On Friday, I appeared on BBC World’s Have Your Say to talk about the accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. That morning, the New York Times had reported that the prosecutors had received new information that appeared to undermine the victim/accuser’s credibility.
The media narrative of the day was that this information - that the victim/accuser had lied on her application for asylum in the US, and that she had lied about her activities following the alleged attack - would collapse the case. So we were talking about trial by media, whether DSK had been judged too quickly, and whether public figures accused of sexual assault should be granted the same anonymity granted to their victims.
I basically wanted to make four main points:
1. That attacks on the credibility and character of women who report sexual assault were par for the course, but that in this case it was significant that the questions were being raised by people who were ostensibly “on her team”.
2. That the fact that high profile people accused of assault are usually named often works in their favour when it comes to the court of public opinion. See: Julian Assange, pretty much every Australian football scandal ever. The fact that the accused is known (and in many cases admired) makes it easier to view them as a three-dimensional human being, being falsely attacked by a faceless harpy. (Although of course, false accusations can also have large and lasting consequences on defendents’ public reputations.)
3. That, as I’ve written about here before, our responses to high profile criminal cases tend to be mediated by our pre-existing assumptions and biases about the people involved. Which, compared to other high profile defendents, doesn’t say much for DSK’s pre-existing public reputation.
4. That even if in this case the charges were fabricated, it’s important to remember that this is not a common occurance. Despite popular perceptions and conviction rates, women don’t go around making rape accusations for the fun of it. (Updated to include links.)
And while I didn’t talk about it on the BBC, I wonder how much the particular media storm surrounding DSK is because the incident in question happened in the US, a country with a seemingly endless appetite for high profile political scandal?
Anyway, so we had the conversation - most of it pegged to the idea that the case would collapse under the weight of the evidence alluded to by the NYT. And then, right at the end of our hour, this happened. The video I’ve embedded above. Right after DSK exited the courthouse, free to leave New York (if not the United States), the victim/accuser’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Thompson, spoke to the media. And in a few short minutes, made everything we’d been discussing for the previous forty-five irrelevant. Frankly, I am amazed it hasn’t gotten more media coverage.
Thompson informs us that it was the victim herself who came to the prosecutors with the information alluded to in the NYT, because “she wanted to tell the truth about the way she first came to [the United States], and about other matters.” He then goes on to explain, in painful, bloody detail, the victim’s version of the events that transpired in that hotel room, and the medical evidence they have at their disposal to back that version up.
As Thompson says, “The only defense that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has is that this sexual encounter was consensual”. And after listening to Thompson speak, I’m convinced that - despite the damning information we have heard about the victim’s character over the past few days and despite the mud-dragging we will no doubt hear over the coming weeks - that it was not consensual.
One of the reasons sexual assault trials tend to be so murky is that, while nobody is voluntarily mugged or murdered, women do consensually have sex with men. Because, surprise surprise, (most) women like sex. But the fact that women like sex does not mean that we like sex under all circumstances and with all people - and there is a big difference between consensual sex and the kind of violent attack Thompson describes in the video above.
I feel like I write a lot about high profile sexual assault cases on this blog. And the weird thing is, I don’t even want to be writing about them - not on a weekly basis, at any rate. It’s not like I seek them out. It’s not like I think, “Wow, you know what would be fun to write about today? Rape!” They just keep on happening, and we - the public and the media - just keep on reacting in the same horrible, predictable ways.
And so long as they keep happening, and as long as we keep reacting to them in the way we do, I’m going to have to keep writing about them: like a broken record on permanent repeat.
For more commentary on the DSK case, I urge you to check out lawyer Jill Filipovic’s excellent piece on Feministe: There are no perfect accusers.
Related: Is Bristol Palin’s new memoir the story of a rape survivor speaking out?
Guest post: We will not go quietly, a zine for sexual assault survivors.
Kyle, Jackie, Matthew Johns and the most innocent of victims.