Why Must We Speculate About Sexual Assault?

As the criminal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn remains in limbo, a number of outsiders are weighing in with what they think must have happened in the Sofitel room. The latest: "something neither violent nor completely consensual." But why are we so compelled to come up with our own versions of an event we didn't witness?

Vanessa Grigoriadis handily summed up this compulsion in a New York story we discussed last week:

There is still no consensus in the city about what happened between Strauss-Kahn and Diallo, and everyone seems to believe that their version of events is absolutely correct.

Of course there's no consensus, since no one — with the exception of Strauss-Kahn and Diallo themselves — was there. Yet speculation continues apace. Also last week, a woman identified as Marie-Victorine M., who says she had a (consensual) affair with Strauss-Kahn, offered her perspective to a Swiss magazine:

When I read the first articles in the American press containing for example the detail that he was supposed to have taken his presumed victim from behind, that encouraged me to believe this woman [...] I think he's a man who loves sex, who has a big sexual appetite, so, actually, maybe he went a little too far — a lot too far. And I am convinced that in his heart he's deeply persuaded that he's not guilty.

M at least knew Strauss-Kahn and may have some personal insight into his behavior. Stuart Taylor Jr., writing at The Atlantic, professes no such closeness. And yet he has an even more detailed theory of what happened on May 14. Citing Diallo's "history of telling vivid and compelling lies" and "the inherent implausibility of her claim that a man she had never met suddenly rushed in naked from the bathroom while she was cleaning his suite, attacked her like a madman, and forced her without a weapon to perform oral sex," he opines,

Of course I'll never know whether this encounter was entirely consensual. But I strongly believe that Diallo is at least overstating Strauss-Kahn's alleged brutality, and that there is plenty of reason to believe that this was not a violent sexual assault at all.

At the same time, the defense version of events is also rather implausible. The notion that Diallo would willingly perform oral sex on a complete stranger, in the space of less than eight minutes, strains credulity.

I speculate that something neither violent nor completely consensual happened, such as an aggressive attempt at seduction to which she consented for fear of angering a wealthy hotel guest. If so, Strauss-Kahn's conduct was deplorable—but was not the forcible sexual assault with which he has been charged.

Others have taken his argument apart point-by-point, but I remain stuck on Taylor's need to create a story to explain DSK and Diallo's conflicting claims. Taylor places great emphasis on reasonable doubt — he writes, "the judgment underlying the criminal justice system's reasonable-doubt rule is that — as terrible as it is for a victim (especially of a sex crime) to see a criminal escape punishment — it is far, far worse for an innocent person to be convicted of a crime." His whole argument is that the circumstances of the case make it impossible to determine for sure what happened in the hotel room. And yet he goes on to offer his very specific description of just that.

It's a natural enough impulse — it's becoming increasingly likely that the criminal case will fall apart, and that we'll be left with two conflicting accounts and no resolution. Nobody likes uncertainty, and we like our stories to have heroes, villains, and morals. In the case of rape, many seem to search for something else, too: a story that excuses the perpetrator, that reduces the crime to some sort of misunderstanding, that restores the fiction that only "a madman" would force someone to have sex against her will. That fiction may be comforting, but it's also dangerous, because it protects the many rapists who are successful, ordinary-seeming, and sane. And it asks victims to prove that their rapists are monsters, when, sadly, they're always human beings.

Drop The DSK Charges [Atlantic]