Rape Charges, Libel Suits, Hooker Headlines: The Trial By Media of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Accusers

News & Politics

When it comes to our bodies, women are often presumed to be liars. I know, there’s too many reasons no one should believe anything I have to say about what I have done with my body, what has happened to it, and what that means to me. If I tell you I accepted money for sex, I might just be living under patriarchy or capitalism, and I might be an entrepreneur who couldn’t imagine working for anyone but herself. If I tell you I’ve been to hotels with wealthy or powerful men to do this, I might be bragging and I might be describing a normal day on the job.

At the base, though -- if I tell you I was a prostitute, I am sharing a point of fact. If I tell you I was raped, I am not offering something to be argued. I am not asking to be evaluated as a victim, in either instance, even though I can’t fully ensure that I won’t be. By saying any of this, I know that I am putting part of my body in front of the public.

The first woman to accuse Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape was a hotel worker at Manhattan’s Sofitel, near Times Square. Even before the New York Post claimed the accuser was a prostitute, there were ludicrous rumblings that Strauss-Kahn could be forgiven for mistaking the woman cleaning his room for a prostitute and so could be forgiven for assaulting her -- as if people who are paid for sex consent to all sex, at all times, and under any conditions. Modern prostitution is absolutely a function of business travel, like Strauss-Kahn’s – of bored, lonely men on expense accounts and the available bed and the money to do it with. It’s one of the uncomfortable truths of the story, made only more difficult to relate given the way the accuser and veracity of her charges have been judged in the press.

After several weeks investigating the hotel worker’s rape charge against Strauss-Kahn, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. reported inconsistencies in her accusation. Even though they maintained that they had “unambiguous forensic evidence” of a sexual encounter – as well as evidence of a struggle and bruises -- and that they would continue their investigation, the New York Times characterized the case as “on the verge of collapse.” It was then that the New York Post followed rapid suit, calling the accuser a “so-called victim” and additionally claiming – through one off-the-record source – that she was selling sex before and after the alleged assault.

The New York Post is notoriously fond of its hooker headlines – though that they were the sole source of this “news” ought to be enough to cast doubt on it. Still, even if the unnamed hotel worker had sold sex, this should have no bearing on her accusation. Feminists and advocates against sexual violence have been firm in pointing this out. But so what if Strauss-Kahn was a bad trick? So what if he was one of dozens of clients? Is the stigma of selling sex so severe – or the doubts it casts on a woman’s ability to tell the truth so severe – that we could not accept this woman’s accusation?

Laura Agustin, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets, and the Rescue Industry, says:

If you are already an undocumented person, with no permission to take any kind of job legally, then there are two reasons selling sex can be preferable: 1) many sex jobs pay ten times more than other jobs in general, making it possible to pay off debts incurred to migrate; and 2) many sex jobs offer flexible hours, which mean migrants have more time for the rest of their lives – trying to integrate into new societies, taking care of children, looking for other work opportunities, socialising with friends.

In addition, she says, it’s wrong to maintain that for migrants, selling sex is inherently an experience of degradation:

…for some people selling sex is less stigmatising than other options, like being a drug mule, for example, which requires swallowing many hard, large plastic packets and then shitting them out in front of someone after the border is successfully crossed. Some who sell sex consider being a live-in maid more degrading, because it’s such hard work, with endless hours, no privacy, little time off and very, very low wages. Those are the three jobs widely available in the informal economy to women everywhere.

Though Strauss-Kahn’s accuser has denied that she is a prostitute – and filed a libel suit against the New York Post – it is the kind of trial-by-front-page the public doesn’t soon forget. This is not because it is so obviously sensational but because it confirms deeply-held stereotypes. That is, the misogyny and anti-migrant bias the Post’s allegations rest on might seem outrageous when set in tabloid type, but the sentiment behind them is also expressed by the courts and citizens alike: prostitutes are not to be believed, and prostitutes cannot be raped.

Now, a second woman has come forward with charges against Strauss-Kahn: French journalist Tristane Banon, who comes from a prominent family with leadership ties to Strauss-Kahn’s party, and whose charges were immediately dismissed by Strauss-Kahn as “imaginary.” In 2003, Banon interviewed Strauss-Kahn for her book, Erreurs avouées (au masculin), about men’s political mistakes. It was during this interview that Banon says Strauss-Kahn assaulted her.

Unlike Strauss-Kahn’s first accuser, a migrant from West Africa seeking asylum in the United States and the sole provider for her family, Banon appears to be a more media-friendly “perfect victim.” Banon can tell us she fought back and yelled “No” without going through a lawyer, and using her professional name. She may even have a recording of the assault. She came forward with her accusation, under her own name, several years before she ever stated that the man she was accusing was Strauss-Kahn. By some standards, Banon did everything “right” – yet this logic, however common, is an insidious form of excusing violence.

Banon says she is coming forward because "There is no good solution, only one that means I can finally look at myself in the mirror. For once, I want to be in control of what happens. I want people to listen to me, because I have, perhaps, finally, a chance to be heard."

Her status as a woman who is already quite public – a socially engaged journalist, author and the daughter of politicians – only gives her accusation power. For women like Strauss-Kahn’s first accuser, the unnamed hotel worker, the public is already lined up waiting to hear them.

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