Now that criminal charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief who was accused of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid, have been dropped, people are left scratching their heads. Strauss-Kahn's supporters are hailing the new turn of events as a victory, proof that law enforcement and the media had unfairly labeled him as guilty without waiting for the facts to emerge. Some have taken it one step further, saying that the DSK case demonstrates that those who bring sexual assault claims should be met with suspicion. Others, however, are confused—wasn't there physical evidence of sexual contact? Why would a hotel maid consent—as DSK alleges—to sex with a strange hotel guest while on the job? Do the inconsistencies in the hotel maid's statements mean that we should ignore her claims altogether?
More importantly, what does the dropping of the DSK case mean for the public perception of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases in the future?
Many women in France and around the world had welcomed the debates that ensued after the initial charges were filed against Strauss-Kahn. The case touched on many issues not confined to sexual assault per se—male dominance in business, sexual harassment, sexuality in the workplace, office politics, the underreporting of related cases, the risks female workers face, etc. What happened in the hotel maid's workplace appeared to not be far off from what other women faced in their workplaces. To be sure, sexual harassment in the workplace is defined as occurring among co-workers, as well as with clients and outside vendors.
Now, the DSK-inspired debates about sexual harassment have lost some of their initial spark. But some say that the status of the DSK case shouldn't cast a shadow on sexual misconduct cases in general. For an accuser, the experience is an uphill battle.
Susan Milligan in US News states, “Sexual assault is the one crime in which the victim is as much on trial as the alleged attacker.” The hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was found to have lied in her application for asylum and to have given an inconsistent account of the alleged attack. These actions are common for both asylum seekers (who are expected to have larger-than-life tales of torture in their home countries in order to qualify) and sexual assault victims (who experience ongoing trauma and may not have a clear recollection of events). Yet the public often doesn't see things this way. Diallo made statements that implied that her case against DSK presented a financial opportunity for her. She also appeared in television interviews, which struck many as strange for a self-described sexual assault victim. In the end, charges against DSK were dropped not because there was no evidence, but because the prosecution felt that a jury would not be sympathetic to Diallo, the sole witness.
There are strong parallels between sexual assault and sexual harassment cases—sometimes a case involves harassment escalating into assault. Oftentimes, both categories stem from a similar root of intimidation and power. Either way, the accuser is expected to have a squeaky-clean background, a fool-proof story, and a stellar character. Without these, despite the severity of their claims, an accuser will have a hard time making a case.
The fact that the case crumbled based on Diallo's credibility speaks not only to how jurors would likely perceive her, but how the wider public already perceives her. The case highlights how tricky public opinion is in its role in sexual misconduct cases. The turn of events in the DSK case will likely vindicate those who are already suspicious of accusers of sexual misconduct as gold diggers. For neutral observers, the case is a warning against presuming guilt, yet also a reminder that perceived character flaws speak louder than legal accusations. But it will also send a message to those with legitimate claims that the evidence doesn't stand for itself—one's personality is on trial as well.
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