Talk by Cath Elliott and Douglas Wigdor
You can listen to the talk [56MB MP3, 1h18m] by Cath Elliott, trade union activist and journalist, and Douglas Wigdor, attorney for Nafissatou Diallo in the civil case against Strauss-Kahn, speaking about the political realities of sexual violence.
The CUSU Women’s Campaign and friends call on the Cambridge Union Society to disinvite Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Read the open letter we are sending them if you are interested, and sign the petition in support of this statement. Rape survivors do not get this kind of platform, and it is time that we listened to them.
Dear Cambridge Union Society Committee,
The Cambridge Union Society’s decision to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak this term displays, when interpreted most charitably, a callous desire to exploit gender crime allegations in the service of controversy. At worst, the invitation betrays an abhorrent disregard for the many survivors of sexual violence amongst the student body. The NUS’s Hidden Marks report revealed that 14% of women students have survived sexual assault or violence.
We ask that the Union Society revokes its invitation to DSK. We believe that free speech is about more than inviting rich, white, powerful (in this case allegedly rapist) men to define the Union’s termcard year after year. Free speech is also about maximising the variety of ideas that are given platforms, and fostering a culture of debate that seriously engages with the society’s membership.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not been acquitted of any of the multiple accusations of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault that have been leveled against him. Rather, we believe he has been able, because of institutional sexism in the legal system, to evade court. In the case of Nafissatou Diallo, he benefitted from a concerted media character assassination of the woman; in the case of Tristane Banon, he escaped only because of a French statute of limitations which prevented the charge of sexual assault being brought.
The Union Society will surely not find it difficult to admit that history is hardly littered with cases of the powerless legally holding the powerful to account for their crimes: this does not entail that the powerful are innocent of crime. The Union Society must also be aware that rape and sexual assault are among the least well understood, treated and – most pertinently – convicted crimes, in either law or public opinion. This is particularly true in Britain, which has the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe, at 6%.
Numerous charges of attempted rape and sexual assault should give the Union Society pause for thought when administering their speaker invitations. Yet conversely, the Union Society appears to have invited DSK because of the combination of his former economic position and alleged criminal notoriety. Does the Union Society see allegations of attempted rape and sexual assault as titillation for its membership?
Cambridge students have frequently questioned the Union Society’s approach to women’s rights, but little has changed. Why does the Union Society still invite glamour models to speak on feminism? Why are the few debates with women-related subject matters angled so as to sexualise or trivialise? The proportion of women speakers has slightly improved this term, but is still nowhere near parity.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is scheduled to speak the day after International Women’s Day, a bitter irony that has not gone unnoticed. The Union Society is rightfully committed to free speech, but its decisions over who is invited to speak necessarily create a political climate in which some voices are privileged over others. The political decision to host DSK feeds an existent culture of silence and shame around rape, in which alleged perpetrators are given a platform mostly denied to survivors of sexual violence.
Finally, in order to demonstrate that it understands that sexual violence is not ‘racy’ material with which to pull in the crowds, we ask that the Union Society not only disinvite DSK, but instead use their space on International Women’s Day to give a platform to a panel of women who can speak about the political realities of sexual violence, facilitated by the CUSU Women’s Campaign: this event would do more to challenge ‘the presumptions and prejudices of a wide range of ideas’ – one of the Union Society’s expressed aims – than any other scheduled debate this term.