A few months ago, I posted on the Start By Believing Campaign being led by an organization I serve (EVAW, Int’l). In response, a less-than-impressed commenter asked me rhetorically “When do you stop believing, Roger?” While I actually answered that in the post itself, a further comment of his illuminated the disconnect between us:
“Does the sympathy I feel for a victim decrease in correlation to the increase of their voluntary consumption of alcohol, flirtation, placing themselves into precarious positions, and style of dress? Yes.”
This statement encapsulates the all too common but remarkably misguided belief that victims, usually but not always women, invite victimization when behaving less than monastically. I guess my question back to this commenter should be “How much, exactly, does your sympathy decrease, and through what factors?” But this of course begs other questions: If she wore a skirt above the knee during a “girl’s night” outing in a big city, does she still merit assistance, treatment and legal vindication, or just medical treatment, but no criminal justice response? How much does each drink she consumes ratchet down her rightful access to our system of justice? At what exact point of flirtation she does she forfeit the right to be supported by the people she reveals the attack to later? In terms of quantification, there must be a calculus for how we measure out sympathy versus scorn when it comes to sexual violence for people who “ask for it.”
Or maybe that attitude is nonsensical and unsupported by anything that relates to the reality of how and why people are sexually assaulted.
I believe that each of us bears some responsibility for our personal safety. I readily shake my head in frustration when I see someone blithely short-cutting alone through a dark alley while wearing earphones, for instance. Yes, there are things we can and should do to reduce our own vulnerability to crime. But first, even when we have acted in a way that (perhaps) made us more of an easy target than we would like, it’s never our fault when someone else chooses to attack and victimize us. Second, the nature of sexual assault, particularly non-stranger sexual assault, is unique. No other crime bears with it the level of scrutiny toward the victim’s actions than does non-stranger sexual assault. No other crime, through myth and mistake, shields the perpetrator as completely as does sexual violence. And when a power differential is introduced into the mix, the odds against the victim go through the roof.
The track record of IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, punctuated by his latest apparent sexual attack in New York City, is yet another reminder of how myths surrounding sexual violence can protect a powerful man from prosecution for decades (see an excellent and balanced op-ed on this story from my colleagues at Counterquo here). The fact that a relatively powerless (to put it mildly) hotel worker reported him for it is stunning. My guess is Strauss-Kahn was stunned also. I have a strong feeling he’s relied on the relative powerlessness of his victims for years. By many reports, there has never been a shortage of them. Strauss-Kahn hasn’t always chosen hotel maids, but also journalists and other professionals. In particular, his “affair” with Hungarian former IMF economist Piroska Nagy appears to have been consummated by the relentless pressure he put on her while she reported to him.
Ben Stein, a very bright guy who nevertheless seems to be getting more and more bizarre lately, wrote perhaps the most stunningly ignorant piece defending Strauss-Kahn. In it, he wonders aloud how DSK could possibly have gotten away with sexual violence and/or sexual harassment for so long with no one coming forward. Mr. Stein must know precious little about the dynamics between the powerful and the relatively powerless if he has any doubt regarding the feasibility of a track record like DSK’s. Sadly, I think Stein keenly understands how power works and what it can suppress. But like so many others, he has a huge blind spot where sexual violence is concerned, and is willing to entertain any number of alternate theories in order to avoid seeing what is as clear as his own face in a mirror. In the very next paragraph, he suggests that “in life, events tend to follow patterns.” Indeed, Mr. Stein, they do. And the pattern of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sexual violence that DSK has been perpetrating is beyond obvious.
The answer is this: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, like most men who commit acts of sexual violence, is a serial predator. It is not at all unusual that his pattern involves violent acts as well as manipulative ones. There are certainly “womanizers” the world over who pursue arguably immoral sexual acts, even by the less uptight standards of the French. But this can be and often is done without creating legal victims (either criminally or civilly) with threats, work-place pressure, intimidation or physical violence. Strauss-Kahn is, by all appearances, someone who has crossed the line between what is despicable and what is actionable or criminal.
Nevertheless, there will never be a shortage of people like Ben Stein who are blind to the reality of sexual violence, or my erstwhile commenter who are more than ready to blame the victims of such violence for being insufficiently vigilant, insufficiently well-behaved, or insufficiently cloistered. It’s not necessarily evil to think this way, but it’s grossly misguided and it’s protecting perpetrators and damming victims. In short, it’s furthering a cycle we desperately need to break.