This is a guest post by Rebecca Nathanson. Rebecca Nathanson is student at NYU majoring in Journalism. She writes for NYU Local and rambles about life, feminism, and idealism on her blog. She enjoys dancing, running, drumming, traveling, leather jackets, and Cheerios. She also wants to be Jack White. Or Patti Smith.
Yesterday, I overheard two people discussing the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case on the train home from work. One man asked the other a fairly straightforward question: “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”
His reply? “It doesn’t matter. Her credibility is shot.”
That’s arguable. Yes, Nafissatou Diallo lied on her asylum application and yes, she claimed that her friend’s child was her own in order to get a bigger tax return. But does that mean that nothing she says can ever be trusted again? Not all crimes are created equal. The person who lies about her history and the person who lies about sexual assault are not one and the same. The former is desperate and unlawful; the latter is disgusting—and ruining it for everyone who isn’t lying when they charge someone with sexual assault or attempted rape.
This is as public as a sexual assault case can get, and the message that it is projecting is equally public, unfortunately. This is an opportunity for sexual assault victims to realize that there is something to be said for speaking up, but given Diallo’s previous indiscretions and the recent news that the court date has been pushed back from August 1 to August 23, the opposite effect is most likely to result because it seems increasingly probable that a hearing will never take place.
Many victims are already understandably scared to come forward and this case is only going to further prove to them that nothing good can come from putting your trust in the justice system. Going to court for sexual assault can be a draining, exposing, and frequently degrading experience for the accuser, and it is one that rarely ends favorably for her. We need people who are willing to face those odds because without them, there’s no hope of ever shifting the power.
The question of power, which is one that is always at the forefront of any sexual assault case, is especially prevalent in the case of DSK and Diallo, for obvious reasons: The accuser is an illiterate immigrant who worked as a housekeeper for $25/hour plus tips; the accused is the former chief of the International Monetary Fund and was previously considered a frontrunner for the French presidency. The upside is that his status has forced this case into the public consciousness, and with that has come the annihilation of the myth that sexism is no longer an issue; the downside is that it’s easy for the defense to use its power to discredit her by saying that it was consensual and that she’s looking for money. Her recent media appearances are, in the most evident way, helping DSK’s case: If Diallo is looking for money then publicity is a good strategy. However, they’re also sending the message to other victims of sexual abuse that coming forward is an act of extreme bravery, one that should be applauded. Unfortunately, the public reaction with which Diallo has been met is enough to make any victim brave enough to consider coming forward think twice. People are talking about how this story will affect the behavior of men who hold positions of power, but they are ignoring the effects that it will have on sexual assault victims who are watching a fellow victim speak up in the most public of ways—only to be met with skepticism and character accusations.
Diallo is one person and her experiences are personal and unique; she should not be made an example of, either positively or negatively, and she and this specific case should not bear the responsibility of representing a cause that they never asked to represent. But there is a difference between making an example out of someone and acknowledging the lasting repercussions that her case will have on similar issues.
The international scope of this story cannot be underestimated. For many people who do not actively follow feminist politics, this is the most exposure to these issues that they’ve probably ever had. It’s a shame that what this story is exposing are the consequences of, and the stigmas associated with, speaking up and pressing charges, rather than the potentially positive results.