The XX Factor

The Credibility of Rape Accusers

Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

Jessica, I agree that the Newsweek story definitely reaffirmed that Nafissatou Diallo’s claims sound plausible, and she should be allowed her day in court.  I have a couple of concerns about the defense statements in the public, as well.  I’m particularly confused by how they focus on the timeline, in order to suggest that it was too short a period of time to rape a woman.  Well, the defense admits that sex happened; why would it take less time to have a consensual encounter with a complete stranger than it would be to rape a stranger?  If anything, I’d think rape would take less time, since you don’t have to go through that pesky “obtaining consent” phase.  I’m also withholding judgment on a statement where she acknowledged Strauss-Kahn’s money, which could mean a million different things, depending on the context. I’m sure that 100% of people who had fair judgments resulting in compensation for being victimized discussed the possibility of this with a friend prior to the judgment. 

I want to speak briefly on this ambiguous concept of “credibility,” and who has it in our society and who doesn’t, and under what circumstances. For reasons of sexism and our discomfort with acknowledging how common sexual abuse really is, women complaining about rape tend to be held to a much higher standard of credibility than people complaining of any other crime.  At Jezebel, Anna North has been reporting on a rape case where the police have a written admission of guilt from the rapist, but the prosecution decided not to go forward because they know the trial won’t be about what the rapist did, but whether or not the victim was good enough to deserve the law’s protection against rape.  The victim in this case had sexual contact with the man who assaulted her after the fact, which is a common reaction of someone in shock and who is afraid for her safety, but is usually held against victims by juries who believe anything short of putting yourself in grave physical danger to fight your attacker off means you didn’t work hard enough to deserve not to be raped.  Additionally, the victim in this case claims that the prosecutor declined to press charges because the victim’s history of mental helath issues would be held against her credibility.  I’m struggling to imagine a similar situation where a prosecutor declines to press charges after someone goes to a friend’s house, gets a beatdown by the host, and waits for an hour for the host to calm down before making their escape.  But for some reason, the same kind of attacks are viewed very differently when sex is the weapon and the victim has indicated that she, like the vast majority of women, isn’t opposed to having consensual sex under more pleasant circumstances.  

Part of me wonders how this discussion would also go down if the positions were reversed, and a wealthy white European traveler showed up at the hospital with injuries and semen on her from a hotel employee, all while complaining he forced her to perform oral sex on  him.  I imagine very differently, though in most ways it would probably be just as messed up with people’s prejudices and loyalties.  But as a thought experiment, it might clarify the many ways that we as a culture just aren’t prepared to deal somberly with rape in the same way we deal with less politically provocative crimes.