Dismissal of Strauss-Kahn’s Charges Doesn’t Mean It Didn’t Happen
For those following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case and other high-profile sexual assault cases, it comes as practically no surprise that he recently won dismissal of his charges. I don’t claim to know what happened, but how this case played out is sadly quite typical.
Sexual assault is about power and control. Perpetrators are often in a position of power over their victims and feel entitled to getting what they want no matter how the other person feels. Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief and potential French presidential candidate, was definitely in a position of power in comparison to Nafissatou Diallo, a low-income immigrant woman working as a hotel maid.
In recent months, the media have focused on Diallo’s past lies and how she “changed her story” surrounding the sexual assault. Having lied in the past, or even being a criminal in the past, does not make someone unable to be a victim in the present; in fact, they may be more vulnerable to sexual assault due to their supposed lack of credibility. Perpetrators choose victims based on perceived vulnerability and lack of credibility because they don’t want to get caught. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), perpetrators are good at not getting caught as only about 6% of rapists ever serve a day in jail.
In regards to sexual assault victims “changing their story,” it would be rare for a victim to get it right from the very beginning and throughout a trial. Sexual assault is a traumatic violation of someone’s body, mind, and spirit. When people experience trauma, it is often not easy, or even possible, to recall exactly what happened. Similar to when someone has been told that a loved one has been killed, the person may go into a state of shock and not remember what they were told, by whom, in what order, or what they did for the next few hours. Things will probably continue to be fuzzy though they may remember more in the future.
According to RAINN, every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, and at least 60% (some estimate closer to 90%) of all sexual assaults go unreported. Reasons include fear of the perpetrator or of not being believed, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, feeling like they were at fault, wanting to move on, not remembering what happened, and knowing they won’t necessarily get justice. Some victims do not report because they have reported in the past and were not believed. Some victims do not report because they see how other victims are treated poorly when they do report.
When the perpetrator is a sports figure, community leader, politician, CEO, or otherwise well-known figure, victims can have an even greater fear of reporting, and rightly so. Many such victims are ridiculed or blamed in the media (accused of lying or of asking for it) and actually harassed by community members. Such re-victimization may lead a victim to choose to recant.
It is important to know that if a survivor recants or if a case is dismissed because it couldn’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, does not mean that a sexual assault did not occur. In the vast majority of cases, victims are telling the truth. According to the Office of Justice Assistance, of all the reported sexual assault cases in Wisconsin in 2009, only 8% turned out to be a false report.
As a society, we need to believe and support victims. We need to understand that when we refuse to believe a victim, we are not only preventing her/him from getting help, but also other victims that are watching and listening and waiting.