It's a well-known story. An international celebrity or politician is caught in a sex scandal. Soon, all the details of the affair make their way into the media, along with photos, videos, and detailed transcripts of text messaging and phone calls.
In May of 2011, Dominque Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and the presumed next president of France, was indicted by a New York grand jury after his dramatic arrest five days earlier on an Air France plane about to leave from Kennedy Airport. Charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan, Strauss-Kahn was whisked off the plane by New York police officers and imprisoned in Rikers Island. The hotel maid, who was granted political asylum allowing her to emigrate to the U.S. from Guinea, had reported the incident to her supervisor, who in turn alerted the police. Strauss-Kahn's case never made it to trial, but in the ensuing months, the entire world knew about his sexual preferences, previous indiscretions, and much more.
Strauss-Kahn's travails are now fading from memory, but the next sex scandal is only days (or perhaps moments) away. We certainly will be treated soon enough to torn panty hose, stained dresses, and X-rated sexting images.
Returning to the Strauss-Kahn case, however, think about how the details of this shocking case spilled out throughout the media and eventually found their way onto primetime TV. Fans of the fictional Law and Order SVU team saw a fictional re-enactment of the case in the season opener last fall. Whether accurate or not, viewers had the chance to see what might have happened in the interview rooms as the real SVU detectives attempted to extract the truth out of Strauss-Kahn and then later, out of the victim. The case had all the elements of a typical SVU episode: a wealthy and powerful accused rapist, a hard-working immigrant victim, a political mess that threatens the career of the District Attorney, worldwide press coverage, and evolving facts about the case that lead to an infinite number of twists and turns in the plot. Unlike its fictional re-enactment, however, the case was bound to go on for more than 60 minutes.
Not only will the actual case inevitably be left with many loose ends, but as it is unfolding, it is doing so in ways that seem counter to laws developing over the past several decades intended to protect victims from "badgering" by defense attorneys. Criticized for not ascertaining properly her credibility, for example, prosecutors responded by grilling her to the point that her 9-year-old son could hear their yelling from outside the interview room.
The issue is not whether a sexual encounter took place. A wealthy and powerful older middle-aged married man either forced himself on or engaged in a mutually agreed-upon sexual act with a much younger hotel maid. He then packed up his bags, left to have lunch with his daughter, and boarded a plane back to his wife and prominent position in France. The issue is who is lying, and how much.
As the victim's story changed, and the case started to disintegrate, the French were outraged at the Americans for parading Strauss-Kahn in front of the international press, unshaven and in prison garb. They seemed particularly incensed about his being improperly groomed. The French press has accused the American press of capitalizing on the sensationalism of the case and the New York police as acting too hastily. Strauss-Kahn's popularity in France now seems back on the upswing and citizens are eagerly awaiting his return home. However, the story in France is taking its own twists. Tristine Banon, a French journalist, was afraid to come forward precisely to avoid having her reputation besmirched. After eight years, however, she has now revealed the details of his attempted rape against her and is lodging a complaint. Up for grabs is the question of whether French women will be emboldened by these incidents and become more likely to come forward when they are assaulted. Conversely, men may become emboldened by the crumbling case against Strauss-Kahn because they know that potential victims will have every aspect of their lives scrutinized?
What does psychology have to offer in understanding this complex international mess? Among the many factors that we could analyze, two stand out. The first concerns lying. As the great psychologist Dr. Gregory House (okay, he's fictional) stated: "Everybody lies." However, there's plenty of research to back up this claim. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman, author of "The Liar in Your Life" has spent decades conducting research on lying in everyday life and concluded that, sadly, most people do lie. Thr lies may be small and they may be made to protect someone's feelings, but they're so constant as to be almost imperceptible. We lie all the time and we don't know it. Often, the lies don't have any ill effects, and may even save a relationship if not someone's job. However, when the lies take on legal consequences, the stakes can become a life-and-death matter. Unfortunately, there are no reliable ways to detect lying. Facial cues can be helpful-- the so-called "micro-expressions" of fear may suggest there's a liar talking to you. But a good liar knows this and can control even these subtle cues. As a liar's story becomes more polished, these micro-expressions invariably disappear entirely.
Psychology also tells us a second key point that gives us insight into the Strauss-Kahn case. The chances of a man committing a rape are much higher if he ascribes to so-called "rape myths," the belief that "when women say no, they mean yes." Items on German psychologist Gerd Bohner's Rape Myth Acceptance Scale tap into these beliefs with items such as: "Many women secretly desire to be raped;" "It is usually only women who dress suggestively that are raped;" and "A lot of women lead a man on and then they cry rape."
Social psychologists Renae Franiuk and colleagues (2008) collected 555 newspaper stories covering the Kobe Bryant rape case which they rated for the extent to which they conveyed rape myths. 154 undergraduate students read a sample of these headlines, and then were tested for their beliefs about the guilt or innocence of Kobe Bryant. The male college student participants exposed to myth-endorsing headlines were both less likely to think Bryant was guilty than those exposed to non-myth headlines. After reading the headlines, they were also more likely to hold rape-supportive attitudes than those exposed to non-myth headlines. Female participants were not affected by myth-endorsing headlines.
Unfortunately, as the Strauss-Kahn case unraveled, rape myths began to surface in media portrayals of the victim, potentially undoing educational efforts to sensitize men and women to these insidious and harmful beliefs. Should news outlets have been more circumspect about their treatment of the victim, or would this have constituted censorship. How much can, and should, media outlets prevent these details from surfacing and perhaps being distorted?
If you are interested in learning more about psychology's insights into the causes of rape, consider these points:
1. Belief in rape myths increases a man's proclivity to rape. Protection of women from rape means being aware of the prevalence of these myths in our society.
2. Rape is an expression of power, not sexuality. Psychologists have known for decades that the motive behind rape is not a desire for sexual fulfillment.
3. Date rape is common among college-aged women, and alcohol is usually a factor. The U.S. Department of Justice provides an excellent source of information about this form of rape and how it can be prevented.
4. Evolutionary explanations of rape should be questioned. As evolutionary psychology gains in popularity, claims are surfacing that aggression toward women has some sort of genetic basis. With rape myths so prev alent in society, it's not necessary to turn to theories stating that this behavior is somehow hard-wired.
5. Prevention and education can work. Check out "The Men's Program," a peer-based intervention shown to reduce rape proclivity by describing a male-on-male rape experience designed to teach men how a rape might feel.
Whatever the facts of the matter, which we may never know, as the spotlight falls on the housekeeper's past, future victims will inevitably be more fearful of stepping forward. Psychology provides evidence that responsible reporters should attend to; let's hope that they do.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
Franiuk, R., Seefelt, J. L., & Vandello, J. A. (2008). Prevalence of rape myths in headlines and their effects on attitudes toward rape. Sex Roles, 58, 790-801.