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The New York Post Is at It Again; This Time It Outs Alleged Victim's HIV Status

Instead of Focusing on the Alleged Rape that the former IMF President May Have Committed, the Newspaper Did What it Does Best: Stigmatized HIV and Blamed the Victim

May 20, 2011

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell

As a New Yorker for the past nine years, I have grown accustomed to the ridiculousness called the New York Post. I no longer shudder when the newspaper refers to criminals of color as "thugs," transgender people as "trannies," or exotic dancers as "strippers." I have accepted the fact that journalistic integrity and this Rupert Murdoch-owned publication don't go hand in hand. (Just think Fox News in print.) But Wednesday morning, the New York Post published "IMF accuser in apt. for HIV vic," a story so scathing and stigmatizing that it actually shocked me.

In a botched attempt at what they might believe is "investigative journalism," staff reporters Jennifer Bain and Bob Fredericks somehow "uncovered" that Dominique Strauss-Kahn's nameless alleged rape victim may be HIV positive and living in an apartment complex designated for people living with HIV.

The article's first two sentences are enough to make your blood boil: "Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have more to worry about than a possible prison sentence. The IMF chief's alleged sex-assault victim lives in a Bronx apartment rented exclusively for adults with HIV or AIDS, The Post has learned." Oh, did I forget to mention that the story was also on the front page under the headline "Hotel Maid in HIV Shocker"?

Sadly, it gets worse.

Instead of focusing on the alleged sexual assault of the 32-year-old West African chambermaid who claims she was forced to perform oral sex on Strauss-Kahn in his Times Square hotel room, the reporters spend the majority of their efforts emphasizing the woman's supposed housing. Yesterday, her lawyer confirmed on The Today Show that these claims were "absolutely not true." The Post reporters also overestimated the actual HIV risk of oral sex (in reality it's extremely low) and painted Strauss-Kahn as a victim. The authors referred to him as "the humiliated 62-year-old suspect," made sure to mention that he was held without bail and is currently on suicide watch, and said he has been "reduced to wearing shoes without laces and a medical device to make sure he's breathing."

Look, I am fully aware that Strauss-Kahn's guilt is to be determined by a jury of his peers, so I shouldn't judge him, nor should the paper. But to paint him as a victim and try to out her supposed HIV status is just plain wrong.

What does her alleged HIV status have to do with this case? Absolutely nothing. And if she is HIV positive, which has not been confirmed, how is it any of our business? It's not.

Throwing HIV into the mix automatically distracts us from what is really going on and sways sympathy away from the alleged victim. Let's keep it real: This epidemic continues to be viewed as a moral issue (as opposed to a public health crisis) and because of this belief, many folks lack sympathy for those living with HIV/AIDS. Some equate AIDS with promiscuous whores or bitter criminals who purposely set out to infect others. And it's hard to garner sympathy for people who are believed to be "bad."

Not only does outing her status continue the stigmatization of HIV, but it makes the AIDS community feel less safe. There are confidentiality laws for a reason: to protect people's privacy. This public outing -- something that HIV/AIDS advocates fought so hard against in the '80s -- sets the entire HIV/AIDS community back.

But while some may see HIV as the sole issue here, it's extremely important to recognize that more is at play. What the Post did to the accuser is what media does to too many rape victims, HIV positive or not: undermine them, blame them and paint them in the most horrendous light.

This past March, the prestigious New York Times ran a story basically blaming an 11-year-old Texas girl for being gang raped by 18 men and boys. Author James C. McKinley wrote, "[Residents] said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said." A neighbor tells the paper, "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?"

Yeah, they went there.

So if this can happen to a child, this 32-year-old West African hotel maid living in the Bronx didn't stand a damn chance. Because if it wasn't HIV, it would have been something else: Perhaps she dressed provocatively and kept a few buttons on her work uniform unbuttoned; or had sex with some of her co-workers in the past; or moonlighted as an erotic dancer; or had three children with three different men. Whatever these reporters found, it would have been used against her.

It's also important to stress that while many rape victims get unfair treatment in the media, when you factor in race, our country's tumultuous history with race relations, the fact that the accuser is a single, black (and working-class) mother, and the assailant is a married, white (and extremely wealthy) man, that treatment can even be more egregious. Historically, black women have not even been allowed to report rape, especially if it was committed by a white man. During slavery, in addition to being property, black women were wrongly viewed as innately promiscuous oversexed jezebels who tempted their white masters to have consensual sex with them. In reality, these women were brutally and repeatedly raped.

Yes, we have come a long way since the antebellum South and the "good ol' boy" days, but these and other crippling stereotypes about black women are still alive and well in our post-(Michelle) Obama America. Some people still believe that black women are "too whorish," "too strong and aggressive" and/or are "too ugly" (thanks, Psychology Today) to be raped. And no, in this particular article the Post never overtly race- or gender-baited, but its mishandling of this situation shows a complete lack of cultural sensitivity and plays into our shameful history of downplaying and undermining black women's victimization.

Overall, what the Post did -- stigmatizing HIV and blaming the victim -- is to be expected, because sensationalism and stupidity sells. And given the hit that publishing has taken over recent years, nowadays many media outlets don't care who they hurt, what lies they tell or what unnecessary drama they create. All that matters is selling more copies of their crappy product, and making more money.

In the end, our media will only change when enough of us stop tolerating ignorance and mediocrity and start demanding fair, accurate and unbiased reporting for all.

Who's willing to join me?

Take a stand and speak your mind!

Housing Works is calling on people across the country to contact the New York Post and condemn the publication's decision to release this information.

Express your outrage by calling Editor-in-Chief Col Allan at (212) 930-8272, emailing, and retweeting the following message:

"NYPost reveals Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim lives in AIDS housing. Condemn their tabloid HIV scare tactics @NewYorkPost!"

Also the Women's Media Center has created a petition against the Post. Sign it here.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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See Also
More on Sexual Abuse, Violence and HIV/AIDS


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