The "court of public opinion" differs from an actual courtroom in that there are no rules in place to ensure a fair trial. It's an especially severe judgment for anyone in a demographic that is consistently maligned and ridiculed. As a young woman, American exoneree Amanda Knox falls into one of those afflicted groups. When she was accused of murdering her British roommate Meredith Kercher in 2007, and even after the highest court in Italy cleared her of the charges in 2015, Knox was the target of extreme slut-shaming. Details of the then-20-year-old's sex life and relationships with men were dissected by the court and trumpeted by the press to a public hungry for gossip, and the double standard is crystal clear when you think about how this case is framed in popular culture.
Though a man, Rudy Guede, is currently imprisoned for Kercher's death and Knox was tried alongside her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, Knox's is the name most frequently associated with the tragedy. Whatever the truth may be about her guilt or innocence, the undue focus on whether or not she exhibited the "correct" amount of sexual interest for a proper young lady felt more appropriate for a 17th century witch trial than a 2008 court proceeding.
"Foxy Knoxy," the tabloids called her, due to the nickname Knox chose for her MySpace profile. Unlike Facebook today, MySpace in 2007 was generally regarded as a social media space safe from parents and employers. My own page was filled with personality and music surveys, with a starry sky background and a terrible pop song on autoplay. A silly, harmless nickname I gave myself certainly wouldn't have been out of place. Yet, the rhyming header that Knox selected for her own informal space followed her around. On MySpace, "Foxy Knoxy" might have read simply as cute, a nickname that could have been applied by a middle school soccer team or a girls' sleepover. In the tabloid press, it was provocative: the calling card of a sexual aggressor.
Physical evidence showed that Kercher had been sexually assaulted by her killer; her murder was a sexual crime. Still, there was nothing about what happened in their shared apartment that night that could be learned from Knox's past sexual encounters. Perhaps questions of consent or past accusations of violation would have been relevant, but none surfaced. Instead, the journals that Knox kept in prison and handed over to investigators leaked to the press, who printed the names of her past sexual partners. And the fact that Knox — an adult woman — owned a vibrator was bandied about as proof of deviancy. She was forced to answer for it during her trial. To state an obvious point: owning a vibrator is in no way illegal. "It was a joke, a gift from a friend before I got to Italy. It was pink and shaped like a little rabbit," Knox told the court, according to The Telegraph. "I’m innocent and I have faith that everything will be resolved."
"The Wild, Raunchy Past Of Foxy Knoxy," a 2007 Daily Mail headline read. "Italian Court To Probe Knox Sex Game," declared the New York Daily News. Sollecito was also implicated in the prosecution's theory of sexual experimentation turned violent, yet his character and past were not dissected in the way that Knox's was and still is. Instead, he was characterized as an inexperienced boy seduced by a wily, over-sexed woman. The whirlwind nature of his relationship with Knox meant to some that Sollecito was out-of-his-depth, and that Knox was insatiable.
In the new Netflix documentary Amanda Knox , Italian detective Giuliano Mignini speaks from his perspective as a lead investigator on the case. It shocks me even now how much of his belief in Knox's guilt seems to stem from his disapproval of her behavior instead of from the facts. She brought boys home, Mignini says in the doc. She was kissing her boyfriend outside of the cottage while the crime scene was investigated. (Video shows Sollecito and Knox hugging and pecking one another on the lips, possibly in comfort.) Her behavior was "inappropriate," Mignini says. Inappropriate according to what standards? Who is the judge and jury of an appropriate reaction to a tragedy?
It's hard to believe that in 2007, a woman's choice to engage in consensual sex and masturbation could be presented as evidence of a faulty character, or even add to suspicion that she killed another human being. And years later, Knox was still being subjected to invasive interviews like the one below with CNN. "Were you into deviant sex?" Chris Cuomo asks. "Hey, insensitive question, but we gotta get to what it is."
Stories about this crime were devoured in both titillation and disgust, with Knox cast as a real-life femme fatale. Poor Kercher's very real and very horrific death was re-written as a piece of violent sexual fantasy fiction. And though Knox is out of prison and back in the US, she was violated beyond what any accused criminal should expect out of due process. The justice system and the media's treatment of Knox is an extreme example of the ways that gender bias can be an affront to civility and an obstacle to the truth.