Sex (work) sells, but at whose expense?
July of this year, the woman who accused former IMF cheif Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, Nafissatou Diallo, filed a suit against the New York Post for stories the paper ran claiming that she was working as a prostitute. A front-page headline that read, "Maid cleaning up as 'hooker'," and other references to her as a "working girl" were false, Diallo contends, and the Post should have known that they were false. Diallo's claim is for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
For anyone who missed it, NY Magazine chronicles the Post's coverage, one damaging headline after another. (Having had my own run-ins with the Post, I had a strong reaction when this began.) In the course of 13 weeks, and over two dozen cover stories, the Post painted Diallo as a low class, "pathological liar" and a "scam artist," linked to drugs and possibly having HIV or AIDS. It was in week six that the paper first made the claim that Diallo worked as a prostitute in the hotel as a side gig to her job as a housekeeper, insinuating that the exchange with Strauss-Kahn could not have been a case of sexual assault.
Remember we are dealing with a possible rape victim here, not a reality star or a politician—not even a writer whose work, one might argue, invited public controversy. While the paper's portrayal of DSK undermines his credibility as well—he is puffed up as a sleazy, above-the-law villain from, of all irreputable places, France—Diallo's undoing is a special kind of something.
With the same powerless feeling I had felt for myself, I watched a human being reduced to an object of ridicule. I watched Diallo fight to retain some measure of dignity, much as I had fought to retain my own. But even in respectable press, I could see how little her story was being honored. The NY Times labeled her a "fabricator" and repeated the claim she was a hooker. To be labeled a hooker is pretty annoying, but can we all be equally offended that she was constantly referred to as simply "the maid"? When Diallo finally came forward to speak out in her defense, she was further ridiculed for "gabbing" and "blabbing"—a word our local papers like to use when women speak for themselves.
The word for all of it is disempowering. The coverage was meant to humiliate her and anyone willing to defend her into silence. This, in effect, is just what it did. In late August, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge dismissed all criminal charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, citing the reason as a lack of credibility on the part of the claimant.
Nafissatou Diallo's case against the NY Post for erroneously branding her a hooker is more than just sticks and stones. Diallo's case, as I see it, is a fight for the truth. Indirectly, it is a fight that a woman's sexual history—or any one fact about a claimant—not be used to discredit her as a victim of rape or sexual assault. It is a fight that no one be disqualified from sympathy and justice prior to a complete review of the evidence and details of the case. The Post calling Diallo a hooker painted her, in one fell swoop, as a sex worker—and thus un-rapeable. Hooker or not, no woman's sexual history is relevant to a rape case, and the way the term is being used here is unacceptable.
It is important to underscore, as this lawsuit is doing, the fact that Naffissatou Diallo is and was not a hooker. While such a case would still deserve a hearing, the details of the rape were not as they were reported by the Post—this was not a business dealing gone awry, as this was neither the Diallo's nor DSK's claim (the only two in the room). Instead, this is another case of the media using sex work to further other people's agendas—sexy (made up) details to sell papers.
In an article in the Nation, Patricia J. Williams eloquently articulates my greatest concern, what she describes as today's climate of "media chatter beholden not to truth but rather to profit, fear and fantasy." She writes, "Journalistic values like accuracy, accountability and respect for human dignity have fallen by the wayside as entertainment and titillation have prevailed."
The DSK-Diallo case is a crushing example of how the media does not just report the news but makes the news. There is little denying that public opinion influenced the prosecution to drop its case against DSK. The danger of such coverage, I fear, is even broader and more devestating than the individual lives it targets to destroy. Coverage of this nature misinforms and maligns attitudes and opinions about the categories of people it portrays. In the case of rape stories, it creates and reenforces the myth of what a victim is and is not. The myth of the "perfect victim" and our impossibility to be one undermines individuals' willingness to seek justice and speak out, realizing that to do so will only invite further victimization. Shock-and-awe headlines and defamitory stories contribute to a rape culture wherein certain people are "asking for it" and where violence goes unchecked.
Diallo's case against the NY Post is a case for accuracy, accountability and respect for human dignity. It is the demand that newspapers, on whom we rely for information, do their jobs and get it right.
In honor of the 20th Anniversary of Anita Hill's testimony, feminists are convening on NYC this Saturday for Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth, a conference underscoring the importance that women be enabled to tell our truth without fear of recrimination. The conference will analyze present-day realities in law and politics, and the confluence of race, class, and gender in women's continuing "credibility problem." Like Diallo, I learned the hard way that I was no match for the institutions which had made me their target. I learned that facts don't speak for themselves: people speak, using facts as they will. At worst, people—including reporters, it seems—abandon facts altogether. This is why we must be allowed to speak for ourselves.