Kenneth Thompson's handling of Nafissatou Diallo's case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn has come under a lot of scrutiny in the past few days. But one aspect deserves extra attention: his use of the v-word.
The New Yorker has questioned Thompson's (and presumably Diallo's) decision to file a civil suit now, while the criminal case is still ongoing. The New York Post — which Thompson is also suing on Diallo's behalf — claims that his decision to file suit in the Bronx Supreme Court is a crafty move, since according to one source, "the Bronx civil jury is the greatest tool of wealth redistribution since the Red Army." And an in-depth Observer profile examines Thompson's high-profile status and includes allegations of past ethics violations. Perhaps the most interesting quote from the Observer piece, though, is this, from former partner Andrew Goodstadt:
He connects with juries. He connects with members of the media. I mean, you saw him standing out in front of the court house on D.S.K. I mean for a 35-minute uninterrupted CNN interview where you use the word vagina 20 times in four minutes.
Actually, as you can see in the clip above, he used the word "vagina" five times in under one minute. He said it one more time toward the end of his statement to the press, bringing the grand total to six in twenty minutes. This makes his July 1 speech on the courthouse steps important not just in relation to the increasingly convoluted DSK case, but as a rare example of the use of "vagina" as a rhetorical strategy. Call it Kenneth Thompson's vagina monologue.
As the Observer's Brian Gallagher notes, the whole speech is designed to be "uncomfortable to hear." In addition to his six v-bombs, Thompson also says "semen" three times and "female genital mutilation" twice. Clearly biological frankness is part of his approach. But there's something special about the word "vagina." For one thing, there's our general squeamishness about the term and the organ it refers to, part of Eve Ensler's rationale for launching the Vagina Monologues in the first place. Saying "penis" six times might seem crass or silly — but even fifteen years after Ensler's play opened, six references to female genitals still make a speech sound shocking.
Beyond that, though, Thompson's word choice is a clear rejection of euphemistic discussion of sexual assault. He doesn't say Strauss-Kahn "took advantage" of Diallo or "forced himself" on her — he says he "grabbed her vagina." The brutality of what he's alleging is inescapable, and everyone listening is forced to think about the disturbing physical details of the accusation. His language also emphasizes Diallo's vulnerability — her very anatomy is laid out before his listeners, clinical and unobscured.
Gallagher says Thompson was "clearly [...] trying to get the case to trial, using the press." And whether he's motivated by money, fame, ambition, ideology, or a combination of all four, it's obviously his goal to influence public opinion in favor of his client. His speech isn't unbiased, but it is an important reminder that we sometimes gloss over the harsh physical facts of rape. Sexual assault on a woman often involves trauma to her vagina, and there's a power in being explicit about that, whether you're doing so to advance your case or not.
Lawyer For Nafissatou Diallo, Alleged Victim Of D.S.K., Takes His Case To The Press [NY Observer]
Why Sue D.S.K.? [New Yorker]
DSK Maid Suing In Be$t Boro [NY Post]