The Cautionary Tale of Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Understanding the collapsing case against the former I.M.F. chief


A few days after then-International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York, a men's rights activist contacted me for advice on a campaign to raise awareness of false allegations of rape. I emailed back, "I'm not sure the timing is good, given the very high visibility of the Strauss-Kahn case (which seems genuine to me, though of course one never knows) and the extremely negative reaction, across the political spectrum, to his defenders' attempt to impugn the accuser's credibility." Just over a month later, the case against "DSK", as the economist and politician is known in France, seems to lie in a shambles—and nearly everyone who weighed in on the story early on may be up for a generous helping of crow.

The story was about much more than the particulars of one sexual assault case. When several prominent French intellectuals decried Strauss-Kahn's very public arrest as an outrage, the general American response was self-congratulatory. There was much praise for the American justice system in which a lowly chambermaid can be taken seriously when she complains of abuse by a rich and powerful man. There was also sharp criticism of French culture's backwardness in gender relations: the tendency to tolerate male sexual misconduct—including Strauss-Kahn's known history of aggressive unwanted advances toward women—and to see women as fair game for such behavior.

It was also reported that DSK's legal woes had triggered a much-needed feminist soul-searching in France. Perhaps the ignominious collapse of the case should occasion some soul-searching among Americans.

We may never know what happened in that hotel room between Strauss-Kahn and his accuser. There are many conflicting and confusing reports, including claims—vigorously disputed by the woman and her attorneys—that she had previously engaged in prostitution and continued to do so at the hotel where the prosecutors put her up. Yet at the very least, the new revelations cast doubt not only on the woman's general credibility but on her allegations. It seems that she did not, as she had claimed, hide until Strauss-Kahn had left and then report the alleged attack to a supervisor, but cleaned Strauss-Kahn's room and the adjoining suite. The next day, she was recorded in a telephone conversation with a jailed drug dealer, bragging about the money she could collect by pursuing charges.

In the admirable effort to ensure justice for rape victims—who have, historically, often faced demeaning treatment by the legal system—we have gone to the other extreme of embracing the dogma that women don't lie about rape. But some do, for various motives, from financial gain to revenge to mental illness. To acknowledge this is not misogynistic, just as it is not anti-male to acknowledge that some men rape women. Estimates of the prevalence of false reports vary widely, but the consensus is that they involve more than a tiny percentage of rape complaints.

If, as seems likely, the charges against Strauss-Kahn are dismissed, one could argue that the system has worked. But that discounts the damage of a false accusation, particularly when the accused is publicly paraded as a criminal. At least, with Strauss-Kahn, the story is big enough for the exoneration to be equally public. That is not always true.

In 1997, a New York entrepreneur, Paul Krauth, was charged with raping a woman he had met after an online correspondence. His arrest was reported on the front page of the Metro section of The New York Times, with a photo of Krauth in handcuffs. Then, a few days later, the charges were dropped after it turned out that the "victim" had left a message on his answering machine thanking him for a wonderful evening. The dismissal merited a small item inside the paper. The woman's name was not released.

Even today, sympathy for Strauss-Kahn is in short supply. (Of course, he has the bad luck of being a perfect villain for both left and right: a privileged male and an elitist French socialist intellectual.) Many point out that even the defense version—that the maid targeted Strauss-Kahn after he refused to pay her for a sexual act—paints him in a fairly unattractive light: he is still a married man who cheated on his wife, and a wealthy and powerful man who mistreated a poor woman.

This echoes comments made several years ago after the collapse of the headline-making rape case against three Duke University athletes accused of assaulting a stripper at a team party. When the young men were cleared, with the evidence strongly indicating that the woman's claim was a deliberate hoax, some feminists argued that they still deserved condemnation for hiring strippers in the first place. But this attitude is a troubling reversal of traditional prejudices under which rape victims found little sympathy if they were not paragons of virtue. A woman who is raped is a victim even if she is promiscuous. So is a falsely accused man even if he is a pig—or a French socialist.

By all accounts, attitudes toward sexual assault and harassment in France do need to change. But in this case, the American way is less a role model than a cautionary tale.

Cathy Young is a columnist at RealClearPolitics and a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.