The Dominique Strauss Kahn affair is like a Rorschach test: it consists of pieces of information so conflicting, and hard to make sense of, that what people end up thinking about it is a reflection of the perspective they brought in the first place.
If you feel that a world leader wouldn't ever commit rape, then you would be predisposed to assume that DSK was entrapped. If, instead, you focus on the fact that approximately 1,200 women in New York City have reported being raped every year since 2000, then you would be predisposed to believe she was raped, especially given what was apparently a highly convincing description of the assault.
Unfortunately, too many of us are predisposed to see fault in a rape victim.
This phenomenon of victim blaming exists in many forms -- but is nowhere as blatant as in the case of rape. We are all too familiar with the litany of contentions heaped upon victims of sexual assault -- she was promiscuous, she dressed provocatively, she asked for it. Whether or not the accuser in the case of DSK was the victim of a rape -- and we may never know -- the discourse about her follows a devastatingly typical paradigm.
Why is the impulse to blame victims so powerful? Experts explain that it's a way for us to distance ourselves from the terrible reality of what befell the victim. We think, "I'm not promiscuous, I don't dress provocatively, I don't ask for it -- so it could never happen to me. It did happen to her, so she must have done something to deserve it." For powerful psychological reasons -- bolstering our own hope that we are immune -- we want to believe that the victimization was deserved. But there are countless people all over the world who do terrible things to innocent victims. And no one -- no one -- deserves to be forced to engage in sex against his or her will.
While the DSK case may suggest that it "can't happen to you," in fact it can and more than likely by someone you know. Two-thirds of the sexual assaults/rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
Despite how the DSK case continues the pattern of assigning culpability to the victim, as a society we have made progress over the years in gradually shattering accepted notions relating to rape, including that it only occurs in certain economic or cultural categories, the alleged guilt of the victim, and that rape doesn't occur among people who know each other. This has also helped with the ability to convict rapists -- a difficult task given often the need for a corroborating witness.
Perhaps most important, services for rape victims have improved, with 19 Department of Health (DOH) certified Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) hospitals in New York City. SAFE services are considered the best and most victim-centered approach to acute health care for sexual assault patients. In addition, there are a total of 21 community and hospital-based rape crisis programs city-wide. Police and law enforcement personnel are better trained and equipped to treat a rape survivor with respect and dignity -- something that, not surprisingly, helps in the legal investigation that may follow.
At Safe Horizon's rape and sexual assault treatment programs, we assist survivors in various stages of their healing process who are seeking support and information about the trauma of sexual violence. On any given day, we might work with someone who was recently assaulted and is in need of crisis counseling and advocacy with the criminal justice system. We might also provide services to someone who was assaulted 20 years ago and is only beginning to understand the impact of the event. The common theme is this: that we help them to understand that trauma has a definite impact on the body and the brain and that it can alter behavior, memory and functioning.
The goal of our work with clients is not to influence their decision to report a crime. Our objective is to provide support and information to empower the client to make their best decision for their well-being and safety. We believe that survivors need as much support as possible after their victimization and that (should they choose to report) going through the initial law enforcement procedure can be additionally traumatizing. The legal system can be very difficult and painful to navigate and our role is to sustain the victim through that process.
We have observed that the most common reasons why survivors do not report sexual assaults are:
- There is a power-imbalance in the relationship that they have with their perpetrator
- They have had negative experiences with law enforcement in the past
- They believe the sexual assault is their fault and that if they did report it they would not be believed
- They believe that there is no remedy or help available from the criminal justice system
- They fear that they will have to tell the story of their victimization over and over and that this retelling will further traumatize them
- Their perpetrator is an abusive partner and they fear that reporting will put them in further danger
Conversely, we see that survivors are most likely to report when they have a good support system, when they feel protected by law enforcement and when they have an advocate to help them navigate the criminal justice system and advocate for their rights as a victim.
We still have a long way to go to bring all those who commit sexual assault to justice. A good example is the practice of impugning the general credibility of an accuser -- who may not be an angel, who may not be perfect, but who does not deserve to be raped with impunity.
Even where the criminal justice system may not be able to obtain a conviction, past and possible victims of sexual assault should know they are not alone. Receiving counseling and other services that can help the victim may be just as important as what results in the courtroom.
It would be a grave mistake to allow a victim's technical credibility as a witness in a court of law to be the last word on the truth of what happened to her, and prevent getting the help and support that she needs.