The Dropped DSK Prosecution's Impact on Rape Reporting

Victims' advocates predict a chilling effect on future prosecutions

This article is from the archive of our partner .

With the criminal charges against Dominque Strauss-Kahn already buried in the "old news" file, much of the media focus has turned to the former International Monetary Fund director's political future in France and his civil case here in the United States. But for many feminists and victims' advocates, the victory for Strauss-Kahn is a defeat for women who have been sexually assaulted or raped, and who may already have been nervous about coming forward. A New York Times story on Wednesday cited experts who said sexual assault reporting tends to drop off after a high-profile sex crime case fails.

Experts said rape crisis centers usually see a drop in reported cases in the aftermath of high-profile sexual assault cases, especially those in which the prosecution failed, like the case against Duke University lacrosse players; the recent acquittal, on the most serious charges, of two New York police officers who visited a drunk woman repeatedly in her apartment; and the William Kennedy Smith case in the 1990s.

More rapes go unreported than not: according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 6 in 10 sexual assaults are not reported, and just 6 percent of rapists serve jail time.

Douglas Wigdor, an attorney for Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel hotel housekeeper who says Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her, predicted such a drop-off when he talked to reporters in Paris on Tuesday. He said the case would have a "chilling effect" on rape victims everywhere. "There's no doubt in my mind that future victims will think twice, unfortunately, about coming forward when they are true victims because of something that might be in their past," he said, according to a National Public Radio transcript.

For those who advocate on behalf of the victims of sexual violence, the case sends a foreboding message. The Christian Science Monitor talked to one such advocate on Tuesday:

“It sends a very bad message to women who are vulnerable to any sexual abuse by men for sexual power,” says Yasmeen Hassan, the global director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization. “Unless you are Mother Teresa, don’t come forward in a case like this.”

Women may be hesitant to come forward because they fear they won't get justice unless they themselves have an unrealistically perfect history, wrote Joan Smith in The Independent.

The hunt for the ideal rape victim is never-ending but fruitless, for the simple reason that it requires unimpeachable conduct on the part of the victim in every area of her life, past and present. Women who have been drinking, who know their alleged attacker or who've ever told a lie to a public official, even in an unrelated matter, are not victims prosecutors want to put before juries. Bourke makes a similar point in her book: "Jurors, defence counsel and judges not only expect a much higher level of resistance than required by law, they also require a greater degree of consistency in rape testimonies than they require from victims of other violent crimes."

In vetting accusers, investigators for both prosecutors and defense attorneys may turn up chapters in a woman's past that she would rather keep closed. As Slate's Brian Palmer wrote on Wednesday, this is a necessary evil in the realm of rape prosecutions:

Prosecutors have to anticipate how the defense might attack an accuser's credibility and gather whatever evidence is relevant to those claims. In almost all cases, prosecutors perform a criminal background check on the accuser. They typically ask an alleged rape victim about her sexual history, and might interview third parties to corroborate her statements. In cases involving a wealthy defendant and a poor accuser, the defense usually argues that the alleged victim is out for money, and a good defense attorney might tip the prosecution off to some of the accuser's financial improprieties. When that happens, the prosecutors look into their star witness's financial background to see whether she's truly hard up for cash and whether she has pulled any scams in the past. If she won't hand over her records voluntarily, they seek a subpoena.

A civil rights lawyer who spoke with The Times reporter Cara Buckley made it clear that the process is just as bad as it sounds. "The victim is terribly, terribly tortured, at every level. First by the crime itself. And secondly by the system. There’s no escaping," Richard Emery said.

But the outcry from protesters who marched in front of the Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, calling for continuation of the prosecution, sent a message of support, and may help victims feel like they will have somebody to speak for them, should they decide to come forward, wrote Cheryl Thomas in NewsBeast:

The culture of silence is ending. There is more information about men and women, power and violence and a growing understanding that, above all, rape is a pervasive and violent crime that devastates women’s lives. In fact, a New York jury may have been ready to say: Enough, we don’t care about the mistakes this woman has made in the past, we care about the evidence of sexual assault. The DSK case might have been a tipping point in the U.S. We will never know. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.