Two Strauss-Kahn sex cases dropped and activists cry foul
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Two sex assault cases against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn by French writer Tristane Banon (left) and New York hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo (right) have been dropped, sparking dismay among women’s rights activists.
In less than two months, two separate sexual assault cases on either side of the Atlantic against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn were dropped due to legal technicalities. The decision sparked dismay among women’s rights activists and reopened a debate on how legal systems address – or fail to address – sexual violence cases.
On Thursday, the Paris prosecutor's office dropped an investigation into French journalist-writer Tristane Banon’s accusation of attempted rape against Strauss-Kahn due to lack of evidence.
However, the prosecutor said the former IMF chief had admitted to behaviour that could qualify as sexual assault during a 2003 interview with Banon in a Paris apartment.
But the lesser charge of sexual assault could not be pursued because the statute of limitation had expired.
Under French law, the statute of limitation for sexual assault charges is three years; on attempted rape it's 10 years.
“Oh no, oh my god, not again,” moaned Eve Ensler, celebrated American feminist, writer, and author of “The Vagina Monologues,” in a phone call from New York upon hearing the news. “Whether it’s a court in New York or France, why is it always about not pressing charges?”
In August, US prosecutors decided to drop sexual assault charges against Strauss-Kahn, citing doubts over the credibility of a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, who accused the 62-year-old French politician of sexually assaulting her in a Manhattan hotel suite.
Strauss Kahn has admitted to “a moral failing” with Diallo, but he has insisted he did not try to rape her. In 32-year-old Banon’s case, he has denied the charges and his lawyers have launched a counter-suit against the French journalist-writer for alleged defamation.
Two very different cases with several similarities
While both cases involve allegations of sexual abuse, there are many differences between the Diallo and Banon cases.
The two alleged incidents occurred in different countries and were dropped for different reasons.
According to Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action & the Media, and editor of the book, “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” the context of the two cases was also very different.
“In the Diallo case, it was a case of what we traditionally think of sexual violence - that a stranger assaults us. From Diallo’s point of view, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a stranger and so she immediately reported it,” said Friedman. “Whereas for the French victim, she knew him, her mother knew him - it was a very different milieu. We tend to culturally – whether it’s the US or France – want to look for a reason not to believe a woman when she says she’s been assaulted by someone she knows.”
But according to Friedman, the common thread binding the two cases is that “people in the legal system tend to look for reasons not to go forward. Even well-meaning prosecutors – and they’re not always well-meaning – have to think of convincing jurors and judges. It’s very difficult, every step of the way.”
Audrey Guiller, French journalist and co-author of the upcoming book, “Rape, an almost ordinary crime” (Le viol, un crime presque ordinaire) agrees.
“A problem is the disqualification of rape in sexual assault by the courts. It’s very frequent,” said Guiller. “When there are marks of violence on the woman’s body, it’s easy for the magistrate. It’s a ‘good victim’. If that does not happen, it’s difficult to pursue.”
But according to Guiller, in 50 percent of the rape cases in France, “there are no weapons, the victim does not systematically resist because she is often terrified, frozen - like a rabbit caught in headlights.”
The world’s least reported violent crime
Given the trauma of proving sexual assault in the courts, experts say it’s hardly surprising that sexual violence is one of the least reported crimes across the world.
According to the Washington DC-based RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 61 percent of sexual abuse in the US are not reported and among the cases that do get reported, there is only a 16 percent chance the abuser will end up in prison.
Guiller estimates that in France, only 10 percent of rape victims report the crime and among the cases that do get reported, 50 percent are dropped.
“Legal systems don’t seem equipped to handle these cases,” said Friedman. “It’s troubling to me how little thought is put into how better to handle these cases.”
Blame the victim – or demonise her
The lack of initiative to address the legal hurdles confronting sexual violence cases does not surprise Ensler.
Citing a recent move – that has since been overturned – by the city council of Topeka, Kansas, to decriminalise domestic violence due to budget cuts, Ensler sees a pattern in these seemingly disparate incidents.
“To me, it’s indicative of a world in which women’s bodies are not honoured, cherished and protected,” said Ensler. “In the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, there was a large community of people who knew about his problem, that he couldn’t control himself. Why did no one intervene earlier to say this is a problem?”
According to Ensler, another common pattern in high profile sexual assault cases involving powerful men is the tendency of what she calls “demonising the victim”.
Reeling off a list of sexual assault incidents in the US that have come to light in the past 20 years, such as the Anita Hill-US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas controversy and basketball star Kobe Bryant sexual assault case, Ensler noted that victims’ accounts are invariably devalued or their motives questioned.
In the case of Diallo, some US news organisations printed lengthy reports questioning her moral credibility. The hotel maid’s lawyer has filed a libel lawsuit against the tabloid, the New York Post, for calling her “a prostitute” and “a hooker”. French media reports have wondered why Banon took so long to disclose the alleged sexual abuse incident, and have questioned whether she was trying to get media mileage following the New York case.
“There’s public humiliation, there’s a denigration of women who say they have been sexually harassed,” said Ensler. “No one’s thinking of those women. No one’s thinking not just of the consequences of the attack, but the consequences of being de-legitimized and ridiculed because they came forward.”
Nevertheless, Ensler hopes Thursday’s collapse of the Banon case will not deter women from coming forward if they have been sexually abused.
“I’m going to have a global ‘press charges day’ in honour of Tristane and Nafissatou,” she vowed. “I would say let this moment not be the moment when we become silent and afraid. I think we all have to keep steady until the collective DNA of society changes.”