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On talking about sexual assault and Dominique Strauss-Kahn

In a Greece that is crumbling under the recession, people are, perhaps understandably, looking to place blame. The IMF has been the recipient of lots of Greek anger and the recent sexual assault and attempted rape allegations against former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have prompted a conversation on not only finances and management, but also on victimization and personal integrity.

I am a Greek, a feminist, a specialist in gender-related development in conflict zones, a writer on “women’s issues”. But mostly, today, I am angry. Regardless of whether Strauss-Kahn is innocent or guilty, I am frustrated by the way the conversation on sexual assault has been unfolding.

In a conversation with a Greek woman yesterday, I heard that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is “simply too intelligent to have sexually assaulted a maid.” The allegation that sexual assault correlates with intelligence and only those who are perceived to be less intelligent commit such acts grants unwarranted reprieve on those who are perceived to be smart. Attempting to determine our own intelligence, let alone that of others, is a nightmare. Now try to think about doing that in order to gage the inclination towards sexual assault.

Many are arguing that the incident was a set-up to destroy Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s political life. If that is the case, then I am ashamed for how this degrades the gravity of sexual assault and the pain that victims carry with them. This is too serious an issue to pin on someone as another move in the political chess board. However, I am equally bothered by the fact that some automatically assume that politics can be the only motivation for this scandal, that the woman’s story cannot hold truth on its own, as she told it.

A corollary of this is the too-old “blame the victim” approach. It infuriated me when this reaction surfaced in response to the news of Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt and it infuriates me now. Ben Stein argued that he has had some maids who have been “complete lunatics“, thus calling into question the mental soundness of the woman who pressed charges. Jon Stewart and MenSpeakUp have issued responses to Ben Stein on this matter. Whether we are talking about Strauss-Kahn or a case of sexual assault that will never receive this magnitude of press attention, starting with the assumption that the person who pressed charges is not credible, or – worse – that she or he invited or deserved the assault is not the way to do anyone justice.

Finally, a note on justice. Last night there was a poll on a Greek prime-time news program: “Did Strauss-Kahn do it or not?” It is problematic that we are attempting to adjudicate a sexual assault case from our armchair. Strauss-Kahn deserves the presumed innocence that governs court cases, just as the woman who pressed charges against him deserves for those charges to be treated seriously and investigated with dignity. Ultimately, only those with access to testimonies and evidence are equipped to make a decision on Strauss-Kahn’s innocence. The rest of us are merely extrapolating from assertions on the two parties’ characters to adjudicate an issue we do not have the information or the mandate to determine. In doing so, we are undermining the process of justice, the defendant’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the gravity of the issue of sexual assault and attempted rape.

Ultimately, I cannot know if Strauss-Kahn “did it”, though 79% of my compatriots who answered the aforementioned poll think he is innocent. I cannot know if the charges are fictitious. I cannot know the motives. But I can know that the immediate assertions that are popping up in the discourse about this topic, from “intelligent men do not rape” to “the woman made it up” to “he is a womanizer, therefore, he definitely did it”, are dangerous and harmful to women, men, sexual assault victims and the justice process alike.

5 Comments

  1. This has been my point of contention with today’s media. It is no longer news, it is all sensationalistic rubbish, popularity contests rather than actual black and white fact of the day’s events. Again, my issues with the 24 hour news, the reality shows – when does it stop and when do we strive to be human beings who care for one another rather than seek to tear each other down? Thanks for posting this so we can have this discussion. I am passionate about REAL news and I am so sad by what is going on today. It boggles the mind that we deem someone above it all simply based on their station in life. Who speaks for the silent? You do my dear. And we are listening. We need more of you. More.

  2. Last night there was a poll on a Greek prime-time news program: “Did Strauss-Kahn do it or not?” It is problematic that we are attempting to adjudicate a sexual assault case from our armchair.

    Oh, this, so much this. All of it is frustrating for all of the reasons you describe, but the constant drive to have everyday people interact and have their votes counted drives me berserk. If only people could vote for politicians by phone and internet as easily as they could on reality shows and news bites, things might actually be different. I don’t understand the drive to even participate in something like this. How must it feel to hang up the phone or mouse away from the website, having participated in something so vulgar and meaningless?

    I’m not at my best right now, you can see 🙂 Ire aside, I agree with you 100%. This endless discussion doesn’t serve either party–it doesn’t serve anyone, really, except advertisers.

  3. Ally, that is an excellent point. The womanizing accusations by the media bother me as well – as though the leap from womanizing to rape is a natural and expected one. And, I cannot wait to see you in the US either!

    Akhila, victim blaming has been the theme of the year with assault cases, from Lara Logan to the woman who pressed charges against DSK. I completely agree that we should wait and see and let the justice system decide.

  4. Victim blaming is a huge problem here and I wish the narrative would not treat rape and sexual assault in such stereotypical ways. It’s frustrating that some people immediately assume he hasn’t done it – being intelligent and a well known public figure doesn’t exempt someone from being able to commit crimes such as rape. Instead of thinking it’s a political plot we should just wait and see what the criminal justice system decides.

  5. Anonymous says

    The first news story I read on the case talked about how Strauss-Kahn was a “notorious womanizer,” as if that explained how we should expect him to act. It made me really think about the impact of normalizing “womanizing” and how women are constantly defined as agency-less objects in our media. Which then made me think of the commonly heard phrase “most of them, women and children” in reference to refugees, attacks on civilians, etc. And I wish, not that women and children would not be noted, but that they would be noted as people, rather than a variation of the norm, or sub-men.

    Can’t wait to see you in the states,
    Ally

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