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What about the Woman Strauss-Kahn Allegedly Assaulted?

May 17, 2011 ·

She deserves compassion as the global punditocracy conjectures about what's going happen to the IMF without that French "rockstar" at its helm.

As details emerge in the case of International Monetary Fund chief and alleged assaulter Dominique Strauss-Kahn, my eye is on how his wrecked political clout is getting all the attention. The brutal assault of a hotel housekeeper that Manhattan District Attorney Artie McConnell described yesterday to a judge, who subsequently ordered that the IMF's managing director be held without bail at the Rikers Island jail complex? Not so much.

The IMF leader was (I think it's safe to use the past tense here because it’s doubtful he'll re-emerge in politics, regardless of the outcome of this apparently damning case) a very likely French presidential candidate. In fact, he was widely seen as the Socialist Party's best hope for unseating French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Within hours of the story breaking, comments about a "Sarkozy setup” flooded the comments sections of online news reports, and soon emerged as their own articles.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn speaking in Singapore. Photography by International Monetary Fund

As this story develops, it's all about Strauss-Kahn, instead of the woman (so far unidentified), who accuses him of brutally attacking her. At her workplace. This woman, who was cleaning a $3,000-per-night hotel suite, is a human being. She deserves compassion as the global punditocracy conjectures about what's going happen to the IMF without that French "rockstar" at its helm.

My work focuses on the trafficking and exploitation of immigrant domestic workers. Of course, I'm reading the news coverage with interest. Over the past days, I have been watching how HER story is covered, in light of her occupation, ethnicity (reporters say that she's an African immigrant), and status as a crime victim. Usually, housekeepers are treated as silent, anonymous machines of the household, hotel, or office building, if they're noticed at all. But surely a vicious attack would shed light on the fact that this is a real person…right?

While I mostly work with household workers in private homes, the life of a hotel chambermaid is very similar. Being a housekeeper at a hotel (or anywhere else) doesn't exactly put you on equal footing with the wealthy and powerful when you are in "their" space. So when you're stuck in a bedroom (or private household) with them, what are your defenses?

Statistics about the frequency of sexual assault of hotel maids are difficult to find, but here's what I know about New York City's household workers, from a 2006 report by the Data Center and Domestic Workers United: "Thirty-three percent of workers experience verbal or physical abuse or have been made to feel uncomfortable by their employers. One-third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions." What we do know about the conditions of hotel housekeepers is that immigrants comprise the majority of that workforce, as do women of color, and that their workplace is dangerous on its own, let alone with the additional risk of sexual assault. Rushing to keep up with demand, hotel housekeepers have an injury rate 40 percent higher than workers in the overall service sector.

I have many other questions too. The two that come to mind immediately are:

  1. Do Europeans and North Americans just assume that being subjected to sexual aggression is a given if you're a woman working as a maid in a wealthy man's home or hotel suite?
  2. Why would anyone assume that a working-class woman would lie about a sexual assault to get money from a settlement?

I can't fathom why anyone would believe these things, but here we are in the comments section in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and ABC News where every fourth word is "setup" and where the maid's getting very little empathy. I don’t think the people writing these comments or news stories are malicious. It's just a symptom of the way household workers are treated in the United States and around the world. They are servants, and therefore — for hotel guests and the people who can afford to have them clean their homes — barely human.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyer Benjamin Brafman said that he represents "good people who have gone astray…that doesn’t mean their lives should be destroyed." The themes of many of the reports and commentaries I have read center around the feeling that it would be a tragedy for this politician's career, and his removal would put the global economy at risk.

Because this "just" involves a hotel housekeeper, there's not a lot of conjecture about the tragedy she'll face as she tries to put her own life back together. Even if the reason that reporters aren’t covering her story with humanity is that they want to respect our legal system's promise of "innocent until proven guilty," they're missing the broader point: this storyline isn't uncommon. No one is talking about the countless other household and hotel workers who have endured sexual harassment and assault at the hands of wealthy (or even middle-class) men around the world.

Why? Perhaps because it's supposed to be a fact of life that poor women’s bodies are collateral damage of war, prizes for global accomplishment, or simply a means to an end. Women who are household workers or "servants" are even more vulnerable to dehumanizing sexual assault than others because their relationships are inherently unequal to their employers. We don’t have scientific studies of the relative risks, but we have hundreds of testimonies of household workers who have been trafficked, exploited, and assaulted, and our common sense that tells us there are many more out there.

Of course it isn’t uncommon that famous/wealthy men who assault women usually dominate the news. What will Strauss-Kahn do next? Even when their conduct is deemed improper without being illegal, there's a lot of hand-wringing over how prominent men such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and former Sen. John Edwards, will suffer for their indiscretions.

Poor guys.

But I feel worse for the woman Strauss-Kahn is accused of assaulting.