When Powerful Men Are Accused of Rape

Lisa F. Jackson, director of the new HBO documentary, Sex Crimes Unit, talks about the arrest of the IMF chief, the evolution of New York's laws on rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

By Susan Toepfer
Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Photograph: Free Pictures Online

The May 15 arrest in New York City of International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault was another, brutal reminder of how widespread such acts are and how unlimited by class or culture. Although Strauss-Kahn has yet to stand trial for the accusations, which include the attempted rape of a hotel housekeeper, the event has brought forward a stunning history of sexual misconduct, including accounts that he pressured a subordinate to have an affair and attempted to sexually assault a young journalist.

    On June 20, HBO will debut Lisa F. Jackson’s documentary, Sex Crimes Unit, offering an unprecedented look at the workings of New York’s groundbreaking division of prosecutors, the first in the country to be devoted to such acts of violence. The film not only follows the current Sex Crimes team through their cases, but interviews legendary Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau (who founded the Unit with then-A.D.A. Leslie Crocker Snyder) and Linda Fairstein, who led the Unit from 1976 to 2002, prosecuting such high profile cases as the “Preppy Murder” and the “Central Park Jogger.”

     It took Jackson over a decade to gain access to the Sex Crimes Unit, whose work she has reason to appreciate on a deeply personal level: In 1976, while working in Washington, D.C., she was kidnapped and raped by three men; they were never apprehended. Here, Jackson, who also directed the award-winning documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, talks about the Strauss-Kahn arrest, her new film and the sexual victimization of women around the world.

MORE: I’m a bit confused: Your documentary is about the Sex Crimes Unit, but when we hear of arrests in New York City, we hear “Special Victims Unit.”

Lisa F. Jackson: The Special Victims Unit is the police department, like the TV show. The Sex Crimes Unit prosecutes those crimes. To make it even more confusing, they just started something within the Manhattan D.A.’s office called Special Victims Unit, but it incorporates elder abuse, child protection and sex crimes.

More: Okay, so it was the cops, the Special Victims Unit, who picked up IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the airport. There’s been a lot of criticism in France about the “perp walk,” showing him being led away in handcuffs.

LFJ: It’s such a cultural trope. The foreign press is up in arms because this is a country that presumes innocence, and marching you in handcuffs makes you seem guilty. Here, it’s not like you’re being prejudged, but I understand their concern. The photos carry weight.

More: I was actually more impressed that he was treated just like any other alleged rapist, that they didn’t hush it up or give him special privileges.

LFJ: I can’t imagine they would hush it up. This is a great collar for them. Oddly enough, he led them to him [by calling the hotel to retrieve his cell phone, and revealing he was at the airport]. What an idiot.

More: Do you think he thought he had diplomatic immunity?

LFJ: There’s no diplomatic immunity if you commit a capital offense. But he has a history of mistreating women, and he got away with it before.

More: If Strauss-Kahn is guilty of this rape, why did he think he could get away with it?

LFJ: He seems like a particularly pathological sociopath, and he seems to prey on people who are beneath him either in rank or in class. I wish the media would stop denigrating his accuser as a “chambermaid.” It’s a medieval term, and there’s something implied in that. She is a hotel employee. The other woman who is speaking out is a journalist who was 25 at the time she says she was attacked. So she was a naive 25-year-old journalist.

More: I was appalled to read, in the New York Daily News account, Strauss-Kahn described as a “frisky Frenchman.” I think an accusation of rape goes beyond “friskiness.”

First Published May 19, 2011

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