The key card to room 2806 at the Sofitel hotel has unlocked Dante’s Inferno and it’s all set to come to a head tomorrow in the criminal division of the New York Supreme Court in lower Manhattan. Media reports have begun to circulate, from anonymous sources, that the DA plans to dismiss the case. The case that started out about sexual assault by one man against one woman has drawn into its vortex a much wider cast and issues as diverse as a French culture of sexism, race and class, legal and media ethics. Here’s a speed course:
According to an on-the-record spokesperson for the New York Times, the paper of record is conducting an internal inquiry into its June 30th reporting on the Strauss-Kahn case; an article packed with allegations from anonymous sources. A libel suit has been filed, but still not served, on the New York Post over its allegations of prostitution by the woman alleging sexual assault by Strauss-Kahn; also from unnamed sources. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is now facing attempted rape charges on not one, but two, continents. Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper charging Strauss-Kahn with sexual assault in the U.S., has been implicated in court records filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with lying on her tax forms and her asylum application. Diallo’s attorney, Kenneth Thompson, filed a written request asking the District Attorney to step down over conflict of interest issues. Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys, Benjamin Brafman and William Taylor, went ballistic in the last few days when the hospital medical report on Diallo, which used the descriptive words “assault” and “rape” appeared in the French publication, L’Express, and rapidly travelled to newsrooms around the globe. The Wall Street Journal is reporting, from unnamed sources, that Diallo’s lawyer, Thompson, tried to scuttle the criminal case in order to obtain a civil settlement and the DA is investigating. Thompson says the charge is false.
Despite the multiple fracases, the case is adding heft to the Gross National Product of the United States. The allegation that the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and aspirant to the Presidency of France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, brutally sexually assaulted Diallo, the hotel housekeeper at the luxury Sofitel hotel in Manhattan, has sold millions of newspapers and magazines worldwide. It has boosted the ratings of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “World News With Diane Sawyer,” and “Nightline,” all of which ran exclusive interviews with Diallo. It has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid in wages to well-dressed security staff for Strauss-Kahn and generated rental fees to a Manhattan landlord of $50,000 a month for a townhouse in Tribeca, replete with theatre and rooftop terrace, to luxuriously accommodate the alleged assailant.
But if there is any one group that hopes to max out the financial benefits of this alleged sexual assault of an immigrant woman from Guinea, it is the high priced lawyers on both sides. Few would begrudge them their fees, if they earned them within the bounds of decency and legal ethics – an open question at this point.
Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys have quietly planted the vilest of smears against Diallo while attempting to polish their halo with the public and DA’s office. Diallo’s attorney, Kenneth Thompson, has invoked her vagina so frequently in press conferences and interviews that one has to seriously question if the defense smears and lawyer insensitivities will prevent future rape victims from reporting the crime.
Speaking July 1 at a press conference outside the New York Supreme Court, Kenneth Thompson, of the law firm, Thompson Wigdor, told a nervously fidgeting press corps:
“And then Dominique Strauss-Kahn came running out of one of those rooms naked, towards her. And he grabbed her breast first and started to attack her. He then grabbed her vagina with so much force that he hurt her; he grabbed her vagina with so much force that he bruised her vagina. When she went to the hospital later that day, the nurses who examined her saw the bruises on her vagina that were caused by Dominique Strauss’ hand. And they took pictures of the bruises on her vagina and the District Attorney has those pictures.”
Either Kenneth Thompson had a season pass to Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues or he was counting on at least one of those five utterances of vagina making it to the evening news.
Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys apparently did not like Thompson getting the upper hand at this press conference. The very next day, the New York Post ran a front page bold headline that took up the entire top half of the tabloid: “DSK Maid A Hooker.” Inside, the story cited a source “close to the defense investigation.” One day later, July 3, the commodification of an alleged assault victim as a tabloid sales booster continued. The New York Post put in giant bold type on its front cover: “Cheap Trick,” with smaller headlines smearing Diallo as follows: “DSK refused to pay hooker maid for sex” and “she saw Johns while in DA protection.”
It should be noted that it doesn’t take much to channel a hooker to the headline writers at the New York Post. On August 10, 2011, their entire front page bizarrely compared the stock market gyrations to a hooker’s “drawers.” It added another nice touch of objectifying and commodifying women by showing a female in a red dress blowing smoke rings with legs spread from the knees down. When was the last time you saw the word “drawers,” (as in a woman’s undergarment) on the front page of a newspaper. Is Rupert Murdoch, age 80, writing some of this stuff for his New York tabloid? Standard newsroom logic is “if it bleeds it leads.” While its British siblings were attempting to best the competition with IT-savvy hackers, the New York Post is apparently initiating its own tabloid renaissance: if you can metaphorically, parabolically, allegorically insinuate a linkage to a hooker, it leads.
The District Attorney’s office has stated publicly that there is not a “scintilla” of evidence to support this smear of prostitution and it appears that even the New York Post no longer believes its own front page covers. On August 9, Tim Perone of the New York Post wrote an article detailing each allegation that could be used against Diallo’s credibility in court. Laura Italiano, who authored the original hooker story, is noted at the end of the article as contributing to the article. Noticeably absent from the article is any mention of Diallo being a prostitute.
To some degree, the New York Post’s ability to go silent on its potentially unprecedented hooker smear of a woman alleging a brutal sexual assault has been aided by Diallo’s own lawyer, Kenneth Thompson. Thompson filed his libel suit against the Post on July 8 but he has yet, five weeks later, to serve the newspaper with the complaint, according to the clerk’s office of the Bronx Supreme Court on August 18. The Post would have only 20 days to deliver its side of the story to the court once it is served, making it available for public scrutiny.
Why is Diallo’s own lawyer not quickly forcing the Post to either admit it libeled her or to explain its evidentiary support for what Thompson stated in court papers was false and humiliating reporting. The libel case is N.D. (Nafissatou Diallo) v. NYP Holdings, Inc. et al, New York Supreme Court, Bronx County, Index No. 305953-2011.
One explanation was offered by the Wall Street Journal last week. According to the Journal: “New York prosecutors are looking into claims that the lawyer for the hotel maid suing Dominique Strauss-Kahn said he would work to ensure that criminal allegations against the former International Monetary Fund chief wouldn’t go forward if the parties could reach a civil settlement, according to people familiar with the matter.” The Journal goes on to note that the discussions between Thompson and Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers “occurred during a 19-day period when Ms. Diallo’s lawyers didn’t permit her to be interviewed by prosecutors, the people familiar with the matter say.” Thompson has denied the allegation.
The New York Times may also have become an unwitting patsy in the alpha-attorney battle for dominance. In response to a request on August 8 to the Times public editor by this writer for a review of the unconfirmed allegations it printed against Diallo on June 30, Joseph Burgess from the Office of the Public Editor responded on August 8: “We are looking into this matter and we appreciate your feedback as we continue our review.” (See related article linked below.)
As Diallo, unable to read or write, attempts to navigate the shark-infested waters of the U.S. justice system, she is simultaneously challenging a culturally embedded objectification of women by French society that dates back to the 16th Century, according to a Stanford professor.
Cécile Alduy is Associate Professor and Chair of Graduate Studies in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University. She is also the Director of the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Alduy wrote an OpEd for the French publication, Le Monde, where she brought historical perspective to the sexist statements published in France during the early days of the Strauss-Kahn saga. In a more detailed interview with the Stanford Humanities web site, Alduy brings important context to French journalist Jean-François Kahn’s trivializing of the alleged sexual assault as no more than a “troussage de domestique.”
“The phrase ‘un troussage de domestique’ has been translated in the Anglo-Saxon press as ‘a quickie with a domestic.’ Although contextually accurate, this translation does not even start to unfold the rich, but troubling cultural connotations that lies underneath.
“ ‘Trousser’ literally means to lift someone’s skirt. The phrase evokes a visual euphemism found in medieval and Renaissance iconography and literature where the scene of a man sliding his hand underneath a woman’s dress is a metaphor for what’s to come next: actual intercourse. It’s a very common image in Renaissance engravings, in books of light erotic poetry or, in literature, in the tradition ribald songs and novellas that date back from medieval folk tales and the Roman de la Rose and continues in Rabelais’ coarse misogyny—a tradition still very much alive in what some French comedians proudly reclaim as a specifically French ‘grivois’ strand of humor.
“Jean-François Kahn, probably unconsciously, adds to this already charged image a long-lived idea: that the bodies of servants and domestics are up for grabs for their masters.
“What is symptomatic here is the cultural unconscious revealed by the use of such an archaic idiomatic phrase: although women’s rights (and employees’ rights for that matter) have progressed drastically over the last 50 years, the cultural frameworks through which some see and talk about women’s bodies is still very much steeped in an Ancien Régimementality.”
If anyone might be able to put historical perspective to Kenneth Thompson’s repetitive use of the word “vagina” on a public sidewalk on July 1, it is Alduy. One of her current projects is a print and digital critical edition ofBlasons anatomiques du corps féminin. The blason is a genre of descriptive poetry practiced in the 16th century which focused on a solo object for effusive praise or blame. Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin is a 1543 book of poems, written exclusively by men, and devoted to isolated parts of the female anatomy. According to Alduy, there are no fewer than four poems dedicated exclusively to female genitalia. In one blazon devoted to the vagina, the word is repeated 23 times in a 37 line poem.
Shortly we will learn what the District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr., intends to do with the criminal case against Strauss-Kahn. As noted above, media reports have begun to circulate, again from anonymous sources, that the DA plans to dismiss the case. If the DA folds like a cheap suit, he will have to wonder every day of Strauss-Kahn’s life if there will be a violent attack in the future; he will have to wonder if a serial predator can change his stripes. If Vance bets wrong, he may end up memorialized as the hapless DA who let DSK get away.
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years, retiring in 2006. She has been writing on public interest issues for CounterPunch since that time. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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