Today’s post is written by Kristine Saul, a second year law student at Columbia Law School, who is a staff editor for the National Black Law Journal, and received a BA and an MA from NYU in Africana Studies before she came to Columbia.
Meet Philippe Padieu. He’s attractive, athletic, and charming. Phillippe is also serving a 45 year prison sentence, charged with six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The weapon is his bodily fluids. Last week, Oprah invited five of Phillippe’s former lovers on her show – all of whom claim that they contracted HIV from him. Given that Phillippe lovers were middle-aged, middle-class, and recently divorced, the show focused on erupting notions surrounding the “typical” face of HIV/AIDS. I, however, walked away with a different perspective that focused on the ideas of consent and sexual violence. All these women were in relationships of various degrees with Phillippe thinking that they were his one and only. Assuming the relationship with Phillippe was monogamous and figuring that pregnancy was no longer an option, each woman engaged in unprotected sex and contracted the virus. One woman in particular spoke of the violation she felt and how her victimization was like being shot by a stray bullet. It was at this point the audience stopped mindless clapping and began to push back. A female audience member stood up and said that by choosing to have unprotected sex, they have to deal with the consequences of their actions.
But is that fair? Is it fair to say that by engaging in risky sexual behavior, one must reap what they sow? Are you any less a victim if you play a part in your victimization? Is it any less consentual sex if the outcome is not what you imagined it to be? If you ask Phillippe’s former lovers, they believe that what happened to them was much like rape. The women consented to have unprotected sex but they did not consent to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man. It is that violation of one’s will and choice that can be likened to rape, or so the argument may go. Whether you agree with this logic or not, it does provide food for thought on challenging the mainsteam notions of sexual violence. Rape is not always the strange man unexpectedly assaulting the innocent woman as she screams “no” but is eventually overcome by brute force. There’s a spectrum of ways in which sexual assault occurs yet society seems to only give credence to a select group of stories. Being a victim is thus relegated to a very black and white label – either you are or you’re not. This leaves room for pockets of assault that are never truly addressed or redressed.
The real irony in the show was due to the response from the female audience members. Very rarely is there ever an outburst amongst Oprah’s legions but when the discussion of fault and blame began, many of the women in the audience became outraged. One would think that the viewing audience would be empathetic to the guests but they vehemently spoke against the risky sexual behavior. While producers intended for the show to draw empathy and compassion from viewers (who likely shared similar backgrounds to the guests), the audience response seemed to place Phillippe’s former lovers in a separate category altogether. It was like the viewers found comfort in distancing themselves from such an occurrence happening in their own lives. Perhaps the need to force a very context driven incident like sexual assault into a confined definition is reinforced in part by self-preservation and false consciousness (cue Catherine MacKinnon). Many scholars may focus on the “no” of sex but the audience was much more interested in the “yes” and how that “yes” played a key role in the guests’ tale of woe. Though Oprah’s show may not have increased awareness to the issue at the hand, it did provide fertile ground for analyzing how we interpret sexual violence and victimization.