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Tuesday, June 05, 2007
An Ironic Twist on the Allison Stokke Controversy
About a week ago, a controversy erupted around Allison Stokke, an 18-year-old high school high school senior and one the top female pole vaulters in the country, who happens to be a very attractive young woman. In early May, the blog With Leather posted photos and commented on Allison being an attractive young woman and an outstanding athlete (in that order). He initially removed the photos in response to requests and/or demands from the Stokke family.
But by then, the photos (and the story) were out there and Allison was being bombarded with much unwanted attention: including interview requests, phone calls, staring strangers, etc. The family fought back by sitting for an article in the Washington Post, in which they complained about being "steamrolled" by the wave of attention. And the headline, "Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record," captures the family's narrative: evil internets sports blogs opening their daughter's life up to the world. Of course, the idea of objecting to the wave of publicity surrounding Allison by talking about it in the # 2 paper in the country (and including photographs of Allison with the story) struck many as a questionable strategy. And With Leather responded by insisting that what makes Allison of interest is the same thing that makes Maria Sharapova of interest: She is attractive and she also is very good at what she does, so this is not mere objectification of a woman (draw your own conclusion about that).
The Post story included this statement:
Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers. "We're keeping a watchful eye," Allan Stokke said. "We have to be smart and deal with it the best we can. It's not something that you can just make go away."Now here is where irony can be pretty ironic, from Ann Friedman at Feministing and Ann Bartow of PrawfsBlawg. Allan Stokke is a criminal defense attorney who has defended men accused of sex crimes specifically by attacking (as he often must) the scope of legal protection that should be afforded the female victim. According to various reports, in one case, Stokke defended one of several teen-agers accused of gang-raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl, in part by arguing that she could not feel physical pain during the attack because she was unconscious. In another case, he successfully defended an Irvine, California police officer who masturbated on a woman during a traffic stop, in part by arguing that the woman, a nude dancer and an "overtly sexual person," "got what she wanted." (The City of Irvine apparently had a different view of the case and settled the woman's civil action for $ 400,000, a substantial amount of money for civil rights actions not involving bodily injury).
My focus here is the irony. Allan Stokke has explicitly pushed an understanding of how the law should treat women (or, at least, certain women) in certain situations. But that view does not apply when the woman in question is his daughter. And he is pushing this different view as to his daughter with respect to conduct (posting photographs and comments without her consent) that is almost certainly constitutionally protected and, in any event, is an order-of-magnitude less severe than the conduct he has defended in the courtroom. I assume, for example, he would not accept the argument that his daughter "got what she wanted" by being an attractive and successful female athlete who should be in the public spotlight. Nor would he accept that his daughter suffered no harm because she did not know who was looking at photos of her on the internet.
I am not suggesting that Allan Stokke should not have made the legal arguments he did; he must use all ethical and appropriate means to zealously defend his clients (although I am not sure how the "overtly sexual person" argument got through under California's rape shield rule). But I am suggesting that such arguments instantiate views in law and society that have broad effects. And those effects often come home to roost.
I am (as those on my mass e-mail list and those who walk past my office well know) the father of a 17-month-old daughter. And I hope my daughter grows up to be a smart, attractive, athletically gifted young woman (much depends on whether she is fortunate enough to take after her mother). I hope I behave towards all the woman I encounter in life (students, colleagues, friends) the way I hope my daughter will be treated throughout her life. And I recognize that the way I behave towards those woman now goes a long way to establishing how law and society will treat my daughter 20 years from now.
(PS: The photograph at right appeared with the Post story and thus, presumably, is one to which the Stokke family does not object).