This past Saturday IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for sexually assaulting a 32-year old female staff member of a luxury Manhattan hotel. Because of flight risk concerns, the IMF Chief is currently being held without bail on Riker’s Island. To many, the story seems to represent progress in the sexual violence movement—unlike the vast majority of sexual violence survivors, the victim actually reported the crime, something that only 40% of men and women who are raped or sexually assaulted (in the civilian world) actually do. The NYPD and the judge presiding over the case also decided to hold Strauss-Kahn accountable by arresting him and ensuring he is brought to justice, two actions that are far too rare in cases of rape and sexual assault. Justice, then, has ostensibly been served, despite Strauss-Kahn’s gender, race, and class privileges.
But the applause for justice is quieting down, soon to be inaudible as rape myths and race, class, and gender stereotypes swirl through the story. Supporters of Strauss-Kahn allege that the sexual assault accusation is part of a conspiracy led by rivals who want to bring him down. One such supporter said he cannot manage to believe this “affair,” while others call Strauss-Kahn’s arrest a “lynching.”
Why is it so difficult for these supporters to believe that the IMF chief is capable of forcibly attempting to rape a woman and then dragging her into a bathroom and forcing her to perform oral sex? One reason might have to do with the race, class, and gender of both the perpetrator and victim— Strauss-Kahn is an extremely wealthy, married white man, who has undoubtedly reaped the benefits afforded to individuals of his status for quite some time, including authority and credibility. Strauss-Kahn has power and also a sense of entitlement, a dangerous combination that when mixed with misogyny and sexism, allow sexual violence to occur. While all women are constantly objectified and in many ways treated as second-class citizens, women who sit at the intersections of other oppressive axes like race and class are even more vulnerable. In fact, it is for these reasons that Strauss-Kahn’s crime is not even that surprising—if he didn’t consider his victim to have any power nor regarded her as a human, what was stopping him from assaulting her?
The fact that the victim’s account of the assault indicated that Strauss-Kahn used force partly makes the maid a “good” victim—one who physically resisted and was overpowered. Had the IMF chief invited the maid to have a cocktail with him and then proceeded to rape her, even if she said no, the story would have unfolded quite differently. If the victim had not resisted, perhaps because she feared for her life, as many sexual violence survivors understandably do, her story would have created doubt, which should come as no surprise given that just recently Republican lawmakers tried to redefine rape to include a standard of physical force. Finally, the victim did the “right” thing by reporting the attack immediately, thus strengthening her credibility. But what if the terror and trauma of the attack prevented her from making a report right away? Many victims who come forward do so after some time, perhaps after the shock of the attack dies down and when they feel like they can actually speak of the horrific violation they endured. Rather than being praised for their bravery, however, these victims are regarded with skepticism and disbelief.
Because Strauss-Kahn’s victim met informal requirements to attain some level of believability by not being intoxicating, by physically resisting, and by reporting the attack immediately, she may see the man who sexually brutalized her go to jail. But we have yet to see how the rest of this story unfolds, especially if Strauss-Kahn is prosecuted. Despite rape shield laws that were intended to ensure the perpetrator is on trial, not the victim, Strauss-Kahn will hire an expensive lawyer who will get around these policies and ensure that any piece of damning evidence regarding the victim’s sexual history will poison the court’s mind. This won’t be hard to do given the popularity of rape myths in American society. If the victim had slept around in the past, she was probably asking for it. Had she flirted with Strauss-Kahn that day or made any suggestive glances that invited the IMF chief to rape her? Strauss-Kahn’s supporters won’t have to worry about maintaining a presumption of innocence because it is the victim whose innocence is most often in question during sexual assault cases.
Finally, it is not hard to imagine how differently this case would have turned out had it occurred in the military and not the civilian world. In a context in which misogyny and sexism are not only rampant, but practically required to uphold military values, the sexual violence crisis continues unabated. Had Strauss-Kahn been a military commander and his victim an enlisted servicemember, the assault probably never would have been reported, as only 13.5% are in the military. If the victim did report, her commander would get to decide whether to go forward with an investigation. Command discretion retards justice for sexual violence survivors in the military at every point of the system—from the initial report, to the arrest, to the prosecution, and finally to the sentencing. Lack of enforcement of laws and policies allow sexual predators to roam free in the military and then come home to terrorize unsuspecting civilians who, because there is no military sex offender registry, have no idea they are living next to a rapist. Even if the victim did pull her way through the system to see her attacker brought to some kind of justice, her reputation would be ruined and her career, for all intents and purposes, over. Survivors of sexual violence in the military have a lot more to lose, and reporting rape and sexual assault come with high risks that many can’t afford to take, especially without many of the rights and protections that civilian victims enjoy.
I am hoping for the best case scenario for Strauss-Kahn’s victim—that she gets to see her perpetrator prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law allowed, and that in the process she doesn’t experience more trauma than she already has. Perhaps in this case, especially because the victim is a “good” one, justice will actually be served. But I won’t be surprised if the public comes up with new ways to defend Strauss-Kahn’s actions or tarnish the victim’s reputation. I also keep in mind that even if Strauss-Kahn goes to jail, the sexual violence crisis is far from over—both in the military and civilian worlds.
Get Info: Statistics – RAINN
IMF Chief a ‘Honey Trap’ Victim? Conspiracy Theories Swirl – MSNBC
R-SASH Quick Facts – Service Women’s Action Network