08.23.11

A Bleak Day for Rape Victims

DSK’s prosecutors had a chance to end the blame-the-victim stereotypes that hobble rape cases, but instead they caved. Now it’s up to France, says human rights lawyer Cheryl Thomas.

By dropping rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, New York prosecutors have changed their message to a world closely watching.  Their original, powerful message—that rape is rape, no matter who you are—has evaporated into a cloud of obfuscation. The new message is in fact an ancient one.  It is a lesson for all women, that dare you claim rape, the story will very quickly become about you—not the incident of sexual assault. The focus will shift to an evaluation of your past, your mistakes, your associations. And poof, the horrifying details of violent forced sex disappear. To rapists, the message is an empowering one.

After a decisive initial response, New York prosecutors lost their courage and commitment to pursue the case against DSK --despite the strong evidence that supports Nafissatou Diallo’s claim. They point to her credibility – lying on a 10-year-old asylum application and associating with the wrong people. The evidence about the incident itself--the semen on her blouse, the blood, torn clothing, the testimony of hotel workers and police who heard her story and witnessed her trauma immediately after the incident-- has apparently been trumped.  

Dismissing these charges on the grounds of the woman’s credibility reinforces a status quo that has silenced women for centuries. But it is presumptuous and dangerous.  A jury should have decided whether to believe her. Those individuals’ decision would have been affected by a vast landscape of forces that cross borders.  Juries’ views reflect those of the societies they live in–the power structures, the status and roles of men and women. 

To date, justice systems’ treatment of rape victims worldwide have reflected a world where men frequently have unfettered sexual access to women—from harassment in the workplace to the extreme of criminal rape.  In France, sexual harassment has been tolerated. “Men think women are up for grabs, literally and figuratively,” said one French writer.  Women are essentially the property of men according to the law in some countries.  Marital rape for example, is a concept many cannot even understand, much less codify in their criminal codes. Women who claim rape are shamed, shunned, and disbelieved, often exposing themselves to further assault or even murder.

But that world is changing. The culture of silence is ending. There is more information about men and women, power and violence and a growing understanding that, above all, rape is a pervasive and violent crime that devastates women’s lives. In fact, a New York jury may have been ready to say: Enough, we don’t care about the mistakes this woman has made in the past, we care about the evidence of sexual assault. The DSK case might have been a tipping point in the U.S.  We will never know. 

The DSK case might have been a tipping point in the U.S. We will never know.

Now that the prosecutors in New York have caved, I hope we see France lead the way with the case of Tristane Banon vs. DSK. The strength of her case and the sea change of public opinion in France about men’s sexual access to women may affect decision makers there and send a new message to rape victims world-wide. The world’s gaze turns from New York to Paris.