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The Girl with the Politician Problem

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

"I didn't wish to be the girl who had a problem with a politician for the rest of my life."

So said Tristane Banon, in explaining why she didn't file charges nine years ago against Socialist politician and current International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It was her mother, Anne Mansouret, also a Socialist politician, who advised her against it. As Mansouret recounted the conversation, she told her daughter:

"Listen, you know, if he had raped you, I wouldn't have any hesitation, but that wasn't the case. He sexually assaulted you; there wasn't any rape per se. So until the end of your life, you're going to have on your resume, you know, Tristane Banon is the girl who..."

I don't blame Mansouret in the least. Many parents have trouble when their children are sexually assaulted. When I was raped, my mother told me not to tell anyone or no man would have me. I didn't listen to the first part, but I am sure I internalized the second.

When my students or former students come to me asking whether they should file discrimination cases against powerful men who have harassed them or worse, I always tell them -- as Mansouret did -- that just because they are telling the truth does not mean they won't be branded as a troublemaker or worse. Fair warning.

But I also tell them that if they have the courage to do it (and no one has an obligation to be a hero after they've been victimized), they may end up saving the lives or sanity of the women who would come next, to whom he would do the same thing, even if they never know that -- even the women, like Banon, who were allegedly assaulted years earlier.

There are some men who are only abusive once, or only abusive to one particular woman. But in my experience, that is the exception rather than the rule. Nothing comes out until the first woman speaks up, and then you just wait.
Banon is speaking out because a hotel maid in New York City did.

Maybe the maid, unlike Banon and her mother, didn't know how important the man was. Maybe she didn't care. Maybe she understood something basic that the highly educated big shot didn't: Just because your job is to clean his room and his is to manage billions does not mean he is one bit better than you. It does not mean he has a right to strip you of your dignity and integrity. It does not mean you are nothing and he is something.

This is how so many women feel after being sexually assaulted. Like nothing. Stripped not only of their clothes, but of their self-esteem. We survive. We do our best to recover. But sometimes -- like when I find myself terrified that my daughter is going far away to intern this summer -- I wonder if I would have grown up to be a different person, a less anxious and terrified person, if I'd never been raped. I wonder if I would see the world as less hostile and less scary if the alley behind my apartment had not turned out to be the scariest place of all. I wonder what it would have been like to live all these years without my mother's words echoing in my head.

In the early rounds of interviews, there has been much talk of the danger of false reports in rape cases. There are false reports, and it is wrong and indeed criminal. But by every academic estimate, we're talking about a range of 2 percent to 8 percent -- absolutely no different than any other crime.

What is different about rape is not that women lie in reporting, but that so many women bury the truth and never do. The system is set up -- not just in rape cases but in every case -- to screen out false reports. It is not set up to solicit the true ones.

Every individual is entitled to the presumption of innocence, including Strauss-Kahn. The danger in rape cases is that false accusations are so difficult to rebut, and a reputation so difficult to reclaim. That's why the prosecutorial screening process is important. But the greater danger is just how difficult it is to stand up in the true cases.

According to the prosecuting attorney, who convinced the judge to hold Strauss-Kahn without bail, the defendant attacked the maid in his room, restrained her, attempted to rape her and ultimately forced her to perform oral sex (which is also rape). She immediately went to hotel officials (he rushed out), and was examined, and forensic evidence was collected that is said to be consistent with her account.

"We are in pain. ... She's a wonderful, hardworking woman," said her brother. He and her daughter are the only family she has in this country.

In the 35 years that I have been studying rape law, I have seen and heard of unimaginable things done to innocent people. Rape victims, overwhelmingly, are vulnerable women -- financially and emotionally. But what strikes me most is not the brutality of the men, but the courage of the women. This week, that includes a maid at a fancy hotel in New York who was just trying to do her job.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

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