Thoughts on Strauss-Kahn, Assange: can we take sexual assault seriously yet?

July 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Recently, another hero of my side of politics has fallen from grace.

Not one but two rape scandals erupted to impede his passage to the French presidency. Another figurehead of the left appeared shattered by accusations of sexual assault.

But hope has returned. It seems Strauss-Kahn’s first accuser is a liar. She has also been caught on tape discussing her potential monetary gain from the investigation. These latest blows to her credibility were piled on top of claims by the New York Post that she had previously performed sex work.

It’s convenient for his case that she should be less than perfect. But isn’t it obvious that she never could be?

With one in five women surviving sexual assault, not all of them are going to have the character or sexual history of Mother Theresa. Neither ordinary people, nor the legal system, should expect or require this for alleged victims to get a fair hearing.

This is not to suggest that the hotel maid accusing Strauss-Kahn did not have a moral or legal obligation to tell the truth in this investigation. It is to say that when a woman lies about money, stands to gain financially, has sex consensually prior to a rape, or fails in any other way to conform to our collective vision of what a rape victim looks like, it does not follow that she was not raped.

It is particularly important in this case, given the consistent slut-shaming of sex workers, to draw the distinction between consensual sex work, financial gain from sex, and sexual assault. People who perform or are thought to have performed sex work are often portrayed not just as damaged goods, but as willing victims, and therefore incapable of being damaged further. That the Post considered the sexual history of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser newsworthy shows just how far we have to go in challenging a rape myth that is particularly damaging to sex workers and those labeled as such. The sexual history of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser cannot tell us whether or not she was raped.

That being labeled a sex worker can damage a woman’s credibility in an investigation such as this sheds some light on how sex work is perceived. Sex work is work. Engaging in a contract to perform some sexual acts is not consent to all sex. Having sex for money once or a thousand times is not consent to sex another time. When legal institutions and the general public deny that sex work is real work,
that workers can choose to perform or not, the risk of harm to sex workers is increased. It becomes less likely that someone who attacks a sex worker or a woman who is labeled as one will be prosecuted or found guilty.

In this case, one might think Strauss-Kahn’s accusers would have learned. This is something we have had a notable political lesson on of late. For the second time in less than twelve months, a hero of the left has been accused of multiple rapes, and simultaneously the reputations of the accusers have been shredded.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn appearing in handcuffs was considered an outrage.

Labeling a hotel maid a liar and a sex worker, and from this extrapolating Strauss-Kahn’s innocence, seems to raise relatively few eyebrows. Similarly in Assange’s case, there was shock at his treatment, and his good deeds were extolled. He was nominated for prizes and honours. That same generosity of spirit has not been extended to the women involved, who have been widely derided as CIA agents, groupies and pawns by many on the left of politics.  The left was not looking for their defensible qualities. Such qualities would have been inconvenient.

Accused rapists with a public profile who protest their innocence are consistently defended. The women who come forward seeking some sort of justice, and endure the slut-shaming of the public, are almost never afforded the same good grace. The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our legal system, and worth defending. But in cases of sexual assault, the extent of the enquiry about the alleged victim’s history seems to go beyond that justified by the presumption. There is comparatively little interest in the personal history of someone making allegations of burglary or fraud.

We do not know what happened yet in either case, but the point remains that it is possible to do good things and still be a perpetrator of rape or a misogynist. These propositions are not necessarily contradictory.

Given the political circumstances, the response to Strauss-Khan’s case has been less extreme than to that of Assange. Yet some on the left, not least Bob Ellis, still plainly hope this will all just go away. Then Strauss-Kahn might be able to get back to his important life, the one in which he does things that are far more significant than justice for one woman.

This hotel maid is not one woman. Quite aside from the multiple accusations leveled at Strauss-Kahn, sexual violence is all too common. It affects lives every day, undoubtedly of people you know. Some of them may have had sex for money. This does not make them immune to assault. When any woman is pilloried for coming forward about sexual assault, others are discouraged from doing so and the untold damage is done to our social fabric and to sexual equality by these crimes is dismissed.

This being the case, we on the progressive side of politics must ask ourselves what big picture it is that we wish to promote. Mine includes gender equality and an end to sexual violence. It’s about time those who support Strauss-Kahn and Assange included these issues in their picture too.

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