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Women on Trial

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Shame on The New York Times.

A housekeeper gets pregnant by the famous and powerful man for whom she works. For 10 years, she continues to work in the home and never says a word. After 20 years of service, she retires and buys a house 100 miles away to raise her son.

Now that house is surrounded by reporters.

The New York Times, in a story on Thursday, insisted that its policy was not to name the person in such situations. But that isn't really true; they just don't go first. If somebody else decides to destroy the privacy of a housekeeper -- say, a blogger or TMZ -- then the Times will publish the name (and even print a picture of her house) as long as they can confirm its accuracy.

Since when does The New York Times base its editorial decisions on what TMZ does?

This is exactly what happened in the William Kennedy Smith case, but it was NBC who did it first, and The New York Times, like any competitive toddler, followed right behind.

Not surprisingly, the woman is being blamed for that, too. After all, why didn't she know enough to take down her MySpace account, which included pictures of her son and her (now being reprinted on various Internet sites)? Now his life will never be the same, either.

Maybe she had never before been the center of a media frenzy.

The maid who was allegedly assaulted and forced to perform oral sex on IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is not faring much better. While The New York Times has not published her name yet, French media have -- and I suppose if I spent five minutes online I could find it. But her life is being destroyed anyway. She can't go home because it is surrounded by reporters. She can't go back to work because the hotel is also swarming with reporters.

She is a 32-year-old widowed immigrant with a 15-year-old daughter she hasn't been able to see in days. She was cleaning hotel rooms. The very notion -- now being aggressively pushed by his lawyers -- that this was consensual sex almost certainly means there is forensic evidence (such as DNA) establishing the fact of a sexual act. In that case, the only defense available to Strauss-Kahn is to place the blame on a promiscuous maid who would have sex with a strange old man before cleaning the toilet in the next room. Nuts and sluts. No wonder she is afraid her life will never be the same.

"It is part of a fascination with the man," Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University, told The New York Times. "What sort of woman could this powerful man have been attracted to?"

I have enormous respect for Goldberg, but in my judgment, this has nothing to do with the sort of woman a powerful man is attracted to. Was the head of the IMF really attracted to the maid cleaning his room? Was Arnold Schwarzenegger really attracted to the housekeeper who cleaned his home? Or did they see these women as powerless and vulnerable, as women who could be used and (at least in the case of Strauss-Kahn) discarded like toilet paper on the way out the door?

Both of these men, need I point out, are married to beautiful, intelligent and accomplished women. They travel in the kind of circles where they meet plenty of beautiful women they could have sex with, without committing a crime or humiliating their family.

Our system of justice presumes innocence not because that is the likely truth, but because it is fair. If the prosecutors of the Manhattan sex crimes unit and the judge who presided at the bail hearing didn't believe the maid's account, Strauss-Kahn wouldn't be at Rikers Island. If what she said is true, it has nothing to do with attraction. Sexual assault is a crime of violence, not sex. It has more to do with vulnerability than good looks.

As for Arnold, he announced Thursday that he is putting all new film projects on hold. But the Hollywood buzz is that he'll be back, that this is unlikely to have any impact on his return to movie star status. Maybe so. But his family, including the housekeeper and her son, almost certainly will pay the price.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

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