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On May 14th, a troubling incident occurred in an expensive hotel room in Manhattan. International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly assaulted a hotel maid, a 32-year old widowed single mother from Guinea who ran sobbing in terror from her attacker’s room. Strauss-Kahn, who is married and the father of four daughters, was charged with six offenses including criminal sexual act, attempted rape, and unlawful imprisonment. He was released on bail and awaits trial in the United States. Strauss-Kahn has enjoyed numerous defenders, including French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, while the media has focused largely on the geopolitical future of the IMF.
Earlier this year, in March, a young woman and her companion were detained in Tijuana, Mexico on unspecified charges. In exchange for not being arrested, the woman was asked to perform a lap dance on video for fifteen police officers, three of whom were women. (Not that the women officers’ presences should surprise us, given the horror of Abu Ghraib.) In the film, the woman in police custody removes her clothing and, half-naked, climbs up onto a table, where she is “groped” and “touched” by male police officers who laugh and joke. The newspaper El Mexicano initially published the video, while still photos from the footage circulate through various media. Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante suspended the officers for “loss of confidence” and “immoral behavior.”
Although the details and perpetrators of these incidents are quite different, the women in these stories—a young police detainee in Tijuana and a hotel maid in Manhattan—share a glaring similarity. Both women have much less power, and much less social and cultural capital, than their alleged assailants. While some progressive commentators have framed these power differentials in terms of global injustice, evoking a neo-colonial narrative, zealous conservatives such as Ann Coulter have found “L’Affaire DSK” to be a laughing matter. Lost in much of the coverage, however, are the women themselves, who ultimately are relegated to back-story for the more fascinating details of IMF policy, foreign relations, or the unfortunate behavior of famous men.
Yet in the United States alone, every two minutes somebody is sexually assaulted. Over 90 percent of the victims are girls and women. One in six women in the United States has been sexually assaulted; 60 percent of rapes are not reported. Almost all perpetrators, about 99 percent, are men. It is all too easy to frame rape solely in terms of sex: consider the proliferation of huge, bold tabloid headlines screaming SEX CRIME! But characterizing these crimes as sex immediately throws both victims and perpetrators into a preexisting cultural script about heterosexual relations. If rape is just a different, more aggressive kind of sex, then such issues as the victim’s behavior or dress or attractiveness are deemed relevant. As is her level of resistance: “she wanted it;” “she asked for it;” “she said no but meant yes;” “she didn’t struggle enough.”
In our view, the terms “rape” and “sexual violence” are both more accurate and more useful than the term “sex crime.” Further, and consistent with contemporary social science and feminist scholarship, we insist that sexual violence is about power. But in claiming that women victims have less power than their male assailants, we are not simply referring to physical power or interpersonal power. We are referring more broadly to the ways that sexual violence against women and girls is fundamentally structured into social life, including gender relations, economic relations, family dynamics, cultural representations, and the criminal justice and legal systems. Thus, sexual assault is neither an aberration nor an abrupt tear in the social fabric. It is, rather, a routine fact of social life. Indeed, the real puzzle is that acts of sexual violence, including celebrated incidents such as the DSK scandal, manage to surprise anyone at all.
Some commentators seem to think that sexual violence-free zones exist, in which men are angels (or saviors) and women and girls are immune from harm. Former presidential speechwriter and actor Ben Stein, in his thinly veiled defense of Strauss-Kahn, wonders without irony whether anyone can recall other economists convicted of crimes of sexual violence. He muses, “Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?” Comedian Jon Stewart, in a brilliant episode, skillfully denounces both Lévy and Stein, and provides a list of economists who have indeed been charged (and prosecuted) for sex crimes. It has not escaped our attention that just two weeks after the DSK incident, an Egyptian banker was arrested for sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York.
We need to move beyond the shock and titillation of sex crimes. We need to move beyond any scintilla of belief that some men—elite economists, for example—couldn’t possibly be perpetrators and some women—prostitutes, for example, or wives—couldn’t possibly be victims. Haven’t the scandals involving Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, Peace Corps workers, heads of state, and UN Peacekeepers taught us at least this? Haven’t the statistics and personal accounts and visual evidence of the sexual victimization of half of humanity—from infant girls to the most fragile elderly women—taught us at least this? The ubiquity of sexual violence points to some very stark realities about the mundane lives of “ordinary” women and girls, and men and boys.
Of course, some women and girls are especially vulnerable to attack, and we should not ignore the sociopolitical factors that increase their risk. Nor should we overlook the fact that the victimization of some groups goes largely unnoticed or is simply ignored by the media and the general public.
William Simmons and Michelle Tellez conducted a study in Arizona and northern Mexico that documented the multiple sexual victimizations endured by undocumented migrant women and girls on their journeys to the United States. Though this phenomenon is shockingly widespread and fairly well documented, it is rarely reported in the mainstream media or even among scholars. While estimates of prevalence are difficult to verify, it is clear that hundreds if not thousands of migrants are the victims of violent sexual assaults each year in Arizona. If such crimes were perpetrated against Anglos, or citizens, or visitors from Europe, or just about anyone other than poor, Latina, undocumented migrants, it would be front-page news for weeks.
Far more is known about the horrendous sexual violence in the Eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo than is known about the crimes against migrant women and girls in the United States. Somehow it is easier on our consciences to show outrage at the mass rapes in Eastern Congo than it is to pay attention to chronic sexual violence perpetrated against our migrant neighbors. Clearly, as media coverage of the DSK scandal has illustrated, it is a more intriguing spectacle to focus on sexual violence (allegedly) committed by a high-ranking French economist than to focus on an epidemic of terror and violence in our own communities.
When we interrogate which sexual assaults receive our collective attention, we learn a great deal about not only the prevalence of sexual violence but also about ourselves: about which criminals stand out as outliers (e.g., Angela Davis’ “myth of the Black rapist”), and which victims are worthy of our sympathies (e.g., the “innocent” women who don’t “ask for it”). We learn, too, about our political will (or lack thereof) and our limited tolerance for the painful, traumatic, ugly and not merely spectacular aspects of sexual violence.
And the victims in the stories we noted earlier? The unnamed woman in Tijuana has quickly disappeared from the media—although not from the lap-dance video, which is now evidence and has “gone viral.” And new details continue to emerge about the Manhattan hotel maid’s traumatic ordeal, including physical evidence such as blood and semen implicating Strauss-Kahn in the attack.
Somebody should let Ben Stein know.
William Paul Simmons is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the M.A. program in Social Justice and Human Rights at Arizona State University. His research is highly interdisciplinary relying on numerous methodologies including theoretical, legal, and empirical approaches to social justice and human rights issues. His forthcoming book, Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other (Cambridge University Press), examines the potential for reinvigorating human rights law from the perspectives of marginalized peoples. He has done extensive work on human rights issues in Mexico and at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as in China and Africa. He is currently co-editing a cutting-edge book on localizing human rights in the U.S.-Mexico context; the book includes a chapter he co-authored with Michelle Tellez on sexual violence against migrant women, the most in-depth study thus far on this topic. He has also published law review articles and a book chapter on violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. At ASU, he has been the lead coordinator of his campus’ signature annual Border Justice event as well as the organizer of numerous other social justice symposia.