I’ve known Nafissatou Diallo’s name and face for weeks. After the prosecution and unnamed law enforcement sources began to publicly question her credibility via media leaks, I looked up the Guinean hotel housekeeper on the trashy West African and French-language blogs that outed her almost instantly.
I know it’s dangerous to swim in septic tanks, but I risked contamination because I needed to see the human being who had been cast as the mythical perfect, innocent, helpless, pious, almost infantile African victim of a powerful, rich French man’s cartoonish sexual urges. I knew it was only a matter of time before the defense leaked enough to turn the “He’s a monster!” narrative into “She’s a golddigger.” Given the reality of her illiteracy, her embellished asylum application, the grinding poverty back home, her girlhood genital mutilation, the sexual assault she says she endured at the hands of marauding soldiers, the loss of her husband to an undisclosed illness, her contact with an imprisoned weed seller, her on-paper participation in money laundering, and whatever else is secret and sad in the life of this 32-year-old mother of a 15-year-old, it was all but inevitable that she’d be forced off of her unsolicited pedestal.
To keep perspective, I envisioned Diallo’s face even as I celebrated her libel suit against Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. I did the same when I saw pictures of another alleged DSK rape victim, the young French writer Tristane Banon. Diallo and Banon look nothing alike. What they have in common is youth and powerlessness relative to the former managing director of the IMF.
Anyway, having already viewed Diallo’s image, I wasn’t surprised to see her on the cover of Newsweek yesterday, or to watch her interview with ABC News’s Robin Roberts. Diallo is a private citizen who for months has been covered and debated in French and African press and been maligned as an HIV-positive prostitute and bribery candidate by the New York Post. More recently, she’s been branded as dishonest and was effectively dropped by the prosecutors who were once her fierce champions. The physical evidence hasn’t changed, but their interpretation has.
So while pundits and legal experts making the TV news rounds have described her coming forward as risky and calculated, to me it seems like an attempt to assert her humanity and tell her side.
And make no mistake that Diallo’s humanity is still in question. She’s the alleged victim of a crime of power and violence, but she’s being sexualized through juvenile jokes and appraisal of her appearance. And to sexualize her in this way is to make her a character rather than a person.
Esquire showed us this yesterday, when the publication tweeted a link to oral sex tips with a DSK hashtag. (“How to get a better blowjob than #DSK — we think”) The article itself, which has since been removed from its site, made this clear:
“We don’t mean to be indelicate, but, well, this whole thing has gotten a little indelicate, hasn’t it? In the latest Newsweek, the maid who was allegedly raped by former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn gives a very graphic account of their time together, including some very indecent oral sex. And whomever you believe, that’s a tragedy. Because as we’ve learned over the years from our sex expert, a blowjob need not be degrading or hurtful, for either party.”
The two male Newsweek writers who spent three hours with Diallo and penned the above-cited story also fall into this trap. In an otherwise measured feature that contains explicit details of the alleged assault, they use Diallo’s looks to inform, um, I don’t know what:
“Nafi” Diallo is not glamorous. Her light-brown skin is pitted with what look like faint acne scars, and her dark hair is hennaed, straightened, and worn flat to her head, but she has a womanly, statuesque figure.
By juxtaposing a valuation of her “glamour,” with a description of her affect (“When her face is in repose, there is an opaque melancholy to it.”), and her vivid retelling of the encounter (“Diallo kept pushing him away: ‘I don’t want to hurt him,’ she told us. ‘I don’t want to lose my job.’), the writers seem to be suggesting that there’s a correlation between attractiveness and victimhood. It’s a bizarre contortion of logic, given the sheer number of women (and men) who don’t fit beauty standards and are still sexual assault victims.
Rape culture is tricky. It takes a lot of unlearning. Graded on a curve, most media seem to be C minus students. But it seems to me that if we start with seeing our subjects as people first, we’ll avoid the most obvious mistakes. Unless, of course, we don’t want to.