SaulToday’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 padieuerupting 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.

21 comments

  1. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Reflections on Sexual … http://bit.ly/72vbOD

  2. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Reflections on Sexual … http://bit.ly/72vbOD

  3. Reflections on Sexual Irresponsibility and HIV Transmission: Sexual Danger/Sexual Blame On Oprah http://ff.im/-dv5cc

  4. Something doesn’t have to be “like rape” to be illegal or traumatic. Employing such a simile in this discussion conflates distinct crimes, imperiling the public’s understanding of what legally qualifies as sexual assault. I understand the hyperbolic inclination on an emotional level, but I fear that overuse or misuse of the word ‘rape’ laces static into various discussions, each of which a feminist would want society to hear distinctly.

  5. Calling sexual relations between two consenting adults, “rape” because the outcome was unexpected and unpleasant is more than ridiculous, it is irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.

    Come on New York, has your liberalism made you blind to your own folly? You don’t like the outcome so you scream, “RAPE.”

    People lie all the time. Your job as an adult is to expect the unexpected, and to deal with consequences of your actions. If every man and woman who lied about his or her sexual history were to be imprisoned, there would be very few people outside the prison walls.

    Stop your bellyaching, quit your whining. You make choices in life, you deal with the outcomes. Life happens. Grow the *&$^ up.

  6. I think this is a well written article and an interesting perspective. By continuing to look at sexuality, intimacy and rape in traditional, closed minded ways (such as the women on Oprah did) we continue to lend hand to the acceptance of misogny and the continuation of acts such as this. Perceptions that attempt to shun and shame people are what lead people to maintain bad decisions, hurting others like the man who gave these women HIV or live in seclusion, never speaking out about their rapes, assaults or harrassments by others. The women on Oprah should be commended for speaking out about this and this article should be put in the position in which everyone can read this and be enlightened, just as I was.

  7. I really don’t think it’s fair to say that it was “their fault for having unprotected sex.”

    It is a responsibility to make sure your partner is “clean,” but I believe no one DESERVES to contract an STD. That is just wrong.

    Thank you for the insightful post though.

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  8. I think this article shows how we can create a framework of thinking that bolsters our personal biases. Cases like this can very easily — and do in fact — occur with men, who become infected by promiscuous women. STDs can strike both genders. Kristine Saul seems oblivious to that.

    I fail to see any special claims to victimization based on gender. And while it is truly tragic that these women’s lives were destroyed by this psychopath, they had the opportunity to screen who they had sex with. There are some unknowns to this story, based on the little we get from Ms. Saul and her link.

    To expect empathy from Oprah’s audience — the IQ of which probably averages 90-110 — is perhaps asking for too much. But perhaps a lesson Ms. Saul did not grasp from the show (which admittedly I did not watch) is that women are all too aware of the supposed sexual improprieties of others among their gender and are able and willing — for purely egotistical purposes, not because they are forced or brainwashed by men — to shame them when the opportunity arises.

  9. I enjoyed reading this post because it highlights how we have changed our perception of rape. Where once rape was something that had to occur between two strangers, then the definition included marital rape… however, I think there’s line between a cheating/lying/two-timing boyfriend and a rapist. An interesting post nonetheless.

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