News broke this weekend that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the current leader of the International Monetary Fund, had been accused of sexual assault. Actually, the media can’t seem to make up its mind about what exactly he’s been accused of, which is par for the course when rape is on the table. I’ve seen ‘rape,’ ‘sex crimes,’ ‘sexual assault,’ and our good old pal ‘forcible rape.’ Naturally, the media is in a tizzy over a high profile case involving a man tapped to be the next President of France, and, as always, it’s what swirls beneath the surface that is most interesting.
Like the narrative about his accuser, whom almost every story I read made a point to mention was an ‘African immigrant’ who had ‘worked satisfactorily’ for her employer for the last three years. Most stories also make a point of emphasizing the luxury of Strauss-Kahn’s hotel suite, which apparently cost $3,000 a night. There’s an underlying class narrative here reinforced by some of the quotes from friends of Strauss-Kahn assuring journalists that this is very out of character and that he would never do something like that—he’s just a nice wealthy man, and his accuser must be out to get something—despite the fact that he’s known in France as ‘the great seducer’ and appears to have a history of misconduct. Several women journalists pointed out that they were hesitant to do interviews alone with Strauss-Kahn because of his behaviour. In fact, the IMF had actually investigated Strauss-Kahn in the past in response to these known issues:
In 2008, early in his IMF term, he was investigated by the IMF’s staff for whether he abused his power by having an affair with a female staffer. Although he was cleared of abuse of power charges, several directors said they warned Mr. Strauss-Kahn that such conduct wouldn’t be allowed in the future and that he had brought the IMF into disrepute. (source)
One of my all time favourite comments on this case is from Jean-Francois Cope, who was offended to see images of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs:
I was, like all Frenchmen, very disturbed by the news, very disturbed by the images that I saw. There is the principle of presumed innocent.
People do seem to get riled up about seeing prominent members of the public in handcuffs, don’t they? I guess police should ask accused parties to come along nicely if the media is around, so as to spare us all the sight of a person in handcuffs, since, as we all know, handcuffs are morally equivalent to a judge and jury trial finding the accused guilty. Indeed, we could just dispense with the trial altogether!
Another favourite comment comes from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the environment minister, who informs us that there’s a victim we’re not discussing at all here: France, because, you know, the downfall of such a great man would be a terrible loss for France. The French media is vacillating between declaring Strauss-Kahn’s career over and saying that it might have a chance at being salvaged ‘if the charges can be dropped quickly.’ Focus, naturally, on redeeming Strauss-Kahn, not on ensuring that his accuser’s words and physical evidence receive a fair chance to be heard in a court of law. We must, you know, focus on blotting the stain from this very nice and very powerful man’s reputation.
But there’s more. After the allegations went public, another person stepped forward. Tristane Banon, a prominent French writer, is preparing to file a sexual assault complaint as well. Her decision to go public with the charges now is clearly rooted in the idea that she believes her hearing might have a better chance of being taken seriously, although she’s spoken about the sexual assault before under her own name and hasn’t kept it a secret. Chilling is the reason she didn’t file charges in the first place: her mother told her not to. Her mother claims that she felt the assault was ‘out of character’ (gosh, where have we heard that before), and urged her daughter not to report it.
Layers to unpack here, people. Layers. It’s difficult to tease nuance out of clipped quotes for the media, especially when they are manipulated for maximum impact, but reading between the lines here, the implication appears to be that nice men ought to get a free pass on sexual assault because it’s out of character. They must have been feeling off that day. Think about how the charges will ruin their reputations and they don’t be able to pursue public office or hold their heads up high in public. The real victim there would be the man’s reputation. Or, you know, France, apparently.
This comes up repeatedly in cases like this, where there is a stark power differential between victim and accused and the focus is on what this does to the reputation of the accused. Banon’s mother’s comments suggest she doesn’t seem to have been worried about the fact that her daughter would have had an uphill battle pursuing the matter in court and successfully pressing charges because of the social and political pressure Strauss-Kahn could have brought to bear, which is a valid concern. Women in a position of relative lack of power have good reason for not wanting to press charges, as we saw recently with the accusations against Julian Assange, where his accusers were tormented, threatened, and abused in every corner of the media for daring to speak out against a darling of the left. Banon could have run real risk by filing accusations at the time of her assault in 2002, but apparently the concern wasn’t for her safety, but for the safety of her attacker’s reputation.
But, there’s more! The Guardian‘s piece on Tristane Banon notes:
For some, the story of Strauss-Kahn’s fall from presidential hopeful to prison cell was a combination of sordid tale and Shakespearean tragedy. For others the story was so extraordinary it smacked of a set-up.
Only three weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn evoked such a possibility in an interview with French newspaper Libération when he said he thought he was under surveillance and named the three principal difficulties he foresaw if he was to stand for the presidential elections.
“Money, women and the fact I am Jewish.” He added: “Yes, I like women … so what?” He said he could see himself becoming the victim of a honey trap: “a woman raped in a car park and who’s been promised 500,000 or a million euros to invent such a story …” (emphasis mine)
Oh, goody, it’s not enough to haul out the old ‘this will ruin his reputation’ canard, we’ve also got to raise the spectre of false charges, which seems to come up every single time a woman dares to file a sexual assault charge against a powerful man. Since, you know, filing a rape complaint is super duper easy, especially when you are a marginalised person accusing a very powerful person, and thus, people do it for kicks all the time, just to see what might happen. And undergoing a full SART exam is just a barrel of fun, which is why people are so ready and willing to file false rape complaints. And of course there is absolutely nothing dangerous about suggesting that an accuser has filed false charges, so we should definitely all speculate about that as much as possible in cases such as these.
So far, the media seems to have done a passable job at screening the accuser’s identity, although some distinctive identifying details (which I deliberately left out of this piece) have been dropped in news stories here and there. I worry for her safety as the media coverage of this case ramps up, and as people start howling for blood. Since, obviously when a prominent man is accused of rape, the correct response is to badger and bully the attacker into silence, rather than allowing the case to proceed through investigation and trial.