June 2, 2011 / Law & Justice, Safety, Sexism

Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Credible’ Rape Victim?


Republished from Huffington Post with the express permission of the author, Keli Goff. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

In the last few weeks I’ve learned a number of valuable lessons. Among them:

NYPD officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata leave Manhattan Supreme Court.

1) Apparently if you are poor, you should not expect to be taken seriously if you accuse someone who is not poor, of sexually assaulting you (or trying to).
2) Similarly, if you are powerless, you should not expect to be taken seriously if you accuse someone who is powerful of sexually assaulting you.
3) If you are intoxicated — at all — you should not expect the judicial system to take you seriously if you accuse someone of sexually assaulting you.
4) If you are worried that you are in a vulnerable state — intoxicated or otherwise — and therefore worried that you could find yourself in danger (of sexual assault or other bodily harm), don’t call the police.
5) If you do call the police, and they take advantage of you, don’t expect the judicial system to take your complaint seriously. (See numbers 1 through 4.)

I would like to thank the two (former) New York police officers who were supposed to be coming to the aid of an intoxicated woman, but instead admitted to “cuddling” with her in bed (but not “assaulting” her), for teaching me these valuable lessons. I’d also like to thank the jurors who acquitted them of the most serious charges they faced, stemming from that night.

And lastly, I’d like to thank the defenders of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for driving these points home through their endless efforts to trash and — and when that didn’t seem to work — buy off his accuser and her family (allegedly).

The treatment of both of these women — in one case, by the legal system and in both cases, by the media wild west of cyberspace — has left me with one question: Is there such a thing as a credible rape victim? Does she exist? Is there any woman on the planet whose word, reputation and behavior is considered beyond reproach enough that she can accuse someone in power of assaulting her and have a real shot at being taken seriously? Or should we just save ourselves some time and just make a rule right now, that only wealthy, tee-totaling nuns should be allowed to make sexual assault claims? Meaning the rest of us, should we find ourselves in harm’s way, will just be out of luck? (Click here to see a list of celebrities convicted of sex crimes.)

Now before I get inundated with scolding e-mails, yes I know that there are women who make and have made false assault claims. I find anyone who would do such a thing appalling and believe she should face serious punishment (including jail time) for doing so. But statistically we know that the pendulum tends to swing much further in the opposite direction — meaning many more sexual assaults go unreported than go over-reported, (despite the media frenzy that cases like the Duke Lacrosse scandal can generate.) The “cuddle cops” case is yet another reminder why so few survivors are willing to come forward.

The best-case scenario — the scenario that the officers’ own defense wants us to believe — is that police officers that were called to get a vulnerable woman home safely engaged in “cuddling,” groping and other inappropriate physical contact with her, while she was so intoxicated that she became sick. Despite the fact that one officer was caught on tape confirming to the accuser that he used a condom, he was acquitted of rape. I’m not exactly sure what he would have needed a condom for if he didn’t engage in any sexual activity with her, but I guess I wasn’t in the jury room to hear how this little detail was rationalized by those who acquitted him of the rape charge.

I can already hear the judgments of some. “No woman should be so intoxicated that she can’t fend for herself.” I will take this thought a step further and suggest that it’s probably best that no human being, male or female, get so intoxicated that he or she can’t fend for him or herself. Forget sexual assault. What about wandering into a street and getting hit by a car? And yet if a man were brutally beaten and mugged on his way out of a bar, why do I get the feeling that a jury wouldn’t have a tough time convicting the guys who were eventually caught with his wallet, regardless of how many drinks the victim had before they took it?

But the demonization of the victim in this case is not its most disturbing legacy. The trust that these officers have destroyed between future victims, and the men and women all of us should be able to trust the most — police officers — is. While I applaud the NYPD for swiftly terminating Officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata for disgracing their uniforms, I fear the damage has already been done. I know I’m not the only woman who will now think twice the next time I’m alone, it’s nighttime and I need help with anything, including getting home safely, and I see two male police officers.

After all, I’m not wealthy. I’m not powerful. I’m also not a nun. So chances are my word isn’t worth very much.

This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.

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  • Jen

    Nah. The media hates nuns, too.

  • anna

    Jen, good point. The media’s approach to nuns is rather like that: they must have so much repressed cravings for sex, that they certainly liked the adventure. no harm done.
    regarding strauss kahn, it seems the world around me has transformed in public defenders for strauss kahn and public accusers of the victim. the rape crime is discussed as right wing conspiracy. it seems like we are back in 2008.

  • Kali

    There is an interview with one of the jurors (a self-proclaimed feminist) of the NYC police rape case on Women’s Enews. I felt like going and banging my head against a wall after reading that interview. I think the problem goes much deeper than believing rape myths (she asked for it, she deserved it, etc.) or disbelieving the victim (she’s lying to get money, attention, revenge, etc.). The interviewed juror doesn’t seem to personally believe the rape myths or disbelieve the victim. The problem is that certain standards have been set for what constitutes reasonable doubt in a rape case which are significantly different than the standards for other cases. The burden of proof for rape cases has been set impossibly high. Photographic and testimonial evidence is not enough. DNA is a must. When DNA is present, then there is practically nothing (except death, or sometimes not even that) which can prove non-consent. She could have signs of injury (as in the Kobe Bryant case) but jurors are supposed to take that as a sign that she likes it rough without asking for any evidence from the defense. She could be unconscious (asleep, drunk etc.) but jurors are supposed to entertain the ridiculous notion that she consented in between blackouts. There is practically no possibility, however unrealistic and ridiculously improbable, that the jurors will not accept as constituting reasonable doubt.

    During the Kobe Bryant case, I remember commenting to a friend that if injury does not prove non-consent, what does? Since it is practically impossible to prove non-consent, isn’t it practically impossible to get a rape conviction? She just shrugged and said “I guess”. She didn’t seem to be bothered by that, which is astounding considering that she has a daughter.

  • Kali

    To add to the above, I think the only solution is to get rid of the consent defense (Mens Rea) or, at the very least, make it very difficult to use one.

  • anna

    Kali, consent would be both persons consent, not the guy claims after the crime.
    could we have some talk radio again, amy?
    may be Susan Estrich as guest to discuss what legal changes should be pushed politically?

  • marille

    slowly I am getting it, where this insistence on “forcible rape” comes from. if the victim is intoxicated by alcohol or drugs and can’t fight back, it wasn’t “forcible rape” and the rapists can get acquitted.

  • Henrietta

    We have blood alcohol levels for drunk driving. Most of the time we can assess when we have drunk too much to drive a car and often we can assess when someone else is too drunk to drive. And if we are not sure we often ask: are you okay to drive?

    I don’t think it’s a huge stress to ask men to decipher when a woman is too drunk to consent sex. Clearly, if a woman cannot make it from a cab to her apartment without help she is too drunk to consent sex. If a woman is passed out in her dorm room alone and yet the door is unlocked, she is too drunk to consent sex. If a woman cannot have a conversation because she is so inebriated she is too drunk to consent sex.

    I am ready to advocate for a blood alcohol level in which sex with a woman with a certain alcohol level would be undeniably rape.

    When men are as drunk as the victim in New York was on that terrible night, men cannot get it up and cannot have sex. There is a difference between drunken flirting and sexual activity after a few drinks ( in these situations it can indeed be consent) versus inebriation to the point of black outs. There is no consent in between black outs. Why is this so hard to understand? If our culture cannot understand this I am ready to legislate.

  • Kali

    Kali, consent would be both persons consent, not the guy claims after the crime.

    I agree, but Mens Rea specifically says that is not so. According to Mens Rea, it doesn’t matter whether she consented or not. What matters is whether *he* thought she consented or not. If he says he thought she consented, try disproving that, especially to a public that grew up marinating in porn that says that women like being abused, beaten, strangulated, even killed. It is truly sick.