Does the Reaction to IMF Rape Charges Show Progress?

International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn is being held without bail in Manhattan today on charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment. The powerful French politician is accused of confining a maid in an upscale New York hotel and sexually abusing her on Saturday afternoon.

Theories of a plot to defame the beloved Socialist party politician–who was touted to become the next president of France–began swirling almost immediately after the allegations were made public. Just as sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were dismissed by his supporters last year, Strauss-Kahn’s allies have argued that the charges against him are part of a sting operation, perhaps by political opponents bent on derailing Strauss-Kahn’s surging career.

Said Christine Boutin, head of France’s Christian Democratic Party: “That he could be taken in like that seems astounding, so he must have been trapped.”

However, previously silent survivors have come forward in the last two days to report stories of sexual abuse by Strauss-Kahn. Tristane Banon, the daughter of a local Socialist party politician, says she was sexually assaulted by the former IMF chief in 2002 after contacting him for a book she was writing. During their interview, she says, “He wanted to grab my hand while answering my questions, and then my arm. We ended up fighting, since I said clearly, ‘No, no.’ We fought on the floor, I kicked him, he undid my bra, he tried to remove my jeans.” Banon says she didn’t come forward at the time of the assault because, “I didn’t want to be known to the end of my days as the girl who had a problem with the politician.” Now she is pressing charges.

But despite the skepticism about the charges from some of Strauss-Kahn’s allies, this case may represent a turn in the public response to international sex crimes accusations. In 2009, when film director Roman Polanski was arrested on 30-year-old charges of statutory rape, celebrity friends rushed to take Polanski’s side, saying the incident couldn’t be consideredrape-rape” and shouldn’t be treated as such. And just last year, when left-wing hero Assange was arrested by Interpol on rape charges, feminist author Naomi Wolf was among the first to come to his defense, dismissing the accusations as “personal injured feelings.”

But in this case, arguments that Strauss-Kahn is the victim of a sting have been quickly dismissed. Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist who studies the French left-wing, says, “If all this was a trap, he wouldn’t have fled in a panic.” The mainstream media have also acknowledged Strauss-Kahn’s poor reputation with women, saying he is too “insistent” and often “comes close to harassment”–a change from many previous cases where rape accusations against beloved figures are immediately assumed to be false. And the IMF acted immediately, removing Strauss-Kahn from his top-level position, which shows that the organization is taking the case seriously. So perhaps this case sends a new signal about rape cases: If charges against an internationally revered figure are to be taken seriously, so too should rapes by average people in regular communities.

Above: IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, photo via Wikimedia Commons under CC 2.0


Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.