None of us really know for certain if Dominique Strauss-Kahn is guilty or innocent of rape. What we do know is that since his arrest at JFK Airport, he has been the story de jure. Perhaps it hasn’t reached the OJ level, but coverage has been both sensational and obsessive. To be sure, such a rapid fall from grace for the IMF’s Managing Director and a presumptive candidate for the Presidency of France is legitimate news. DSK was expected to mount a defense that the sex was consensual — there appears to be some physical evidence that it took place. But isn’t it fair to ask what brings one of the world’s top financial leaders, a married man to wit, to have sex with a 32-year-old Guinean hotel housekeeper? What was he thinking? Inexplicably, some in DSK’s party in France have indicated that, if exonerated, his career might well get back on track. Right. He also remains popular in the country’s opinion polls. Go figure. Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford et al take note.
However intriguing the particulars may be to some, I see l’affaire DSK as an opportunity not to be missed. Rape (an often white-collar crime) deserves far more of our attention than it gets. The real take away from this unfolding story is familiar to any woman in America and probably throughout the world. Rape is a crime rarely witnessed, one that boils down to that already doubt-casting characterization: she says, he says. That dubious premise is compounded by the predictable claim of consensual sex — she wanted it. Once a defense is mounted by the accused, it almost always focuses on the credibility — and perhaps more so background and reputation — of the accuser. In contrast, the accused’s history is often deemed inadmissible and prejudicial. So inevitably it’s the victim who is put on trial. In this case, the New York District Attorney’s office is also being put in the dock, accused of a rush to judgment, of excessive reaction. The point is to focus attention elsewhere and to blame anyone but the accused. What’ we’re witnessing here follows a classic pattern.
Indeed it is this predictable course that accounts in part for rape being the most underreported crime. Moreover, according to a CBS study only 25% of accused rapists are arrested (much lower than for other crimes) and of course just some of them end up in court, much less are convicted. But the difficulty of gaining a conviction is just one problem. Rape, especially for some cultural and religious groups, is a mark of shame. Just as defense lawyers focus on the victim’s past or culpability, many women feel themselves, or are made to feel, guilty. How could I let that happen to me; how could I do that to my family or to the man in my life? In some societies, raped women are punished, even killed, transformed from victim to the criminal who had sex with a man other than her husband. Even in America, married women or those in a relationship can feel too ashamed to report their rapes to a partner assuming (often with good reason) that he may think less of them or consider them damaged goods.
The perpetrators of rape are often men of power — people like DSK but also fathers or, as we have learned in the past years, trusted priests. One of the defense points being made in this case is that the woman delayed in reporting the attack. She went on to clean perhaps another powerful guest’s expensive room before coming forward. In fact, counselors and other professionals dealing with rape will tell you that delayed reporting is not at all unusual, and we’re talking here about a matter of hours, fast enough to prevent DSK’s takeoff on the same day. Just think of the still uncounted number of rape victims of predator priests who waited not hours but years, even decades, before reporting their abuse. Again, I have no way of knowing if the victim in this case is telling the truth, but challenging her credibility because she didn’t run to a supervisor or immediately phone the police is, in context, ridiculous on its face.
As information unfolds regarding his accuser’s misstatements to police about her life, it has been reported that many in France are expressing indignation over how their beloved DSK has been treated and anger in general about our system of justice. Again, absent all the facts, it’s premature to know if this was indeed a rush to judgment or even if the case will ever be tried. When it comes to rape and the hurdles that must be overcome, even a not-guilty verdict in court doesn’t necessarily mean that the accused is innocent. Rape is more often than not a serial crime. One of the reasons New York authorities were so quick to act is that DSK has a reputation and indeed a French writer, Tristane Banon, is expected to file an attempted rape complaint against him in the next few days. Father rapists with more than one daughter often repeat their crime with the younger sister and those priests all abused multiple youngsters (in this case boys), often over a long period of time.
The French may be angry because they, like many Europeans, claim to have a less Puritanical view of sex than do we, including a tolerance for infidelity. Mark Oppenheimer’s June 30 Times Magazine piece on infidelity may shed some light on whether that perception holds water. It is a fact that, while President François Mitterrand openly maintained a mistress (and a second family) without penalty, we impeached Bill Clinton for Monica. I’ll let you judge whose mores on infidelity make more sense, but even the open-minded French should know that rape falls into an entirely different category.
What is it that these men don’t understand about the word no? Whether Strauss-Kahn is guilty or not, it now appears that he may very well walk. In doing so, he’ll be following the norm, the rule not the exception in rape cases. There is something terribly wrong, no rotten, about that.