How Not to Talk When You Talk About Rape Lessons About Media Emerge from Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Case
Ever since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested on charges of sexual assault in New York City, it seems like everyone on the internet has weighed in on the matter. Some of the takes are good, but many, as they are wont to be when the topic is rape, are very bad. Shameful editorializing in the wake of sexual assault is so common you can almost set your watch to it: A woman accuses a high-profile person of attacking her, and a second later—we're in the Twitter era, remember—someone else is saying something infuriating about either her or the case.
In an effort to cut down on stupidity, we've put together a collection of some things you should avoid when talking about rape. Consider this a guidebook for what's bound to be a long and drawn out DSK trial.
1. "Why are powerful men like DSK so prone to cheating on their wives?"
This is a question so trite and obvious that South Park devoted a whole episode to mocking it. Yet Time magazine—and others in media—felt the arrest of DSK was the perfect time to trot it out for another lap. The problem here is that DSK didn't allegedly cheat on his wife; he allegedly forced a woman into giving him oral sex. If you can't see the difference between the two, you shouldn't be writing about DSK.
An article about ribald old dudes who can't keep it in their pants would have only been boring. Pinning that article on rape charges isn't just boring, it's inaccurate and totally offensive.
2. "The victim's name is _________."
As far as we know, only the European press has printed DSK's alleged victim's name (perhaps prompted by Slate's French edition). But just because they're overseas doesn't mean they're exempt from criticism. In a world in which Facebook and other sites let you find people faster than ever before, the backlash for a victim can be instant and terrifying, especially when the person she's accusing is powerful, rich, and well-liked. In the Slate France case, the reporter even printed the woman's nationality, her hometown, her daughter's age, and the names of people in her family. It's crap like this that makes many women terrified of reporting assaults.
3. "I'm not saying the alleged victim is lying, but she very well could be lying."
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and DSK have been friends for years—every nation has its own good ol' boy network, you know—so it was no surprise when Lévy turned up on the Daily Beast to defend his comrade. Though Lévy's broader point, that a person is innocent until proven guilty, was well-taken, he dips into stupidity here:
I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.
If Lévy wants to argue that nobody knows for sure if DSK is actually guilty, that is fine and true. However, he should then avoid hinting at the fact that he thinks DSK's accuser is lying, especially while completely ignoring evidence that incriminates DSK (for instance, DSK left the scene of his alleged crime in such a hurry that he boarded an intercontinental flight without his cellphone). Powerful men banding together to attack a woman's integrity isn't friendship, it's bullying.
4. "If DSK is a rapist, how has he gone unpunished for so long?"
This is one of the dumbest questions ever asked about a rape case, and we're barely paraphrasing it. The real question, courtesy of conservative pundit Ben Stein, is: "If [DSK] is such a womanizer and violent guy with women, why didn't he ever get charged until now?" He then added this: "In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?"
Some serial killers go their entire lives without being caught, and many others commit murders for decades before they face justice. In other words, it's not out of the ordinary for people to live otherwise normal lives while also secretly being violent maniacs. Presuming that only "bad people" (read: ones who aren't rich and famous) are responsible for hideous acts is ugly, and so naive as to be childlike.
5. "I'm not sure we should accept a poor victim's word when they're accusing a rich person."
Once again, this one comes directly from Ben Stein's pen (emphasis ours): "How do we know that this woman's word was good enough to put Mr. Strauss-Kahn straight into a horrific jail?" If anything more offensive than that question has been written about the DSK rape allegations, I have yet to read it.
We know that this woman's word is good enough because, in the eyes of the law, everyone's word is equal. That anyone would suggest her word is somehow unworthy of tarnishing the reputation of a man as rich and famous as DSK is yet another reason rape victims frequently don't report their attacks, especially if their attacker is more socially powerful than them. It's also what emboldens wealthy and beloved people who commit rapes, knowing full well that it's going to be some pathetic nobody's word versus theirs.
Stein ends his piece by stating that "the way this case has been handled so far is an embarrassment to this country." I agree with him, as long as we're talking about the media coverage.
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