center in the Midwest, some rape victims are bringing up Bryant in their initial counseling sessions, according to Sasha Walters, director of advocacy services.
"They say, 'I don't want to talk to the police because I have seen what has happened in the Bryant case, and I don't want to put myself in that position,' " Walters said.
"It already has had a chilling effect on reporting rape," Walters said, though she acknowledged that her group has no figures yet to back up the impression of its rape counselors. "The visibility of this case in particular has made it obvious that victim-blaming is a real problem."
Walters and other victim advocates singled out for criticism the decision by the Colorado judge in the Bryant case to allow into evidence information about the accuser's sexual activity in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant on June 30, 2003.
"This decision will be seized on by defense attorneys around the country," Walters said. "It will take us back to when the emphasis in a trial was on the actions of the victim."
The Bryant case resonates with large numbers of women because of the prevalence of sexual intimidation and violence against women in the United States.