A vulnerable voice is heard

They listened to the woman. That is the most remarkable part of the sordid sex scandal ensnaring Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who stands accused of attacking a maid in a New York hotel room.

Powerful men have always manhandled vulnerable woman and gotten away with it. Victims often chose silence over justice because they feared that the criminal system would reject their accusations or, worse yet, blame them for the assault.

The “blame the victim” syndrome is so pervasive that even an honorable institution like the Peace Corps fell into that pattern. A former volunteer, Karestan Koenen, recently told a congressional hearing that after she was raped in the African country of Niger, the official investigating the case told her, “I am so sick of you girls going out with men, drinking and dancing, and then when something happens, you call it rape.”

“The treatment by the Peace Corps was worse than the rape,” said Koenen. If you replace “Peace Corps” with “military” or “university” or “police” or almost any other institution in our society, Koenen’s statement would apply to countless women who have been victimized twice: by a man who felt free to assault them and a system that felt free to ignore them.



So the events in New York represent real change. The alleged victim had the courage to speak out. Her bosses took her seriously. The cops pulled Strauss-Kahn off a plane 10 minutes before it left for Paris. The district attorney charged him with attempted rape. The judge denied him bail.

Lawyers for Strauss-Kahn, a major figure in French politics known as DSK, claim he’s innocent. But an assistant DA gave the court a graphic account: “The defendant restrained a hotel employee inside of the room. He sexually assaulted her and attempted to forcibly rape her.” For emphasis, he added: “The victim provided very powerful details consistent with violent sexual assault committed by the defendant.” Forensic evidence supported her “version of events.”

Strauss-Kahn has gotten away with abusive behavior for years, protected by a French code that tolerates – and even admires – potent politicians. He clearly follows the ancient tradition of “droit de seigneur” (yes, ironically, a French phrase) that literally means “the right of the lord.” In medieval times, a nobleman could claim the virtue of his vassals’ daughters. In the modern version, a hotel maid will do if no virgins or vassals are handy.

After years of coverups, the stories are now spilling out. Actress Danielle Evenou said on French radio, “Who hasn’t been cornered by Dominique Strauss-Kahn?” Writer Tristane Banon claims he came after her “like a chimpanzee in heat” during a 2002 interview. As she told French TV, “I kicked him several times, he unbuttoned my bra ... and tried to unzip my jeans.”

On the advice of her own mother, an official in DSK’s Socialist party, Banon never filed a complaint. “I didn’t wish to be the girl who had a problem with a politician for the rest of my life,” she explained. But her lawyer says she is now likely to bring charges because “she knows she’ll be heard and she knows she’ll be taken seriously.” That’s progress.

Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian economist at the IMF, consented to a brief affair with Strauss-Kahn but felt she had no choice, given his stature and influence over her career. In a letter to the fund’s board, she echoed the lament of many women faced with a predatory boss: “I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.”

Any American who wants to feel superior to the French should stifle the impulse. As that congressional hearing revealed, the Peace Corps has a poor record in dealing with sexual abuse. According to an ABC investigation, more than a thousand volunteers reported attacks between 2000 and 2009, but many others stayed silent because the Corps’ response to their complaints was often “callous, dismissive or woefully insufficient,” according to Koenen, the former volunteer.

The army, if anything, is even more protective of predators. A recent lawsuit filed by 17 female soldiers against Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleges that they “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted ... in which plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation ... and ordered to keep quiet.”

We don’t expect the world to change because one brave woman refused to keep quiet, and one powerful man found himself in a Manhattan courtroom, facing the consequences of his actions. But it’s a start.

Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2011, Steven and Cokie Roberts

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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