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Smears and shields: The defense of Dominique Strauss-Kahn

New Yorkers who had been following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case got a nasty shock this Saturday. In my case, it was broken to me gently. While I was picking up a soda in my local bodega, a male companion who knows how I tend to react to these sorts of things guided me quietly over to the newspapers, and pointed to the New York Post. “DSK MAID A HOOKER,” it blared, in the largest typeface known to man.

The Post’s evidence for the accusation that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser was a sex worker — which it printed as fact, both in the headline and in the lede — was a single “unnamed source,” “close to the defense.” (And, of course, nothing says “trustworthy” more than those two phrases in combination.) That source had little to bring to the table but unpleasant insinuation: “There is information… of her getting extraordinary tips, if you know what I mean.” Of course, we knew what he meant; the headline had just called her a whore.

Still, the demands of sensationalism have never had much to do with good reporting, and they were fully satisfied. By Saturday evening, the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape had been branded a “hooker” in the eyes of any New Yorker who had the bad luck to wander into a deli. Whether or not it was true, and whether or not it was relevant to her case, she had now become exactly what that “defense”-related source probably knew and hoped she would become, when he spoke to the paper: An unrapeable woman.

It felt inevitable. And that’s because it was: Any woman who presses a rape case, especially against a prominent man, will have her character smeared as widely and as loudly as possible. The accusers in the Assange case were called man-hating feminists and CIA agents. The accuser in the NYPD “rape cops” trial was called a drunk. The various accusers in the Ben Roethlisberger cases were called sluts and gold-diggers; the first Google result for “Roethlisberger victim” turns up the phrase “immature attention hungry whore.” It even happened to an eleven-year-old girl, who said that she had been gang raped by eighteen young men of no particular fame or distinction; the New York Times made sure to point out that she “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” Which, of course, was a sign that she wanted over a dozen men to sexually assault her. That’s just what precocious eleven-year-old girls do.

Make no mistake: There may, in fact, be cracks in the Strauss-Kahn accuser’s credibility. She has reportedly been factually dishonest in the past. The trouble is that the “lack of credibility” we’re being presented with has as much to do with cultural stigma and stereotyping as it does with anything else. And, since every rape accuser has her integrity, credibility, and character smeared (or even purposefully misrepresented) by the media, the real “lack of credibility” lies as much with reporters as it does anywhere else.

The accuser reportedly knew criminals; that doesn’t mean that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could not have raped her. She discussed whether or not to pursue charges with one of them; that does not mean that Strauss-Kahn could not have raped her. She was reportedly less visibly traumatized after the attack than she claimed to have been; that still doesn’t mean that Strauss-Kahn could not have raped her. She initially said that she had been gang-raped before coming to America from Guinea; now, she says that she was raped in a different way. That’s troubling, and somewhat relevant. And yet, it does not mean that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could not have raped her. Believe it or not, sexual trauma is hard to recall and report with 100% factual accuracy. What the press are now calling “lies” might simply be failures to accurately describe painful and confusing memories.

Or, alternately, they could have been survival tactics. Some sources claim that she misrepresented her income in order to maintain her housing, or that she took money from male acquaintances (including the aforementioned criminals). The Post, at least, claims she was a sex worker. You could see purposeful malice here. Alternately, you could see an immigrant, trying to survive in the most expensive city in America.

And if the accuser was, in fact, a sex worker — which is the least substantiated rumor of all — that absolutely does not mean that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could not have raped her. It means anything but that. Sex workers are overwhelmingly targeted for sexual assault. But the fact that a high portion of American and/or male readers will not understand that last statement is the reason a “source close to the defense” took on the brave guise of anonymity to tell New York’s most sensationalistic paper that she was “A HOOKER.” Sex workers are frequently raped, and culturally unrapeable. Just putting the rumor in circulation is enough to make the vast majority of Americans disregard her claims.

That’s where the brutal irony of this situation — something that has not gone without notice — really kicks in. If the accuser is a working-class woman, making money in a variety of illegitimate or legitimate ways, an immigrant, well; the accused is the former head of the IMF. An organization frequently accused of some very shady and exploitative dealings, especially when it comes to formerly colonized and struggling countries. Like, say, Guinea, which is where the accuser hails from. If you asked the IMF, and the accuser, they’d probably say that they were both just doing what it took to survive, and thrive, within global capitalism. The trouble is, that process makes one party functionally unrapeable, a disposable person. It makes the other party untouchable. No accusation leveled toward it, or toward any of its members, will ever really be enough to take it down.

In fact, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser goes down in a blaze of accusations and libel, the rehabilitation of the IMF proceeds on apace. They have, magically and conveniently enough, just elected their first female chief. Christine Legarde is no doubt a wonderfully accomplished woman; among her many wonderful accomplishments, we can now list the fact that she makes such a fabulous human shield, when it comes to accusations of institutional sexism. And “austerity” plans for Greece continue on apace — plans backed by the IMF, which have already sparked rioting, and which may draw the country into another downward spiral which the IMF can exploit. This, you may note, received somewhat fuzzier and less insistent coverage about the unilateral role of the IMF in negating countries’ sovereignty.  And why should it have? Someone had just found out that a working-class immigrant woman in New York might be “A HOOKER.”