When I heard that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested for sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his $3,000 hotel room in New York City, I immediately feared for his accuser’s life.
Given Strauss-Kahn’s global economic power, social connections, and well-supported quest for the French presidency, I worried that his alleged victim—a 32-year-old Guinean widow who immigrated to the United States on an asylum visa—might be disappeared or deported somehow.
Then Wednesday brought the New York Post’s appalling front page,”HOTEL MAID IN HIV SHOCK: IMF gal in AIDS-help apartment.” In what the race-baiting tabloid trumpeted as an exclusive, the Post reported that the alleged victim lives in a Bronx apartment designated for HIV-positive people and their families. The story, which activists rightfully condemned, said everything short of, “Ooooh, she gave that man AIDS!”
That same day, Strauss-Kahn’s defense team advanced the idea that this hijab-wearing Muslim mother of a 15-year-old daughter wanted to perform oral sex on the 62-year-old French banker known as “The Great Seducer” in the middle of the day during her housekeeping rounds.
So as it turns out, my “Bourne Identity” conspiracy theories were just an escape from the sinister reality of rape victim-blaming. And this case, says Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of the anti-rape group A Long Walk Home, is particularly alarming.
The Post and the defense team “have inverted the power dynamic,” she explains. “By insinuating that this alleged victim has HIV and claiming that she consented to what she’s reported to police as an attack, she becomes the sexual predator rather than a potential victim.”
And yes, race does matter here: “Because African and African-American women are so frequently associated with AIDS, speculating about this alleged victim’s HIV status becomes a racially coded language,” says Tillet. “She’s no longer the person who immediately came forward to hotel security and the police, underwent an invasive medical examination, and was willing to talk about a traumatic experience over and over again. She’s no longer a potential victim fearing for her safety, her daughter’s life and her job. She’s just a stereotype.”
In other words,”Africans got AIDS” plus “She asked for it” equals “He’s the innocent victim of her wanton, dangerous sexual ways.”
Aside from the psychic damage I’m sure this woman has sustained, local HIV/AIDS activists say The Post also stigmatized her neighbors.
“In an environment where stigma is high, what they’ve done is imply that every single person in that building has HIV,” says Stephanie Kaplan, a spokesperson for the Harlem-based African Services Committee. “They wanted an exclusive so badly, they turned their focus away from Dominique Strauss-Khan—a man who [reportedly] has a history of sexual violence—and outed people in the [alleged victim’s] building.”
And people in the alleged victim’s close-knit immigrant community are feeling the effects, says Kaplan.
“We’re seeing a lot of fear from our clients and staff. We tell our clients, ‘Your HIV status will be protected. You’re safe here.’ Then something like this happens and it sets us back. We’re hearing news about how treatment is the best prevention. How can we convince people to enter treatment with this huge barrier?”
For more details on how media and law conspire to create AIDS predators, see Kai Wright’s 2005 Colorlines feature “Super Predator.”