Rape Isn't Funny: On Making Excuses For Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Blaming the Alleged Victim

When a public intellectual of the left makes light of rape and makes excuses for an alleged perpetrator, we see how much work there is to do on sexism among progressives.

This story has been updated. See postscript.

What is the simplest explanation for the misguided logic suffusing recent discussions of the alleged rape of a hotel maid by the former head of the International Monetary Fund? A generational disconnect? A lack of appreciation for the complex links between social issues and economics? A warning that high-brow progressive culture may be in need of some self-reflection?

Robert Kuttner, the well-known journalist and editor of the American Prospect, responded on his new blog yesterday to recent leaks suggesting that the alleged victim in the sexual assault case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is an unreliable witness. Reports are circulating that the maid, an African immigrant, lied about her U.S. residency status on her asylum application (on a lawyer's advice), claiming a gang rape that prosecutors say she has since admitted never happened, and that after the arrest of Strauss-Kahn, she called someone for advice who happened to be in jail on a marijuana charge.

Her current attorney, Kenneth Thompson, says the real reason she sought to come to the U.S. is that she is a victim of genital mutilation and did not want her daughter to suffer the same fate. (The U.S. does not typically grant asylum to people fleeing this practice.) She also, according to a Reuters report, "told prosecutors she was raped in the past in Guinea but under different circumstances than what she described during initial interviews."

Attacks on the credibility of women who bring charges of sexual assault is something we should greet first with skepticism. Such attacks often carry an implicit assumption that a woman -- especially if she is poor, associates with unsavory characters, lives in a dodgy neighborhood, etc. -- may have deserved what she got and is not entitled to our sympathy or to legal protection. Important questions about class, gender and economic status raised in such cases demand our attention. In this instance, the fact that a poor, immigrant woman living in the Bronx knows a drug dealer or fudged the facts in order to gain asylum seems to me neither surprising nor indicative that she is not entitled to basic human rights.

But Kuttner does not explore these issues. Instead, he puts forth a theory of what may have happened at New York’s Sofitel Hotel because, as he writes, "we all know from the date-rape controversy" that rape is a complex issue that sometimes involves mere "seduction" and "misunderstanding." There is something troubling about the attitude conveyed by this construction, which suggests that a woman subjected to a violent crime could easily mistake it for a simple come-on. It particularly stretches the imagination in an instance – like this one—in which a woman was allegedly imprisoned in a room, had her clothes torn, and was forced to perform oral sex on a stranger.

Kuttner goes on to question how someone could commit a rape, as DSK is alleged to have done, and then go on to have lunch with his daughter. Wouldn't such a person be a sociopath? Sadly, I’ll wager that there are plenty of men so conditioned to think of women as disposable objects that they are indeed capable of attacking a woman and then going about their business. One meets them at fraternity parties, on corporate retreats, in political circles, in Hollywood -- basically anywhere men are led to believe that power and privilege give them the right to gratify sexual urges whenever they choose -- even if the objects of those urges are unwilling.

But if one is to follow Kuttner's logic, DSK – who has a long record of problematic sexual behavior -- is not a sociopath, and therefore is incapable of such callous behavior. So there must be another story. He proposes that the IMF chief was instead simply a man who regularly had prostitutes sent to his room while on business trips and merely mistook the maid for a hooker. Kuttner imagines the scene:

There’s a knock on the door, a young woman enters. Strauss-Kahn, expecting his hooker du jour, [emerges] naked from his toilette, and despite her protests he doesn’t believe that she’s not there to service him. This could be the parsimonious explanation for otherwise almost inexplicable behavior. On the other hand, image [sic] the defense trying to use it in his trial. “You see, your honor, my client was expecting a prostitute and didn’t believe it was just the housekeeper.”

Does this scenario really make sense? First, that it would be an easy thing to mistake a maid for a prostitute? (Implication: aren't these underclass women all the same?) Second, that if someone you thought was a prostitute fought off your advances, it would be perfectly logical to rape her? (Implication: hookers can't be raped.)

The coy Gallicisms strewn throughout the post -- toilette, l'affaire, hooker du jour – follow a pattern common in media discussions of this case. Isn’t this all really just a Euro-style romp, wink-wink? DSK has been repeatedly dubbed the “frisky Frenchman” and “the Great Seducer," -- monikers that breeze over the reality that he has been accused of a violent crime, not a roll in the hay.

This unfortunate impression of trivialization continues in Kuttner’s discussion of a detail “that calls Strauss-Kahn’s judgment into question,” namely, his taste in restaurants. He finds DSK’s choice on luncheon venue that day to be “mediocre and overpriced,” suggesting that “a sophisticated diner confusing a chain restaurant with a decent New York eatery is almost capable of mistaking a housekeeper for a hooker.”

Well. Bob Kuttner is a man I admire – a brilliant person who has made a career fighting for laudable causes and can generally be counted on to raise the level of conversation on the issues that matter most. But it’s hard to excuse the suggestion – even in jest -- that the bad judgment involved in mistaking a maid for a hooker and then raping her is somehow equivalent to selecting a crappy restaurant.

The truth is that elitism and sexism are rampant in our culture. No realm escapes them, including that of serious progressive journalism. These pernicious tendencies are like the layers of an onion, and we have to continually examine ourselves – peeling back our off-the-cuff assumptions and barely conscious attitudes – if we are to rid ourselves of them. The simplest explanation for Kuttner’s take on DSK is that he tossed off a blog post and didn’t stop to do the kind of reflection that would have made these lingering biases evident to his better nature.

When a subject as serious as rape comes up, we all need to stop and reflect on the deep trauma and violence it represents, and the broader issues of power and status that can too easily go neglected. The question of Strauss-Kahn’s guilt is open. The question of whether or not rape is a serious crime to be considered with sensitivity and circumspection is not.

UPDATE: Since Parramore authored this piece, Kuttner offered anapologetic postscriptto his original post, saying that some of his comments were intended to be ironic. He writes: "...this post clearly touched a nerve, and not the one I intended...on the subject of rape, one needs to choose one’s words with extreme care. The writer attempts irony at great peril."

Lynn Parramore is a journalist and author.
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