Few cases start off as clear-cut as the one against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the newly resigned International Monetary Fund chief who is now facing rape charges in Manhattan. A cleaning woman told police that Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her when she walked into his hotel suite at Sofitel New York on the afternoon of May 14. She fled and told fellow employees, who called 911.
But the clarity was quickly muddied. Strauss-Kahn's attorney indicated that his client would claim any sex act was consensual. The press began to question the accuser's honesty: Strauss-Kahn, who was the front-runner for the Socialist Party's nomination for president in his home country of France, floated the idea that there was a plot to bring him down, and the press here and in France happily ran with it. Indeed, the French treated the whole case with a dismissive attitude. Jack Lang, former French President Francois Mitterrand's minister of culture, called it "overblown": "Really, nobody died in that hotel room."
It's a depressingly familiar path for a rape case to follow, especially in 2011. More than 30 years ago, feminists, rape survivors, activists, and prosecutors led an effort to change the way we talk about and prosecute rapes, and many of the reforms this movement inspired -- including rape shield laws, support services for rape victims, and prohibitions against publishing names and identifying details of rape victims -- have been in place for a generation. But they're neither preventing rapes nor improving outcomes for victims, because the reforms haven't done much to change the way we think about sex.
Before the late 1970s, rape was narrowly defined, and defense attorneys could introduce a female victim's sex history to discredit her story. In some states, husbands couldn't be found guilty of raping their wives, and some state courts required corroborating witness testimony.
Then, a series of feminist texts and high-profile cases highlighted the country's rape problem. In 1983, a 21-year-old woman was gang-raped by four men on a pool table in a bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts, while other patrons watched. The defense attorney suggested that the woman shouldn't have been in the bar alone and that she had enjoyed the sex. The bartender testified, "I had a bad impression of the girl," and one of the accused said, "She was, you know, willing." The case became the gold standard in victim-blaming.
By the mid-1980s, most states had passed rape shield laws that prevent defense attorneys from questioning an alleged rape victim about her sexual history unless it is relevant. Many states also expanded the definition beyond forced penetration to include cases in which the victim was too impaired by alcohol or drugs to give consent. Penal codes established a stepped system that reduced penalties for some types of rapes in order to increase conviction rates. News outlets stopped publicizing the names of accusers. Advocates hoped these changes would increase the rates at which victims reported rapes and make convictions easier and court less traumatizing for victims.
But the changes failed to accomplish all that much. Today, rape remains one of the least-reported crimes. Of the roughly 200,000 sexual assaults that occur during a year, only about 40 percent are reported to law enforcement, and many victims say they fear being blamed by others. Only 13 percent of rapes result in conviction.
Last year, the Women's Law Project testified to Congress that police still routinely reject victims' accounts as untrue or misclassify rapes as misdemeanors. The project found that since 2000 in Philadelphia alone, 681 cases were misclassified and 1,700 sex crimes that should have been investigated were not.
Juries often don't believe the word of the victim without corroborating evidence. Rapes don't always cause physical injuries, but a 2003 study found higher conviction rates when there was gynecological trauma than when there wasn't. Most cases, though, involve only the victim's word against that of her alleged assailant, which is an especially high hurdle to climb in cases involving alcohol. A New York City woman accused two police officers of raping her after they were called to help her home because she was intoxicated. During trial this May, she was questioned about her sexual history and her familiarity with different types of sex. The officers were acquitted on the rape charges.
All of this just hints at the types of questions Strauss-Kahn's accuser will endure if her case goes to trial. It's been a tough road already. Her attorney, Jeffrey Shapiro, told The Telegraph: "Since this has occurred, she's not been able to go home, can't go back to work. She's no idea what her future is going to be, in any respect."