How Did Being ‘Foxy’ Hurt Amanda Knox?


She stands tall at the podium to face the crowd, hands gripping each side for a beat of silence before she begins. A sharp inhale and a pensive downward gaze make it clear this isn’t going to be easy. In the pregnant pause, the tension is unbearable. To fill the silence, we imagine it: the body wrapped crudely in a blanket, the crime-scene kiss, the thundering echo of prison doors closing shut, the grasping sensation of trying to find answers in her piercing eyes.

She tilts her head up, ready now, her bare face revealing a grit beyond her years, her full-coverage light blue blouse, ankle-length skirt and softly pinned back hair vetoing the possibility of wandering eyes, accusatory eyes. She’s told this story a million times, but still, it feels raw and new. Impassioned, persuasive and empathic, she recounts what happened with mesmerizing conviction and a firm promise: “I will never let this happen to anyone again.” We weep together because it hurts to think about, then she leads us in laughter at the absurdity of it all.

Sitting across from her in a crowded conference room at Hollywood’s W Hotel, where she’s signing books and leading a panel to benefit the wrongfully convicted, it’s hard to imagine the erudite, eloquent person in front of me is who many have considered to be the most reviled temptress of the new millennium.

A lot has changed for Amanda Knox since she came home in 2011. Her first order of business was to collect three cats, a highly educated and supportive partner and quiet suburban life away from the paparazzi and still-glaring public eye. Then she started writing like crazy. First, for her local newspaper Westside Seattle, then, a best-selling memoir and series of articles for Broadly focusing on how women experience the judicial system. She’s been writing a lot about women, actually. Knox has become an expert on gender bias and sexualization in court: why women falsely confess and the way they’re objectified in order to rationalize their guilt. She’s now in the beginning stages of writing another book on this very topic: how we vilify women with a known association with sex, how we subject them to misogynistic and unrealistic misrepresentation when they are accused of crimes.

She’s good at this. Really good, in fact, because she spent four years in prison after prosecutors labeled her a “slut,” “sex-crazed she-devil” and “psychotic femme fatale,” so they could implicate her for a murder she did not commit. Perhaps this century’s most shining example of how “deviant” female sexuality is associated with criminality and the ruinous fallout of that perception, Knox has had the laser-beam of of gender stereotypes and misunderstood ideas of female sexuality focused on her at point-blank. That weight could have broken anyone. This conference room in West Hollywood, with its neon tributes to Clear Channel’s Top 40 and vases of glass baubles with unknowable purposes, might have looked trite to anyone arriving there to bare their soul.

Not her. Amanda Knox has gone through hell to stand on a conference room stage in West Hollywood, and she’ll be damned if what happened to her ends in anything other than resilience.

Who do you become when you bear the burden of society’s fear of sex? Well, if you’re Amanda Knox, you become someone who does something about it.

Luciferina

This is no place for a retelling of every lurid detail of what happened during in her harrowing time abroad, but suffice it to say that, thanks to a tabloid media in need of both a rabies shot and an education in journalism, Knox’s trial for the 2007 murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher was both a court case and prime time porn. It obsessed over sex, making a repeated and disjointed connection between Knox’s so-called “sexual depravity” and her capacity for rape and murder.

The imagined staples of her sexual repertoire were publicly and rabidly dissected with a competing mixture of tantalization and contempt; her normal, healthy sexual behaviors spun by her prosecutor and the media into deviant, morally abject offenses so they’d fit the narrative they’d concocted, a so-called “sex game gone-wrong.” There were condoms. A pink vibrator. A kiss she shared with then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito at the crime scene. A leaked list bearing the names of the seven men she’d slept with (seven doesn’t quite seem to warrant the name Giuliano Mignini referred to her as in his closing statements: “Luciferina”).

There is a legal definition of deviant sexuality, but as L.A.-based criminal lawyer Lou Shapiro tells me, prophylactics, a sex toy and consensual heterosexual sex aren’t it. Nevertheless, as Mignini proclaimed with full Italian flamboyance during his original closing argument, they made her a “demonic, satanic, diabolical she-devil” who was “devoted to lust.” More succinctly, they made her guilty.

She got 26 years. Rudy Guede, the man who’d left telling DNA evidence in and around Kercher’s body, got 16.

“I was astounded,” Knox tells me. “Had my normal sexual life not been misrepresented as promiscuous and deviant,” she says, “and had that invented deviancy not been erroneously correlated with capacity for murder, my trial might have turned out much differently. As it happened, that labeling and distortion of my character took away years of my life.”

Knox has become fascinated by how for many people, sexuality seems to indicate guilt. Motivated, too. Today, the “minx accused of murder” wears her obstinate smear of scarlet not with the sort of shame she was once forced to bear but with a deep sense of duty to fulfill her earlier promise: that she’d do — and is doing — everything in her power to ensure a woman’s purposely vilified body, sexuality and gender do not obscure the search for truth.

That’s what’s brought her to the podium today. Speaking engagements like this, where her presence draws a crowd hungry to help, are making a difference (thousands of dollars were donated to the Innocence Project at the event). Her brilliant Broadly article, “Why Do Innocent Women Confess to Crimes They Didn’t Commit” is another illuminating start. It’s there I learn a surprising statistic: 92 percent of people afflicted with false memory syndrome, a condition interrogated suspects often experience when they’re convinced something happened to them that actually didn’t, are women. Using data from the National Registry of Exonerations, Knox calculated her own shocking finding: 66.6 percent of female exonerees are wrongfully convicted , which only happens in 28 percent of male cases. This means women are far more likely to be implicated for accidents and misfortunes rather than actual crimes. This, Knox theorizes, has to do with women’s lower social status and the gender roles they’re taught to embody during interrogations, which can make them much more susceptible to false confessions and convictions for crimes they didn’t commit.

Using the same media megaphone once used against her, Knox is delivering her message to a vast audience who, had it not been for her, may never have been aware of the fact that for women, gender and sexuality can be as implicating as a murder weapon itself.

“Now that I have some distance from all this, I’m concerned about the broader patterns in our society, the ways in which women’s sexuality is demonized and used against them,” she explains. She’s animated, talking with her hands as well as her mouth, punctuating each little injustice with an open palm and a downward flick of the wrist, like she’s trying to brush it off. “I don’t consider myself promiscuous and I’m not kinky, but even if I was, it shouldn’t matter. Promiscuity or so-called kinky sexual preferences provide no useful information about a woman’s capacity for homicide. That idea — that a female being sexual translates to psychopathy — is a dangerous parallel to make.”

Unfortunately, it’s also a common one. While it’s tempting to think the use female sexuality to prove a woman’s guilt is as unique an Italian custom as a gondola rde after the perfect pull of espresso, it’s a long-lived global phenomenon with roots in the ancient Greek myths of Circe and Medea that continues to rear its head

There are too many examples of this to count, but Jodi Arias’ is one of the loudest. Arias, the “slutty, nutty ‘dangerous woman’” whose “meat flap” vagina and sexual text messages were used as photographic evidence to implicate her in the 2008 murder of her boyfriend Travis Alexander, was crucified for her less-than-routine sex life. Media coverage was almost as brutal as the crime itself: “Splayed open for everyone to see, she is no longer human,” the crime blog the Spotted Couch wrote with tongue-in-cheek. “She is a festering wound. A sexualized monster. A fetishized, female version of Frankenstein.” Arias was found guilty of murder, but it’s fair to say that her colorful sex life, or the shape of her vagina, had nothing to do with it.

Or let’s talk Alix Tichelman, the “HOT AS HELL” Canadian escort who was charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2015 after she helped a Google exec inject himself with a fatal dose of heroin. Six years for Alix. Shapiro confirms that a typical sentence for involuntary manslaughter is just probation — a year in jail tops — but when you add someone with a known affinity for sex, like an escort, the judgment is harsher and the sentence if often longer. Why? In court, the label “slut” becomes not just a perceived characteristic, but a motive.

As the New York Times’ Frank Bruni reminds us, these women aren’t just people with XX-chromosomes who have been accused of murder. They’re minxes accused of murder, “sitting in their courtroom seats with scarlet letters emblazoned on their chests, no jury needed to pronounce them guilty of wantonness at the very least.” Gotta love those randy women. They may not be guilty of murder, but they sure are guilty of something.

Innocent without innocence

The specter of the the violent, sex-crazed, roommate-dispatching woman Knox was labeled as is a particular threatening dissolution of what we know to be true about gender roles. It’s unfortunate that sometimes, it takes such an extreme act — a rape or murder — to understand just how much they influence the differences in what’s considered moral and acceptable behavior for women and men.

When she gets to confronting these gender roles, Knox has the audience in the palm of her hand. She speaks openly about the weight and impossibility of the feminine standards she was expected to embody during her trial. People couldn’t believe that she, a beautiful, middle class American girl had done what she’d done. It just wasn’t a familiar role. Girls like her get married. They have kids. They become late-life interior decorators. They don’t kill. People had to invent backstories for her to rationalize, for their own sanity, how she could have possibly fallen out of her roles.

“Even some of the people who did think I was innocent, or at least rightfully acquitted, believed that I was responsible for what had happened to me, because I appeared so weird, and slutty,” she tells the crowd with forceful incredulity. “They their theories. Maybe I had daddy issues. Maybe I was histrionic.”

Mignini had Sherlock Holmes-ed the latter. In the Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, he describes how he immediately began to suspect her when she became “hysterical” after being shown Kercher’s murder weapon. Roles say women are supposed to be emotional. We’re supposed to cry at sad things, like the death of a roommate. But when that emotion becomes concentrated during a moment of agony, the gender role does too. For an investigator like Mignini, that spells suspect. Which is it then? Too much of a woman, or not enough? It’s an irreconcilable standard.

Knox calls out other roles that relate, the one that tells us women are too soft to be criminals, as they’re responsible for bearing the weight of safety and kindness in society. If they do cross the line, though, they become less than women. They’re monsters. Often, the only way we can face these monsters is to dehumanize them by any means necessary. It makes them less real. Incidentally, slut-shaming one by making her sex life a relevant part of a trial is just a convenient way to do it.

But the problem with monsters and more broadly, the sexualization of female criminals is they can also be arousing. For many, fear and arousal are one in the same, not just in theory but in anatomy — they share both a set of physical symptoms and a common neural pathway in the brain’s amygdala. Confusing them is easy and common, a discovery which does its part to explain why Knox’s memorable quote at the end of the Amanda Knox about her trial hits so hard: “People fear monsters, but they want to see them.” And they do. Pornhub alone has a thousand “femme fatale” videos, including the affably named “Hitwomen seducing policemen and kill them (Femme Fatale)” and “Asa Akira the Fatal Nurse.”

Confronting these monsters in the flesh — be it through pornography, media slander or courtroom discrimination — cuts to the heart of a very specific fear we have: What if women actually embody the qualities we fear most? What if the safe gender roles we believe in, that say there’s a fundamental incompatibility between women and acts of assertion, aggression or violence, aren’t actually true?

The answer to that question is nothing short of menacing to those who believe the performance of femininity is limited to passively weathering the violence of men. If women aren’t the doe-eyed Mother Teresas we need them to be in a world where the “boys will be boys” ethos seems to underlie men’s commission of 98 percent of rapes in America and 96 percent of murders worldwide, no one is safe. Things get more complicated when the female defendant is sexually attractive. If she is, she becomes the screen onto which we project our ideas about how she “should” be, how she should look and behave to support what we know to be true about women. If she doesn’t, she’s judged not only for her actual offense, but for committing that offense while female. It’s a particularly unjust reality when you consider that, at least in this country, we’re faced with a judicial system that’s predominately male — roughly 67 percent of judges and 83 percent of elected prosecutors are men.

Enter “Foxy Knoxy,” a woman who bears the sort of satisfying facial symmetry ripe for the Twitter bio “beauty queen turned non-profit chair.” Her portrayal as a hot babe who plays with knives eroded the safe and separate categories of who people thought she should be (virginal and “appropriately” distraught about Kercher) and who she was depicted as (heartless sexual ritualist with blood on her hands). It’s not surprising, then, that Shapiro says beautiful women like Knox, and women with perceived affinities for “deviant” sex — sex workers, black widows, sexualized killers — are treated differently in court. Sometimes it works for them (some data has shown that attractive women receive shorter sentences), but other times, such as in the case of Knox, it has the opposite effect.

“They’re not viewed as credible,” he tells me. “Even though we try to protect against this in court, people will judge a book by its cover. It’s the idea being this person is so irresponsible and reckless, they’re willing to hop into bed with anybody, then they’re also probably more reckless and loose when it comes to the laws.”

Knox is also right to point out during our discussion that a man’s gender, or his embodiment of it, almost never seems to be a problem when he is on trial. For one, men commit more violent crime (especially when they are outnumbered by women in a population), so if they find themselves a defendant in say, a murder case, they’re already assumed to be in the right place. Men are also rarely objectified. If and when they are, it’s often seen as charming or funny, not something to get your pitchfork out over.

Need proof? Kercher’s real killer Guede got a ten-year shorter sentence than Amanda did, despite a preponderance of implicating DNA evidence against him. Sollecito, with whom Knox shared an infamous and lambasted kiss at Kercher’s crime scene, was never sexualized himself or criticized for “acting strangely” despite being an equal player in whatever homicidal sex games Knox was accused of having. In fact, Sollecito is hardly mentioned at all. He too received a shorter sentence than Knox.

“When a man engages in ‘transient sexual relationships,’ his promiscuity can be interpreted as an act of conquest, and social ascendancy,” Knox muses, clutching the hand of her partner Christopher, who seems to have figured this out. “A woman, however, is considered to be sexual whether she is socially ascendant or not.”

That’s why it can be so difficult to separate a woman’s sexuality from her capacity for crime. Women are sexualized ubiquitously throughout society, and that doesn’t stop just because the court is in session.

Give, take and give again

At the end of her speech, Knox pauses once again, leaving a sudden, silent void in what’s been an emotional and revealing public confession. It’s hard not to look at her differently now. Her conservative appearance seems less like a reaction and more like a choice. Her presence a mission, not just a Q&A. In some ways, she’s revealed herself as an unlikely hero in a fight much bigger than her. She offers solutions. More openness. More humanity. Creating safe spaces to explore desire without the pivot being made to promiscuity. “I want people to be curious, and I want people to be loving,” she says. “We have to be the ones to cultivate and create a culture of critical thought. Starting with ourselves, we have to learn to be informed by our gut reactions and our emotions, but not fooled by them. Otherwise, we’re just as trapped in our own tunnel vision as my prosecutor was.”

Then, in a startlingly forgiving turn, she absolves Mignini and the Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa for what they did to her — and Kercher’s family — by allowing their own addiction to a false narrative to obstruct their search for justice. She thanks the makers of Amanda Knox for allowing her to access a side of Mignini she’d never known; one that allowed her to empathize with him and understand his motives as both a Catholic and a father.

“The truth is, I don’t hate my prosecutor,” she says. “At least some of his motivations were genuinely noble. It would be wrong to flatten him as a villain because he’s not. I don’t want to do to others what has been done to me.”

As she steps off the stage to greet an oncoming swarm of fans and press, it’s clear she’s succeeding in that goal. For someone that’s had so much taken away, she’s here today, giving so much, rationing off the littlest parts of herself in the form of hugs, smiles and stories to the people who need them the most. She does this because she wants to see change, and because she is grateful.

“I’m grateful for the people who have made space for me in their lives despite all of the prejudice, and that I’ve had the chance and the strength to explore that side of myself after my sexuality was used as a weapon against me,” she says. “Gratitude is a constant part of my mindset.”

 

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