The tabloids love “a bit of sexual excitement in the headlines”. Or so, says Ken Clarke, British secretary for justice. And if the brouhaha that has erupted around the allegations of rape and sexual assault against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is anything to go by, even respectable publications are not aloof to the titillation of a good sex scandal. Rape and sexual assault are very much a part of modern life everywhere from the Congo to Clarke’s Blighty. No less than right here in South Africa, there is a veritable proliferation of rape stories in the news.
Rape is not a highly convoluted political conspiracy designed to ensnare the more ambitious among us. Rape, at its core is a dismissal of humanity, a violent assertion of power by one human over another. It is a criminal offence the perpetrators of which deserve to be severely punished. And yet the only time an allegation of rape rates more than a split second’s worth of an affectation of moral indignation is when a political agenda, or the reputation of a famous person, is riding on it. It was the case with Jacob Zuma as it is with Julian Assange. Zuma was, of course, acquitted of rape and Assange is yet to be tried, but it is the concept of rape that has suffered most severely. Ken Clarke has earned the ire of the British by effectively claiming some rapes are less “serious” than others. While the British, amid calls for Clark to step down, debate exactly what constitutes rape, it is the furore over the allegations of attempted rape and sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he’s now more universally known, that forces a re-examination of what is meant by “rape”.
In France, DSK’s resignation hardly rated a headline. The French, their sympathies very much entrenched with DSK, are much more interested in the spectacular descente aux enfers – the descent into hell of a man who may have been their next president. The French media, more typically protective of the private lives of its politicians, have broken with tradition to pursue the DSK story with some fervour.
According to one survey in the immediate aftermath of DSK’s arrest, 57% of French people believe DSK to be the unfortunate victim of a political conspiracy and in a strange twist, DSK, predicted just two weeks ago a political conspiracy was to be hatched against him. During an interview with French newspaper Liberation, the IMF chief predicted that his enemies could use his reputation as a libertine against him if he chose to run for president of France. When asked what challenges he faced in a possible bid, DSK replied, “The money, women and my Jewishness. Yes, I love women … so what?” he boldly said. Then went on to predict he might fall victim to a honey trap if he ran for the president of France — “a woman raped in a car park and who’s been promised 500,000 or a million Euros to invent such a story,” he said.
The allegations against DSK in New York are then rather serendipitous, but surely DSK’s foes would have been more creative than to do just as he said they would? And then too, when his candidacy for the presidency was still only a remote possibility. DSK is, of course, innocent until proved otherwise, but similarly the allegations against him have yet to be unequivocally disproved. But, a great many French people and other supporters of DSK would rather believe elaborate conspiracy theories than admit the likelihood of a woman being sexually assaulted by a man.
False reports of rape cannot be justified, but altogether they amount to no more than 8% of total rape charges in the US — on a par, it’s argued, with false accusations of any other crime. False accusations are almost impossible to rebut and a reputation difficult to repair. The allegations do indeed have some merit. Police sources quoted by NPR say there is no indication to date that the line detectives who eventually decided on the arrest of DSK knew how important he was. According to NPR , “they didn’t learn till later, said one police source, that French officials get to stay in this $3,000-a-night suite for a discounted rate of $800.” Detectives from the Midtown South precinct were dispatched and interviewed the woman. “Police often get flak for interviewing rape victims too aggressively,” says deputy New York police commissioner Paul Browne, “but they do it for a reason. To make sure the story hangs together, that there are no inconsistencies, and they were convinced.”
ABC also reports that investigators say information downloaded from the suite door’s electronic card reader indicates the maid entered the room and never closed the door. The hotel policy requires maids to leave the door open when cleaning. The open door, they say, is proof that the women entered the room to work, not to engage in consensual sex. Rape is a serious allegation and by no means should DSK be construed as guilty unless a fair trial proves he is, but just because he’s rich, powerful and French, does not mean any allegation of misconduct levelled against him is politically motivated.
There is a persistent imbalance of power that continues to dog accusations of sexual violence. As DSK sympathisers rushed to his defence, they have drawn question marks against the alleged victim’s honesty, stability and attractiveness. There has been little hesitation to try to reveal in sordid detail the life of the woman involved. We learn from the Daily Beast: “The hotel maid’s presumed name is now well known outside the American press, which does not normally publish the full identities of victims of sexual crimes. The Sofitel management says she has worked there for three years and been an exemplary employee. French publications report that since last winter she has lived in a run-down little apartment in the Bronx with a 16-year-old daughter. Neighbours there have told both French and American journalists that she is quiet, but friendly. Some accounts say she is Muslim and normally wears a headscarf. And the Parisian press, undaunted by a US sense of propriety, has tried hard to figure out how attractive she may or may not be. ‘Physically, accounts differ,’ writes the website Paris Match. ‘The lawyers for DSK apparently declared they were surprised to discover her face was ‘not very seductive’, when they saw her at the lineup where she formally identified the head of the International Monetary Fund as her attacker. But the French tabloid France-Soir interviewed a limo driver who works with the hotel, saying the housekeeper ‘was a very pretty woman in her thirties, with big breasts and a beautiful rear’.”
It is perhaps the juxtaposition of a Muslim crying foul (once more) of a Jew that makes the titbit about the alleged victim’s religious affinity compelling news. At one point this week, a New York tabloid ran an “exclusive” (now debunked) story claiming the “alleged victim was, in fact, living in an apartment organized for her by the charity Harlem United, which places people with HIV and Aids in rent-assisted housing”. The sum of the importance of this fact, which does not establish that the alleged victim is HIV-positive, is the suggestion that the accused sex criminal “may have more to worry about than a possible prison sentence” because, “[according] to the federal Centres for Disease Control: ‘It is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex’.” The concern for DSK’s health in this case is beguiling, but just as her HIV status, “attractiveness” and religious affinity are being ruthlessly interrogated, exactly which African country she hails from is similarly being questioned. While it was, at one point, stated with a degree of certainty that she “originated” from the Fouta Djallon region in Guinea, it’s now thought that she is Senegalese. With her headscarf as a convenient prop, this woman has had to watch as her racial, geographic and ethnic identities mercilessly dissected. It’s little wonder then that while DSK’s friends in high places rally in his support, the woman’s lawyer claims she says she feels “alone in the world”.
Bernard-Henri Lévy with characteristic pomposity, has staunchly defended DSK as a friend who, he believes, is unjustly being dragged through the mud by politicians and the press. And as Lévy’s atrocious diatribe takes swipes at the tabloid media and the alleged victim, piously defending his friend’s integrity, one commentator has lambasted him for his very selective championing of women’s rights.
“Lévy has earned deserved praise for being one of the few left-wing European intellectuals prepared to make a stand against the fanatical misogyny of radical Islam. He cannot in good faith decry the oppression of women in Africa and Asia and then deride the accounts of his alleged victims of rape. He cannot be for women’s rights in Tehran and Riyadh, but against them in New York and Paris, just as British conservatives cannot claim to be supporters of a modern party that stands up for the rights of women and then go along with their government’s plans to slash sentences for rapists.”
DSK is being paraded through European media as a man “brought down by women”, a man with a weakness for women. A European-flavoured liberation of Muslim women takes the guise of the ban of the burqah from some of its streets, but surely a woman, Muslim or not, deserves better than to have the assault of women equated with their pursuit. Being a ladies’ man does not grant one immunity from prosecution of sexual violence. DM