I haven’t had much time to write this week, but I wanted to quickly take a look at the unfolding DSK sexual assault case.
The framing of cases is so important, as it shifts judgements in the court of public opinion. Since Diallo has chosen to step forward as the accuser (perhaps in response to the media backlash around her life and reputation), news outlets have clamored to get the scoop. Newsweek published an exclusive interview a few days ago, with some telling language:
“Nafi” Diallo is not glamorous. Her light-brown skin is pitted with what look like faint acne scars, and her dark hair is hennaed, straightened, and worn flat to her head, but she has a womanly, statuesque figure. When her face is in repose, there is an opaque melancholy to it. Working at the Sofitel for the last three years, with its security and stability, was clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have, after years braiding hair and working in a friend’s store in the Bronx as a newcomer from Guinea in 2003.
Only in cases involving rape or assault is how the victim appears a subject for commentary. This is part of rape culture, the idea that we have to evaluate the attractiveness of a person alleging assault along with the other facts in the case. Melissa McEwan so succinctly put it, rape is not a compliment. Neither is sexual assault. Yet time and time again, we see people accused of sexual assault, abuse, or rape try to weasel out of it by saying that they weren’t attracted to the person in the first place. (We see you, Albert Haynesworth.) It’s disturbing to see reporters play into the same idea. This is why feminists continually stress that rape is a crime of power, not desire. Rape is not related to the attractiveness of the victim. Rape occurs because one party does not consent to a sexual encounter, but they are forced into it anyway.
Also, that first discussion of “clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have?” It sets the stage for more prejudical plays on class, race, and immigration status later in the piece.
Diallo is about 5 feet 10, considerably taller than Strauss-Kahn, and she has a sturdy build.
This inclusion is also somewhat perplexing. The idea that she’s sturdy and tall again introduces the idea of doubt to her story, which falls into another common trope about rape and sexual assault cases – why didn’t the woman just fight him off? Interestingly, the authors do not bring up the fact that generally, most jobs don’t allow workers to assault guests, even if the guests are violent. And, in the moment, there are many different ways people will react to being assaulted, particularly if the first act of violation has already begun. This portrayal of Diallo also subtly plays on the idea of fragile, thin, small victims as the only real victims – and goes hand in hand with the idea that black women are “unrapeable.”
DNA evidence in suite 2806—the result of all that spitting that mingled the maid’s saliva and Strauss-Kahn’s sperm—makes it virtually impossible to deny there was a sexual encounter between DSK and Diallo. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers raised the possibility early on that it was consensual and have left it to others to speculate about the circumstances under which that might have been the case: that Diallo expected money that she did not receive, or that the sex got rougher and more aggressive than she would accept. The New York Post published stories attributed to an anonymous source that claimed Diallo was at least a part-time prostitute. Her lawyers, Kenneth Thompson and Douglas Wigdor, are now suing the Post, saying the story is false. The newspaper stands by its story.
When crime, power, and scandal combine, there is always the idea that the more powerful person is being set up by the person with the least amount of power. And, commonly, the victim in sexual assault and rape trails finds themselves subjected to invasive probes about their own sexual background, mental health history, and any other improprieties. For Diallo, her background as a new immigrant to America increases the amount of scrutiny she is subject to:
In her interview with NEWSWEEK, Diallo didn’t disguise her anger at Strauss-Kahn. “Because of him they call me a prostitute,” she said. “I want him to go to jail. I want him to know there are some places you cannot use your power, you cannot use your money.” She said she hoped God punishes him. “We are poor, but we are good,” she said. “I don’t think about money.”
Perhaps. But on the day of the incident, by Diallo’s own account, she made two telephone calls. One was to her daughter. The other call was to Blake Diallo, a Senegalese who is from the same ethnic group but no relation. He manages a restaurant, the Cafe 2115 in Harlem, where West Africans gather to eat, talk, politic, and sometimes listen to concerts. Nafissatou describes Blake as “a friend,” and one of the first things he did for her after the incident was to find her a personal-injury lawyer on the Internet.
All of her associates are heavily interrogated, as were her tax statements…and her application for asylum:
In late 2003 Diallo applied for asylum. Because she had suffered genital mutilation as a child, and doctors confirmed that fact in a medical report, she probably would have qualified for asylum in any case, given current law and practices. And she insists she was raped after curfew by two soldiers. (This is not unheard of in Guinea. In 2009 soldiers conducted mass rapes and killed as many as 160 people in a Conakry sports stadium, according to human-rights organizations.) But bad as the realities were in Diallo’s homeland, she admits the account that she gave the U.S. government on her asylum application was heavily embellished. Her fictionalized narrative worked to get her a green card and allow her to bring her child to America. But her past misstatements may make it impossible to win a criminal case against DSK based on her testimony.
The only saving grace in this situation is that DSK has also had a long public life, punctuated with “situations,” improprieties, one inappropriate (and mostly, but not fully, consensual) relationship with a subordinate that put Strauss Kahn on trial as well. Normally, only the accuser is interrogated, with past indiscretions held up to light – but Strauss Kahn is receiving an equal grilling in the press.
It is always difficult to fairly represent all sides of painful matters like assault or rape. It is especially fraught since no one can truly know what happened except for the people involved, and juries and arbitrators are trying to weight highly subject evidence. But it is disturbing that the deck is stacked so hard against victims of sex crimes – particularly when those victims are women of color. Jamie Leigh Jones, who just was dealt a crushing decision in her lawsuit against KBR and the contractors she accused of rape, was initially believed and had powerful support from many corners, including the media. The Latina girl in Texas who was gang-raped did not have that same support. The article written was heavy on victim blaming, prompting the NYT to apologize for the “lack of balance”. And here again, Newsweek has subtly framed Diallo as guilty by employing the usual tactics of rape culture and the usual stereotypes about class, immigration, and women of color.