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Sex Scandals Involving Women of Color

What the Sex Controversies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and More Say About Race


Sex Scandals Involving Women of Color

Cover image of memoir by Strom Thurmond's biracial black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams

Updated December 31, 2012

What do Hugh Grant, Strom Thurmond and Arnold Schwarzenegger have in common? Each of these powerful men made headlines after landing in sex scandals involving women of color. Such controversies have garnered media attention since the 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson was accused of bedding his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings. But these scandals aren’t just fodder for the rumor mill. When women from ethnic minorities are entangled in sex scandals, the media coverage and public reaction gauges what progress, if any, the nation has made with regards to race and gender. This overview of women of color in sex scandals highlights how the press covered these controversies, how the women in question fared after being scandalized and the role race and gender played in the outcome. Divine Brown is arguably the most famous of the women featured in this overview. Learn more about her and the other women in this roundup.

Scandal: Arnold Schwarzenegger Fathers Child With Housekeeper

What Happened: When news broke that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were separating after 25 years of marriage, the public was curious as to why. Shortly after that announcement, Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a now teenage child outside of his marriage. On May 18, 2011, the public identified the other woman in the scandal as Mildred Baena, Schwarzenegger’s longtime Guatemalan housekeeper.

Media Response: The press reacted to the news by painting Schwarzenegger as a Lothario with a long history of womanizing. Shriver and his children were portrayed as victims, but neither they nor Schwarzenegger was spared by the paparazzi, who swarmed them relentlessly. Meanwhile, Baena was vilified for betraying Shriver and keeping her son’s paternity a secret. Gossip websites such as TMZ.com portrayed Baena as a “self-hating” Latina and the sexual aggressor in her relationship with Schwarzenegger, despite the fact that she was his servant, and he was a Hollywood icon and governor of a state.

End Result/Where They Are Now: Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger have yet to divorce. The couple and their children continue to be hounded by the news media. Baena broke her silence about the controversy in a June 2011 piece for British-based Hello! magazine. During the interview, she said that she hadn’t immediately known that Schwarzenegger was the father of her son, Joseph. She also said that she hoped the Schwarzeneggers could overcome the scandal. Baena subsequently denied being paid to do the Hello! interview, explaining that she’d spoken out to set the record straight.

Scandal: IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn Accused of Rape

What Happened: On May 14, 2011, a Guinean hotel maid at the Sofitel in Manhattan reported that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, sexually assaulted her and tried to rape her after she entered his room to clean it. Strauss-Kahn was charged with attempted rape but denied the allegations, instead claiming that any sexual relations between he and the maid were consensual. On May 19, 2011, a grand jury indicted Strauss-Kahn to stand trial on seven criminal charges.

Media Response: The French press published the name of the hotel maid and accused her of being part of a conspiracy to prevent Strauss-Kahn from running for president. A Socialist political party leader, past cabinet minister and French National Assembly member, Strauss-Kahn outpolled President Nicolas Sarkozy before his arrest for rape, ABC News reported. The French presidential election is set for Spring 2012. Despite the conspiracy theories reported in the French press, the Sofitel maid’s claims appear to be credible based on the evidence collected and French journalist Tristane Banon’s allegation that Strauss-Kahn also tried to rape her.

The U.S. media has been largely sympathetic to Strauss-Kahn's accuser in its coverage, but the women's website Jezebel said that news outlets such as the New York Times appeared to be depicting her as a "noble savage" by emphasizing her humble beginnings in West Africa. Moreover, the New York Post faced criticism by implying that Strauss-Kahn's accuser had HIV after reporting that she rented an apartment in a building designed for HIV survivors. Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of the anti-rape group A Long Walk Home, told ColorLines magazine that such coverage reduced the accuser to an African-AIDS stereotype and suggested that the accuser was the sexual predator in the situation and not Strauss-Kahn.

End Result/Where They Are Now: Strauss-Kahn resigned from the IMF and is now awaiting trial. He faces up to 25 years in prison, if convicted. His accuser remains in hiding.

Scandal: Duke Lacrosse Players Accused of Rape

What Happened: In March 2006, an African-American exotic dancer named Crystal Gail Mangum entertained members of the nearly all-white Duke University lacrosse team at an off-campus party. Afterward, she accused some players of rape. As a result of Mangum’s claims, three Duke University students were charged with first-degree sexual offense, kidnapping and rape. Although Mangum’s credibility was called into question due to inconsistencies in her story, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong insisted that a rape had taken place and aggressively pursued the Duke students. Later, the state bar association filed ethics charges against Nifong for excluding evidence and making provocative remarks about the case, and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took over. On April 11, 2007, Cooper dismissed the charges against the players, explaining that the evidence suggested that no attack on Mangum had transpired.

Media Response: White men raping black woman was once an all too common occurrence in the South. Accordingly, Mangum’s accusations against white athletes from one of the South’s most elite universities garnered much press, with the New York Times, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, “60 Minutes” and so on covering the scandal.

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