Rape Culture: Why the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Case Matters

By Alyson Weiss, Field Intern

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has given us an opportunity to see how rape culture affects national coverage of rape. We have seen victim blaming from respected news publications using irrelevant details to discredit the accuser’s case (last time I checked, having truthful immigration papers does not make anyone more or less likely to become a survivor of sexual assault). This case is hugely important because rape culture does not exist on some far away plane, and it does not take Strauss-Kahn’s prestige to get off scot-free.

I became a feminist three years ago when a friend’s sexual assault in a campus dorm inspired me to join a student group that was trying to rewrite my university’s sexual assault policy. Although I attend a progressive, social justice-oriented university in the northeast, our policy was woefully inadequate. The school actually bragged that its adjudication process treated sexual assault the same as any other infraction, including plagiarism.

Through my work on this policy, I became acquainted with rape culture. The administration met our request for a comprehensive policy with surprising hostility, and students were generally apathetic. I built a reputation on campus, and a growing number of students would privately tell me their stories of surviving sexual assault on campus, stories they felt unable to tell their family and friends because of rape culture’s silencing effect.

We did successfully enact a comprehensive policy, but I am struck by the reactions I get from people when I talk about my experience working on the policy. Overwhelmingly, across demographics, people’s first reactions have been to tell me about friends of theirs who were falsely accused of rape.

This reaction surprised me. First of all, false reporting is rare: A 1997 FBI report puts the number at eight percent “unfounded,” which does not necessarily mean false, so it is likely that some of those accused actually did commit sexual assault (though it is understandable that their friends wouldn’t want to believe it).

But beyond that, a strong policy would help those who truly were falsely accused, because a strong policy would be designed to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent.

This reaction is both a symptom and a tool of rape culture. It is absurd to imagine people fearing a comprehensive policy on robbery because it might produce false reports. Sexual assault is a unique crime because of society’s tendency to blame the victim and blasé or sympathetic attitudes toward the accused (people are already saying that Strauss-Kahn may still have a shot at winning the French presidency).

Rape culture is everywhere. It is in international coverage of the Strauss-Kahn case, the Lara Logan case and the story of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas. It is in my progressive, elite university’s administration and in the apathetic students whose insistence that rape doesn’t happen here helps to keep it underground. And most of all, it is in the reactions of my family and friends who buy into the myth that rapists are boogeymen in bushes and who fear false allegations more than they fear weak policies that fail to punish rapists.

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