Posted: Oct 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Kobe Bryant's guilt or innocence in the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Colorado woman will now be up to a jury to decide, but the case raises important moral and social issues that extend far beyond this incident. Have laws intended to protect rape victims gone too far, making it possible for women to turn disappointing sexual encounters into rape allegations? Do women bear any responsibility if they encourage sexual attention and willingly participate in kissing, fondling or even intercourse, and then decide to put the brakes on? Does "no" always mean no -- and is it necessary for a man to get verbal permission before he makes any physical contact with a woman? To what extent have we criminalized certain behavior that would be better handled by moral opprobrium?

In deciding to send the case to trial, Colorado judge Frederick Gannett took the unusual step of issuing an eight-page written order in which he raised troubling questions about the prosecution's evidence. "Almost all of the evidence introduced at the preliminary hearing permits multiple inferences which, when viewed either independently or collectively, and upon reasonable inference, do not support a finding of probable cause," Judge Gannett wrote. Yet, Colorado law compelled the judge to send the case to trial anyway because he was required to view the evidence in the way that most supports the prosecution's interpretation, "notwithstanding inconsistencies in (the victim's) statements and the other evidence."

The Bryant case is a classic "he said, she said" situation. According to testimony from the police detective who interviewed her and investigated the charges, Bryant's accuser claims that Bryant forcibly raped her in his hotel suite after she had flirted with him, escorted him to his room, and willingly kissed and hugged him for several minutes. Bryant claims that the sex was completely consensual.

Although during the investigation someone leaked stories that the alleged victim had sustained significant injuries during the encounter, the evidence offered at the preliminary hearing was far from compelling. The victim's clothes weren't torn -- despite her allegation that they had been forcibly removed. Her injuries consisted of "microscopic lacerations" and a tiny bruise on her chin, which the judge noted had not been observed by the investigating officers.

More importantly, the lacerations might have been the result not of rape but of the accuser's having had sex with two or three different men in as many days. Although a rape victim's sexual history is usually off limits, in this case, Bryant's lawyers were able to demonstrate that the alleged victim's underwear showed physical evidence of sexual activity with a Caucasian male within the previous 48 hours, casting doubt on whether the lacerations were even caused by Bryant.

There is no question that Bryant acted badly when he had sex with the alleged victim. Not only is he married, but even if we completely accept his version of events, Bryant spent only a few minutes with the woman before he made sexual advances. He may not have been a rapist, but he acted reprehensibly.

But what about the alleged victim? She admits that she stayed late on the job in order to meet Bryant and that she expected him "to put a move on her," yet she secretly snuck up to his room, flirted with him, showed him her two tattoos -- one of which was on an unspecified area of her back -- and kissed and hugged him, willingly.

There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a decent woman to go to a man's hotel room, much less make out with him within minutes of meeting him. But feminism threw those rules out the window long ago. The changes in sexual mores have made the world a more dangerous place for both women and men. Women may have more freedom to be sexually provocative -- but they can't always control the consequences. And men may find themselves behind bars if they read women's cues incorrectly.

If Kobe Bryant forced his accuser to have sex against her will, he deserves to go to jail. But the evidence, so far, raises more doubt than certainty as to who is telling the truth.