The Politician, the Maid, and Presumptions of Guilt


It was, or so it seemed, a familiar story: the lecherous, power-drunk old man who’s used to getting away with taking advantage of women, until he doesn’t. But with the news that the sexual-assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is crumbling in the face of the accuser’s own checkered past, the narrative has taken an abrupt about-face. Suddenly, the Sofitel maid has gone from helpless immigrant suffering life’s latest cruel blow to a different stock character: the dodgy gangster’s girlfriend who knows an opportunity when she sees one. Prosecutors, once certain the details were on their side, have discovered they are dealing with an unreliable narrator. But then again, so are we all.

We Americans pride ourselves on the presumption of innocence, when in fact everything about our culture works to spin the arrow the other way around. In the court of public opinion, what matters is not facts but story lines, and especially with a defendant like DSK, it is easy to see signs of guilt. The French were horrified by the way he was paraded before the press, droopy-eyed and stubbly as Khalik Sheihk Mohammed; our mayor, conceding the humiliation point, argued that “if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime,” as many a New Yorker nodded along. He left the hotel in a rush, maybe. He was on suicide watch, said a leak out of Rikers. When the history emerged of the terrible way DSK has treated women — as if he were a Duke lacrosse player all grown up and handed the keys to one of the world’s elite institutions — we built the case a little more in our heads. This was imperious entitlement at its very worst, a modern-day morality play. Also: He’s French.

It bears noting that along with the tabloid excesses, the media’s protocols for reporting about sex crimes also paradoxically plays a role in shaping how we perceive this kind of scandal. Out of respect for her privacy and because of the particularly fraught nature of the crime, in the American press, we don’t name the accuser. (The French lack a similar guideline, which is why photos of the housekeeper are now easily found on the Internet, for those who wish to draw further inferences from her appearance.) It’s a noble principle, certainly, but the shield afforded the woman has a way of making us automatically categorize her as a victim, not simply an accusing witness.

Now that we know this hardworking immigrant mother is at the very least a more complicated figure, the presumption of guilt plays out in the opposite direction. DSK has been released on his own recognizance. Even if an otherwise duplicitous witness is telling the truth about the alleged attack, the district attorney’s job may have just become impossible. But really, the central mystery endures. On May 14, a rich, well-connected white man had sex in a hotel suite with a younger, poorer, black woman who is not his wife. We can conjure all sorts of narratives to fill in the blanks, but that fact may be the only aspect of this affair that we’ll ever be sure of.

Related: Dominique Strauss-Kahn Released on his Own Recognizance
Sexual Assault Case Against Dominique Strauss-Kahn ‘on the Verge of Collapse’
DSK’s Last Night of Captivity
The DSK Files: Sorting Out the Evidence, Rumors, and Conspiracy Theories About Dominique Strauss-Kahn