The big story in the news today is the release on Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the sexual assault case against him teeters. The New York Times features a breathtakingly victim-blamey article about the accuser’s credibility, detailing the ways in which she is not a perfect human being:
The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper who charged that he attacked her in his Manhattan hotel suite in May, according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.
Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a French politician, and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.
Since her initial allegation on May 14, the accuser has repeatedly lied, one of the law enforcement officials said.
There’s no indication that she actually lied about being raped; instead, it turns out that she has lied about other things in the course of her adult life (shocking stuff, I know), and her actions immediately following the alleged assault. Here’s what she lied about:
According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him. The conversation was recorded.
That man, the investigators learned, had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. He is among a number of individuals who made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into the woman’s bank account over the last two years. The deposits were made in Arizona, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania.
The investigators also learned that she was paying hundreds of dollars every month in phone charges to five companies. The woman had insisted she had only one phone and said she knew nothing about the deposits except that they were made by a man she described as her fiancé and his friends.
In addition, one of the officials said, she told investigators that her application for asylum included mention of a previous rape, but there was no such account in the application. She also told them that she had been subjected to genital mutilation, but her account to the investigators differed from what was contained in the asylum application.
The housekeeper admitted to prosecutors that she lied about what happened after the episode on the 28th floor of the hotel. She had initially said that after being attacked, she had waited in a hallway until Mr. Strauss-Kahn left the room; she now admits that after the episode, she cleaned a nearby room, then returned to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s suite to clean there. Only after that did she report to her supervisor that she had been attacked.
Many people are focusing on the fact that her story about the immediate aftermath of the rape has changed. But that’s not uncommon — many rape victims continue to go about their business after being assaulted, and in a state of shock do things that many people don’t believe seem to sufficiently reflect trauma. And rape victims, of course, are also aware that a showing of “not-traumatized-enough” behavior damages their credibility. It’s not totally out there to think that this woman wanted to be believed, and so she omitted the parts of story that she knew would make her less believable. Now that it’s all on the table, though, it looks even worse.
None of this is good, but it also doesn’t mean that she wasn’t assaulted. We’re also talking about a woman who is an immigrant, who is of color, who is poor, who comes from a country where authority figures (including police officers) have slaughtered and tortured citizens and are widely distrusted, and who currently lives in an area with large immigrant and poor populations who are targeted by local police. I’d be pretty surprised if she felt totally comfortable around the NYPD and if she trusted the American justice system. Hell, she has friends and loved ones in jail — she’s not new to this circus, and I doubt she’s under the impression that law enforcement officers are routinely on the side of people like her. While I’m sure the prosecutors told her to be totally honest with them — and that’s what prosecutors do in these kinds of cases, because it’s much better to have all of the bad information out there so you can deal with it on the front end instead of being surprised by it at trial — I can understand why she might not have disclosed that she was involved with drug traffickers (if that’s even the case). It also looks like she might have lied on her application for asylum, at the instruction of an unethical attorney, when she was desperate for legal status. That doesn’t justify lying, but it does provide some necessary context.
All of this leads prosecutors to believe that she’s probably not a credible witness, and that DSK’s attorneys will destroy her on the witness stand. They’re probably right. Rape accusers seem to be treated with different expectations of perfection than people who report other crimes. Granted, this case is particularly high-profile, which means that prosecutors no doubt want it to be open-and-shut, making the accuser’s imperfections all the more troublesome. But I have a hard time believing that a woman with the exact same past would be considered too lacking in credibility had she accused someone of robbing her apartment or mugging her or beating her up. I have a hard time believing that if a man was punched in the face by a stranger on the street that prosecutors would drop the case if it came to light that the victim had cheated on his taxes seven years ago.
Even though these aren’t the typical “she’s a slut” attacks (although I’m counting down the minutes until someone suggests she’s a prostitute who had sex with DSK for money), there’s still an unreasonable level of virtue that we demand from any woman who says she was raped. This woman, like a lot of folks, has lied to save her own ass under dire circumstances. She called someone in jail to discuss the pros and cons of going forward with the rape accusations — something that sounds questionable unless you consider that the incarcerated person may have been her closest confidante, and I would certainly have that exact same conversation with my best friend if I were thinking of getting embroiled in a criminal case. There’s still physical evidence of sex, and physical evidence of assault. But it doesn’t matter, since she owns five cell phones (DSK owns seven) and lied about an unrelated issue and has some shady friends. Nothing that has come out about her indicates that she wasn’t raped. It just indicates that she’s no longer our ideal victim, and that’s enough to prevent the case from going forward.
My issue actually isn’t with the prosecutor’s office (although it is a little bit) so much as the media response. Even progressive media outlets are making egregious logical leaps, suggesting that she’s probably lying because, well, she just probably is. The reason it’s nearly impossible for the prosecution to pursue these charges, even though there’s no evidence that she lied about anything related to the actual events surrounding the alleged crime, is because we live in a culture where rape victims need to be flawless in order to be believed. We live in a culture where it’s damn near impossible for any woman, when her life is held up to the light, to be considered innocent. We live in a culture where we think it’s even reasonable to question a rape victim’s “innocence” in the first place. We live in a culture where accusers of high-profile men undergo even more scrutiny than usual from a media hungry for a story and playing by an old rule book. And we live in a culture where the public destruction of every woman who makes a rape accusation is used as fodder in subsequent rape cases, establishing a cycle where we believe that women must be lying because the women before her were lying, so we feel justified in going out of our way to find any scrap of evidence that might indicate she has ever done anything ever in her life that we might find unsavory even if it has nothing to do with the case at hand, and then we use that to determine that she’s not credible, and then we use has as another example of how women lie about rape. And then powerful men are even more emboldened and feel more justified in treating women like garbage.
Under the kind of scrutiny this woman has endured, I would surely be deemed a bad victim. I wonder how many of you would be “good enough” to be credible in a high-profile case against a powerful man.
This woman’s life is going to be irrevocably changed after this. I’m not clear on what her immigration status is, but given that her asylum application was from 2004, it sounds like it was granted and she’s here with asyluee status. It’s not a stretch to think that this could mean deportation proceedings for her, and that the entire life she’s built here could be gone.
She’s going to pay an awfully large price for this. Women who report assault in the future are going to suffer the consequences of being human beings with spotty histories and personal imperfections and character flaws and terrible past decisions. And we’re going to collectively wonder why men feel like they can assault women without repercussion, and why so few women report being raped.