The Double Standard of Sex Crimes

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Heidi Gutman / ABC / REUTERS

ABC's Robin Roberts talks with the alleged victim in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, Nafissatou Diallo, in New York City on July 24, 2011

Last night Nafissatou Diallo, the 32-year-old Sofitel employee who accused former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, took the unusual step of appearing on national TV before her criminal case had been settled. Because of this, the New York Post called her "the Blabber" and said she "suddenly and miraculously regained her memory of a conversation she said she had with Strauss-Kahn." I do not know whether she was brutally attacked, as she claims, or whether the sex between DSK and Diallo was consensual. But I do know this: neither her inconsistencies about what happened immediately afterward nor her decision to now go public should make us any more skeptical of her story.

Her critics are making a big issue of the fact that Diallo says Strauss-Kahn spoke to her during the encounter, reassuring her that she would not lose her job, whereas in hospital records it was noted that her attacker "said nothing to her during the incident." But if Diallo was truly attacked, it would be unusual for her to remember all the details in the right order and in a consistent way. After a sexual assault, a victim is very likely to be in a kind of altered state of shock. She may appear dissociated or hysterical or may alternate from one to the other. She may remember some of what occurred in bizarrely minute detail, while other facts remain hazy. Did he speak? Did she speak? What was said, and in what order? In Diallo's case, this experience could be expected to bring back earlier terrors — of the genital cutting she suffered at age 7, of her flight from a brutal regime. In seeking asylum, Diallo had hoped to spare her daughter a similar fate.

I know all this because I too was traumatized by sexual violence. In 1973, when I was 15 and my sister was a year younger, a stranger walked into our house with a gun and raped us. Afterward, I did not want to call the police. I was afraid that if the rapist ever got out of prison, he would kill us, and even more than that, I was ashamed. But my sister wisely insisted on calling the authorities.

However, the police did not believe us when we told them that the man who raped us was a stranger. The detectives were certain we were holding something back, they wrote in the file. In particular, they found my response strangely cold. When asked to write out what occurred, I wrote in an unemotional style in the form of a list. Our father, observing our apparent return to "normalcy," told the police we were "over it," and the police ceased their investigation four months after the crime occurred. The police eventually discovered that our perpetrator was a serial rapist of children, who attacked at least 44 girls ages 9 to 19.

I also understand Diallo's desire to tell her side of the story publicly, especially since doubts have been cast on it. In 2006 I requested a complete copy of the police report of my case and began my own investigation into what happened. Once I realized he had raped so many young women, I felt enraged that we were not believed. Although, like so many survivors of rape, I was reluctant to reveal my own victimization, an editor convinced me of the benefits of writing about it, and last year I published my account of the experience.

A person whose house is burgled or whose car is stolen can speak freely — and angrily — of the theft and expect to be believed. But women who are sexually assaulted are silenced by shame. There is no tradition of honor killing in the U.S. — we're far too civilized for that — but if a victim of rape goes public, she's seen as seeking publicity instead of retribution. If her story is inconsistent, we assume she is lying instead of suffering the aftereffects of trauma. If she is taller or bigger than her perpetrator, we assume she should have been able to shove the perpetrator off, even when doing so would mean losing her job, her freedom, possibly even her life. What we forget in drawing these conclusions is the impact of power and the impact of terror. When Diallo decided to move forward with her case, other alleged DSK victims came forward too. Her decision to now go public with her story may hurt her in court, but it could well protect future victims.

Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert, is a member of the Task Force on National Security and Law at the Hoover Institution and the author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror.