Commentary Violence

Raped? An Immigrant or Woman of Color? Lesson of the DSK Case: Don’t Bother

Kathleen Reeves

When the next housekeeper is assaulted, she can look to the way the DSK case has played out for guidance.

Since last Friday, when the Times reported that the prosecution’s case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn was “near collapse,” people on both sides of the Atlantic have been shaking their heads sagely with an “I-told-you-so” admonition of the “rush-to-judgment” against DSK.

The truly appalling rush to judgment in this case is against the alleged victim, who claimed she was attacked while cleaning Strauss-Kahn’s room at the Sofitel. The tide turned, hard, against the housekeeper, with these damning reports from the Times:

prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself . . . the accuser has repeatedly lied, one of the law enforcement officials said.

The victim, now an “accuser,” has been deemed no longer credible for the following reasons:

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  • she hangs out with a pot dealer, who sometimes deposits large sums into her bank account
  • she had a conversation with that pot dealer, who is now in jail, about what could come their way (money) if DSK were convicted, and that conversation was recorded
  • she lied during the process of immigrating from Guinea

I read last Friday’s article more than once, convinced that I was missing something. 1) How is discussion of financial remuneration proof of fabrication? And why was that conversation recorded?? 2) Immigrating to the United States “legally” is hard/impossible. 3) The drug-dealer-consorting charge is so dumb that I’m not going to respond to it.

The next day we heard of another strike against the housekeeper, this one at least peripherally relevant, as it has to do with her actions after the assault:

The housekeeper admitted to prosecutors that she had lied about what happened after the encounter on the 28th floor of the hotel, the Sofitel New York. She initially said that after she had been attacked she waited in a hallway until Mr. Strauss-Kahn left the room. She now admits that after the episode, she cleaned a nearby room, then returned to Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s suite to clean there. Only after that did she report to her supervisor that she had been attacked.

The woman’s lawyer’s response to this BIG LIE—that “her decision to clean a room afterward was consistent with someone who was confused and upset”—was, I fear, barely heard above the din. Unfortunately, the housekeeper’s confusion is all too understandable, and it points to the distorting power dynamics of this case.

People do all sorts of things after trauma, mundane things like cleaning a room, before the enormity of what’s happened catches up to them. This is, on the one hand, the mind’s way of protecting itself. And in this case, the woman probably did think twice about reporting the rape (and then was afraid that this hesitation would condemn her): Would anyone believe her? Would she lose her job if she stopped cleaning Floor 28? Would she be punished for saying what happened to her?

Well, yes, she would.

After undergoing an exhaustive physical examination which corroborated her story—there was not only forensic evidence of the forced oral sex she described, but also bruising—the woman was interrogated about her immigration status and jailbird friends, and finally pronounced a “hooker” by the NY Post (she’s now suing the Post for libel).

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 60 percent of rapes go unreported, and this case demonstrates why. When the next housekeeper is assaulted, she can look to the way this played out for guidance. Do I want my body inspected and the “evidence” on it ignored? Do I want my conversations with friends recorded and used against me? Do I want to be accused of “turning tricks” by the New York Post? Do I want my immigration status probed? After all this, do I want to be pronounced a liar and criminal? Do I want to submit myself to this when there’s a good chance that my attacker will not serve time?

Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has supported DSK all along and is now apparently “vindicated” for this support, has this to say about his man’s treatment by authorities and the media:

This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic. And it was at least as pornographic (because, I repeat, it’s the same thing) as attorney Kenneth Thompson’s visible glee in expounding on the state of his client’s “vagina” [sic] before the entire world.

Was DSK’s perp-walk crueler than the way that this woman’s “background” and “character” were used against her when the crime that happened in the hotel room has nothing to do with drugs or immigration (a sadly not-unusual tactic of “whoring” women who claim to have been raped)? This woman, who lied, as thousands do, in order to get into this country, gave a forceful, unwavering, and detailed account of what Dominique Strauss-Kahn did to her. This was not something she “fabricated” over time for the prosecutors, but the testimony she gave very soon after her assault, to a counselor at the hospital where she was treated (a warning, Mr. Lévy: the following account is “pornographic” and includes the word “vagina”):

As soon as the housekeeper walked in, she told the counselor, a man, “naked, with ‘white hair,'” locked the door behind her and pushed her onto the bed.

He “put his penis into her mouth briefly,” the report said. She told him to stop and tried to get away, according to the report, but he pulled her toward the bathroom. He put his hands under her clothes and touched her crotch area, the report said. After she fell to the carpeted floor, according to the report, Mr. Strauss-Kahn again forced her to perform oral sex, grabbing her by the hair and controlling her head with force.

The woman’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Thompson, has since said the housekeeper suffered bruising to her vagina during the episode.

After all this, the housekeeper, branded “a pathological liar and scam artist,” is the one in the gutter; Strauss-Kahn and his wife look none the worse for wear. After all, the gutter’s for dirty drug-dealers and African immigrants; the IMF is squeaky-clean.

Commentary Violence

Rough Summer in the City: Recent Rape Cases and the NYC Rape Shield Law

Sarah Elspeth Patterson

The dropping of charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn marks the end to a case that has amounted to little more than a character assassination of a rape complainant who has endured a litany of shame-driven media accusations

This week, the public humiliation of Nafissatou Diallo that has been the “DSK Rape Case” has come to a close, as all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been dropped. This motion marks the end to a case that has amounted to little more than a character assassination of a rape complainant who has endured a litany of shame-driven media accusations, including but by no means limited to the Post’s declaration that she “wasn’t just a girl working a hotel – she was a working girl.” This unsubstantiated claim of her sex worker status, in addition to problematic framings of her race, immigrant status and background, has been used in the media to reinforce the idea that she is not a credible witness and therefore unworthy of having her rape charges validated in a court of law.

It’s been a rough summer for rape cases going through the DA’s office in New York City, with no lack of victim-blaming happening all around. It’s been mere months since two NYC police officers were acquitted of raping a women in her East Village apartment after a call for their assistance at the same location. Since the victim was drunk, though, it wasn’t difficult to see how she would become the one on trial. In fact, there was enough victim-blaming to acquit two men who were caught entering the woman’s apartment on outside surveillance tapes not once, not twice, but three times. Enough victim-blaming to acquit a man who admitted to lying in bed with the victim while she was wearing only a bra and passed out drunk. Enough victim-blaming to have one of the officers, Officer Moreno, publicly declare post-acquittal that the results of the case “were a lesson and a win.” A lesson and a win, indeed.

How rape cases can play out in our criminal justice system, as seen this summer in NYC alone, is a lesson to every person that is socially vulnerable to the effects of a rape culture, and that’s a whole lot of people. If you have been raped, it does matter how you got there. It matters what your race is, what your immigration status is and how you’ve made a living. It matters a lot. For some rape victims, just being able to report the crime without shaming scrutiny is not a possibility. In the case of sex workers, for instance, sometimes the mere admission that they are sex workers leads to open refusal to document a rape. As one member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project explained:

I was taken very seriously until it came out that I was involved in sex work, that this man was going to get me work, and that I showed him my body. At that point, the cops started acting as though I had been dishonest for not revealing this sooner and started basically interrogating me. It was incredibly upsetting. One of the police officers actually said to me, “What makes it okay Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, but not Thursday?” I was not arrested, but I feared arrest, having heard of cops doing that. I was relieved just to leave the precinct, and needless to say nothing came of my complaint. And I was reminded of the treatment I had received when I discovered that he was later arrested in California as a sex offender. Presumably he raped someone with a little more social cachet.

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Sadly, it is not just the acts of a few that affect how the system treats rape complainants. There are also policies in place that directly affect how a sex worker is treated in the eyes of the court in regard to sexual assault cases. For instance, in the New York City Rape Shield Law, a criminal procedure code that provides that “evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct shall not be admissible” in a rape case, there is a noted exception to the code. New York is one state that permits the victim’s status as a convicted prostitute to be admitted into evidence if the conviction occurred within three years of the sexual offense. In the past, this practice has been defended on the grounds that such information speaks to the credibility of the rape complainant “as a witness” and somehow suggests that the complainant, being a sex worker, may have consented. In many ways, this practice being upheld represents how prostitution (and indeed, sex work in general) is still considered an immoral act and treated in the eyes of the law as representative of a person’s defective character.

In the aftermath of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn dismissal and the recent acquittal of two police officers accused of rape, both cases which had a great deal to do with vilifying the complainant rather than the defendant, we must recognize that the rights of rape victims are tied up directly with how we frame rape victims in general, both in the media and in public policy. We must also be cognizant of the notion that there is a hierarchy of victimhood and that issues of race, class and status go into making up that hierarchy. Laws like NYC’s Rape Shield Law uphold the notion that our courts are the arbiters of sexual morality. Likewise, a court system whose decisions are in any way shaped by a rape victim being a sex worker (whether a valid claim or not) cannot be held to treat any complainant with a reasonable level of dignity. All in all, it’s a real wonder how any of us could withstand the scrutiny of such a system of judgment.

Commentary Violence

What’s HIV Got to Do With It? New York Post Violates Alleged Victim’s Rights in Strauss-Kahn Case

USA Positive Women’s Network

A brutal rape and sexual assault was not enough. Now the NY Post has turned its vicious sights on the woman who brought assault charges against IMF leader Dominique Strauss. Positive Women's Network demands an apology.

The Positive Women’s Network has developed talking points for advocates and others addressing or discussing the Strauss-Kahn case.

A brutal rape and sexual assault was not enough.  Now the NY Post has turned its vicious sights on the woman who brought assault charges against IMF leader Dominique Strauss.

Rather than focus on the issue of this young woman’s assault charges against a high-powered diplomat, the NY Post chose to break a sensationalist, unfounded story speculating about the young woman’s HIV status. A young, West African working-class immigrant and single mother, she surely experiences multiple forms of marginalization in our society and has shown commendable courage in coming forth with her story.  Like anyone, she is entitled to justice, and physical and psychological safety for herself and her family during and after the process of justice.

The NY Post’s irresponsible coverage exacerbates the power dynamics of racism, sexism, and classism inherent between the woman who has brought charges of assault and Strauss-Kahn, a man in a position of great power. The coverage creates a chilling effect for women who may need to bring assault charges in the future against powerful people, especially for women of color, low-income women, and immigrant women.   

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These irrelevant and potentially false statements serve to intensify existing struggles that young women face daily and could result in violence or discriminatory treatment towards both the young woman in this case and her child. This type of reporting is irresponsible and downright dangerous.  It perpetuates an environment in which people cannot feel safe coming forward as survivors of violence without having their sexual history, health status, and ultimately their credibility, questioned.  What was the Post’s real motivation in breaking this story? Would the story have been the same if she were not a young, working-class West African immigrant?

The U.S. Positive Women’s Network (PWN), a national membership body of HIV-positive women and a project of Oakland-based women’s HIV organization WORLD, is outraged by the NY Post’s vicious attack on the woman who brought assault charges against IMF leader Dominique Strauss

“She is a woman of color who may have been raped physically and is now being raped again,” says Minister Antoinettea Etienne, an HIV-positive woman, and member of the NYC HIV Planning Council. 

“The young woman who came forward with rape and assault charges deserves safety and respect from the law enforcement community, media and advocates for her courage in speaking up for her rights.”

PWN demands the NY Post publicly apologize for this story, not engage in this type of sensationalist journalism, and engage only in coverage that is relevant to the case.

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Who we are:

The U.S. Positive Women’s Network (PWN) is a project of WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Disease) in Oakland, CA. We are a national membership organization that exists to strengthen the strategic power of all women living with HIV in the United States. For more information visit: www.pwn-usa.org and join the PWN mailing list by emailing pwn(at)womenhiv.org.