It’s hard to turn on your TV, open the newspaper or surf the web these days without being reminded that violence against women is a serious problem.
Just last week, women volunteers who served in the Peace Corps testified on Capitol Hill about how the U.S. government agency ignored and mishandled their reports of being sexually assaulted.
A week earlier, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of a high school cheerleader in Texas who was kicked off the squad when she refused to cheer for the basketball player who had raped her. Because she did not win her case against the school, the young woman is now expected to pay $45,000 for the school district’s legal fees.
And now, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a strong contender to become the next president of France, has been charged with sexually assaulting and attempting to rape a woman who was working as a housekeeper in the New York hotel where he was staying.
These three stories have more in common than timing; they serve as stunning examples of our society’s tendency to downplay the seriousness of the crime and re-victimize the woman.
In the case of Strauss-Kahn, some defenders have already suggested he was set up, while his lawyers may claim it was consensual sex. In the past, Strauss-Kahn appears to have been given a pass for his questionable behavior toward women in his workplace. In fact, his reputation as a ladies’ man — he was called “the great seducer” — almost seems to have inoculated him from more serious charges.
Reportedly, one woman was violently attacked by Strauss-Kahn but was reluctant to pursue charges against such a high-profile, powerful man. Will justice prevail this time? One thing’s for certain: The woman, who is from Africa and was granted asylum in the U.S. seven years ago, will be scrutinized in a way unique to survivors of rape.
The women from the Peace Corps are familiar with this tactic — they have revealed a culture where blaming the victims and encouraging them to keep quiet was not unusual. And what does it tell you about how our society views the crime of rape when an athlete is allowed to plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor assault, serve no jail time and continue attending school and playing team sports under the same roof as the young woman he attacked?
But, as the story goes, these women must have done something to bring this upon themselves. They dressed too provocatively, drank too much, stayed out too late, ventured into dangerous territory. Or maybe it wasn’t rape at all — maybe they were after money or revenge.
Many women fear indifference or abusive treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system — particularly women of color and LGBT people, who have good reason to distrust the police and the courts. Meanwhile, programs to address violence against women continue to be woefully underfunded, sending the message that this crisis has yet to be prioritized in proportion to its impact on the community.
Just look at us: Our society is awash in violent imagery as a form of entertainment. Women’s lifeless, violated bodies are exploited in countless TV shows, movies, music videos, video games, you name it. Clearly we are aware that women and girls are raped and kidnapped and killed every day.
We need to stop looking for that magic set of rules that will keep every woman safe if she just follows them 24-7. Instead, we need to look at the attitudes and practices that allow men to get away with repeated assaults, that keep women from reporting these crimes, that make women ashamed and afraid. And we must call rape what it is — not a randy man carried away in the heat of the moment, but a disturbed man who seeks to control women through violence. A man, young or old, acting out his issues with power — an inflated sense or a fear of too little — on the bodies and souls of women.
And just in case Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the IMF still don’t get it, NOW has this to say: Mr. Strauss-Kahn should resign or be removed immediately from his position as managing director of the IMF.