Don’t confuse DSK’s sex life with assault

May 19, 2011

In the ‘‘Take Back the Night’’ marches I walked in in high school and college, one of my favorite chants was this one: ‘‘Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no.’’ That jingle was invented to popularize one of the most radical and important ideas of the second-wave feminists — that rape and promiscuity were entirely separate issues.

Some of the reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault is making the same dangerous mistake of blurring the distinction between licentiousness and coercion — between sex, and sexual assault.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s philandering — and indeed his infidelity — are not in dispute. Like Newt Gingrich, his current wife is his third, and just three years ago he had to publicly apologize to the International Monetary Fund for his ‘‘error in judgment’’ in having an affair with Piroska Nagy, a subordinate. That shameful act wasn’t a sexual assault, but it was what most of us (though not the I.M.F. board) would call sexual harassment. People close to Ms. Nagy say that the affair was consensual but that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s position as her ultimate boss made his advances inappropriate. As Ms. Nagy wrote in a letter to a law firm hired by the I.M.F. to investigate the affair, ‘‘I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.’’

But it is a grave and dangerous mistake, with particularly baleful consequences for women, to argue that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s history as a seducer, including in the workplace, makes him a more plausible rapist — even if, in the end, he does turn out to be guilty.

Yet that is what many of us are doing in the stunned aftermath to the Saturday arrest. The loudest culprits are an unlikely alliance of triumphant Anglo- Saxon puritans, feminists and the tabloid wing of the press. All of them are drawing a connecting line between Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s documented promiscuity and the allegation that he attempted rape and committed sexual assault last Saturday.

Speaking for Albion, a columnist in The Times of London this week happily declared, ‘‘The British may be too prudish about sexual behavior, but the Strauss-Kahn scandal shows that French fascination with political seducers may be at least equally misguided.’’

Even the French, who have long prided themselves on their tolerant cultural attitude toward the personal affairs of their leaders, have begun to question that national permissiveness.

But the thinking underlying all of these critiques — that a history of promiscuity and adultery is relevant to the current charges of rape and sexual assault — is as flawed as the old and discredited belief that ‘‘loose’’ women could not be raped. When it comes to women and victims, we have spent decades insisting — rightly — that there is a world of difference between consensual sex and forced sex, and the credibility and the authority of a woman’s right to say no is in no way diminished by the number of times she may have said yes in the past.

It is equally mistaken to imagine that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s history of consensual promiscuity has any bearing on the charges he now faces. Neither logic nor the facts suggest that men in sexually permissive cultures are more likely to be rapists than men in repressive ones, nor that such cultures are more misogynist or more dangerous to women.

Consider this: There were few places on earth where it was worse to be a woman, and where women had less control over their own bodies, than in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Roman Catholic Church deems homosexuality to be a sin and its priests take vows of celibacy, yet that has not prevented an epidemic of abuse.

(Indeed, if you are feeling contrarian, you could turn the whole argument upside down and contend that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s form as a Lothario makes him an unlikely rapist: why force a woman to have sex, when he seemed to have little trouble finding willing partners? But, of course, that defense is as invalid as the accusations based on past sexual behavior, because it makes the same mistake of putting rape and consensual sex in the same category.)

That is why there is one ugly allegation about Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s personal history that does matter — the claim by the journalist and writer Tristane Banon that he sexually assaulted her and tried to rape her during an interview in 2002. Ms. Banon’s lawyer said this week that she now planned to file a legal complaint against him. In all we have learned about Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s amorous history over the past few days, and of France’s cultural tolerance, this is the one episode that could matter.

Most feminists seem deeply unconcerned by the puritanical undertones to much of the analysis of the Strauss- Kahn case. That is a miscalculation.

One of the most important victories of modern feminism is drawing a very clear distinction between sexual ‘‘virtue’’ and sexual assault. The law sees no difference between raping a prostitute and raping a virgin. A husband who forces his wife to have sex commits a crime; a married woman who has an affair does not. France tolerates its philandering politicians. That has absolutely no relevance to the crime he is accused of committing in New York.


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DSK tackled women and tried to rip their clothes off repeatedly (journalists, actresses etc). He demanded sex from subordinates — people whose lives he controlled — using high pressure, repetitive tactics.

These are not the techniques of a seducer/persuader… Force, compulsion — in politics, this person is regarded as a dictator… in personal life, a predator

Posted by cathyk99 | Report as abusive

Well, a Brazilian prostitute quoted in the Daily Telgraph says he was “rough and angry, and said she didn’t want to see him again”.

Posted by LBNYC | Report as abusive

I think you make a valid point, however, it seems like a lot of what the French consider to be legitimate promiscuity borders on sexual harassment and aggression. So while we should not count philandering as evidence that DSK is a rapist, in light of recent events it might be valid to reexamine the instances of so-called consensual philandering to see if they tell a different story, perhaps one of assumed sexual entitlement and force.

On a French TV show in 2007, Tristane Banon discussed her encounter with DSK and the sexual assault that ensued. Just going off of the reactions from the people — one of whom said “J’adorrreee” when she got to the part about him trying to rip off her bra (2:25 on the clip) — it seems like this aggressive sexual behavior is at best expected and at worst excused for DSK types.

You can see the tv show here:  /15/01002-20110515ARTFIG00143-en-2008-l a-carriere-de-dsk-avait-deja-failli-vaci lle.php.

As Banon talks about the attempted rape, they’re all laughing. At 1:30 on the clip, as she is describing how he invited her to an empty apartment the man gives a face that can only be interpreted as “wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

Then at 2:00 she’s talking about how he started touching her and one man says “ok but look at you…” She defends herself saying she was wearing a black turtle neck, i.e. not asking for it.

Of course, just because DSK has had affairs in the past does not mean he is a rapist. But at the same time, within a culture that assumes politicians and powerful men have “a weakness for women, and so what,”it might be worth looking closely to see whether or not these past affairs have been as consensual as we assume.

Posted by Anonymous13 | Report as abusive

I think you make a valid point, however, it seems like a lot of what the French consider to be legitimate promiscuity borders on sexual harassment and aggression. So while we should not count philandering as evidence that DSK is a rapist, in light of recent events it might be valid to reexamine the instances of philandering to see if they tell a different story, perhaps one of assumed sexual entitlement and force.

Posted by Anonymous13 | Report as abusive


Thanks for this article, I was shocked at how the french media were mixing mixing two very different things: private life involving consensual sex between consenting adults, no matter the number involved at the same time, which has to remain private even for politicians, and unlawful actions such as sexual harassment, abuse of power to obtain sexual favors, groping, assault.

But when you writes that the feminists are making this mistake it is not true: Clementine Autain, a famous french feminist and politician, had to make this point very clear in a TV show two days ago, because all journalists there were still mixing everything.

She insisted that people’s sexual lives have to be kept private, no matter what kind of sexual life it is, as long as it involves consenting adults.
However, sexual harassment, abuse of power to obtain sexual favors, groping, assault and rape are not to be mixed in the same category.

She added that, constantly mixing both categories is harmful to women’s chances to get an equal treatment in the society including politics.

And she never implied that an active sexual life means a better chance to become a rapist, on the contrary, she said that should not be even made relevant in the case of DSK.


Posted by ElianeSF | Report as abusive

I’m certainly no fan of Newt Gingrich’s—quite the opposite; I wouldn’t vote for him for county garbage collector. But what relevance does he have at all in this otherwise well-written article?

Posted by CarsonChittom | Report as abusive

Being a successful seducer is one thing if clearly both parties are consenting adults with no corercion. Grabbing body parts uninvited is quite another. He’s done much of this, apparently. Groping and rape are on the same spectrum, as far as I am concerned. Rapists rape for a feeling of power. Gropers and sexual harassers do what they do for the same reason. A rapist sees no value in a woman. Neither does DSK. The pattern is relevant, especially given the incident you point out. How many assaults would you like for a pattern? How badly should he have hurt the latest victim to make it something other than licentiousness?

Posted by BuckeyeNick | Report as abusive

Ms Freeland, I think it may be you who is mistaken for attempting to separate DSK’s affair with a subordinate from his more deviant, illegal behavior. How can we say for sure that Ms Nagy consented. The fact that he was in a position of authority over her creates duress, and that duress may lead to an absence of objection to the situation. In her own words, Nagy said “I was damned if I did, damned if I didn’t” That DOES NOT seem a convincing case that their liaison was appropriately consensual. He’s not a ladies’ man, he’s a predator.
Also, what’s up with the extraneous and irrelevant Newt Gingrich reference in the third graph? It’s like I was eating a bowl of ice cream and suddenly bit into a piece of bacon. Perhaps a poorly-veiled attempt to create guilt by association?

Posted by GRW777 | Report as abusive

Funny how so many people don’t seem to get the difference between the 2. This is a good article, and hopefully this kind of approach will happen in this case, however i doubt it.
I hope he can have a fair trial, as for now the presumption of innocence does not seem to exist, and it’s also raised some significant flaws in our justice system.

I believe rapists should be castrated and locked up, but until a jury finds this man guilty, we have to treat him with respect and dignity

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

I stopped reading after the Gingrich reference – I don’t care for him (at all) but he’s one of thousands of people out there on his third marriage – unless Newt has also been accused of sexual assault, that was a pointless reference that cheapened this effort.

Posted by jimmybnyc | Report as abusive

A lot of the opinions voiced need to take a step back. There is no solid evidence available and a lot of people give interviews to media because it helps their “fifteen minutes of fame”.

It’s a fact we have no idea what/if happened with DHK. This could’ve been a girl looking for money, it could be a smear, or it’s flat out assault. But the comments here sound like a witch hunt.

Posted by VanGuy44 | Report as abusive

Wow, you are absolutely correct, Chrystia! I have read many, many articles on this subject and you are the first to get the difference between promiscuity and rape. And I agree that this man did not have to rape a Third World country, poor, African woman. He could have easily purchased a willing partner just around the corner from the Sofitel. People are just too stupid…or maybe it’s just meanness and hatred that drives them. Whatever it is, it is not attractive and I hope I don’t know anyone like most of the commenters here.

Posted by lezah2 | Report as abusive

If France chooses DSK as its ruler then they resurrect the dark ages; every woman in French government will become a member of DSK’s expanding international harem.

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

Just because he could have “purchased a willing partner” just around the corner, doesn’t mean he didn’t rape the maid. Some men like the fact that they are getting something that is denied them – it’s all about power, even if it’s just the power of the moment. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the thrill is the fear and fight of the other person. Men who are predators rely on the other person’s distress.

Posted by 1001maddy | Report as abusive

If it was rape or a setup – I am just glad it bring light on the IMF.

This 40 year institution is money laundering for global corporation. Taking our tax money and using the IMF to enforce poor countries to give their assets away at pennies on the dollar. It has outlasted it’s purpose and it acts as a self serving entity (3000 per night hotel stays). I bet there will never be an audit on the in and out of funds to this institution or it’s members.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

The more we learn about this guy, who ironically claims that he loves women, while acting like a insatiable sex predator, that actually denotes more his misogynistic tendencies which become more excessive by abusing his powerful position.

This beast should be put in prison where it belongs and may feel more at home surrounded by others like him, rather than living the privileged life of a modern Caligula…

Posted by marusik | Report as abusive

Thank you for the wonderfully incisive piece, Ms. Freeland.
One point I with which I take issue, though:
“(I)f you are feeling contrarian, you could turn the whole argument upside down and contend that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s form as a Lothario makes him an unlikely rapist: why force a woman to have sex, when he seemed to have little trouble finding willing partners? But, of course, that defense is as invalid as the accusations based on past sexual behavior, because it makes the same mistake of putting rape and consensual sex in the same category.”
I think that defense is in fact quite valid – as long as one clarifies it with a couple of additional points:
1. Rape – as psychiatrists, police investigators and popular TV shows such as “Criminal Minds” assure us – is not about sex, but about power. I find it hard to believe that a man who is rich, powerful and, indeed, has “little trouble finding willing partners” would feel a need to assert his self-esteem or his power over a hotel maid. He has enough power as it is, and is fully aware of it. A hotel maid is probably one of the last people in this world to whom he would need to demonstrate it.
2. If by any chance he was a rapist, then consider the fact that rapists nearly always choose their victims from among people who fit a certain common type. All the women with whom DSK philandered or whom he harassed (depending on how you look at it) are well-educated, successful professionals. They are part of the world’s intellectual, financial or power elite. They are also all white – which is important because a rarely switches his preferences between races.
If we knew nothing about DSK’s alleged victim and only heard claims that he raped a woman in his hotel suite, a logical assumption – based on what is known about his previous paramours – would be that the alleged victim is likely to be a highly educated, accomplished professional, and most likely white. But a poor, uneducated immigrant chambermaid? That just goes against logic and all known psychiatric or criminal trends.

Posted by rdflipper | Report as abusive

Whereas we live in the 21st.Century,we are still bound by a conflicting Victorian moral code (e.g.Lesbianism was not regarded as illegal in Victoria’s day because she could not understand it therefore would not sign it into Law) when it comes to acceptable behaviour,or so it seeems to me.DSK has been found guilty by the ‘fourth estate\'(makes great headlines anyway)or at least his ‘political’ life has been assassinated.As for ‘the French tolerating philandering politicians’,I suppose this reference does not carry any ‘judgement’of their ‘vive la difference’ and it is what makes them ‘French’ after all.There is no ambiguity in “no means no” the disambiguation exists in a culture/society where a minister for/of justice(Ken Clarke for example)cannot define what “Rape” means and attempts to explain the difference in… well you get the idea.I suspect the notion of “Innocent until Proven Guilty” carry’s weight somewhere.As for people who do not understand consent and coercion it is a bit like unravelling the mystery of how the bacon got into the ice cream in the first place.I enjoyed reading the opinion in Chrystia Freeland’s piece.

Posted by gliam | Report as abusive

{CF: It is equally mistaken to imagine that Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s history of consensual promiscuity has any bearing on the charges he now faces. }

In at least one case that promiscuity has not been consensual and when the woman (Tristane Banon) actually made the accusation on French TV (in 2004) neither did Strauss-Khan react (by claiming public libel) nor did journalists pursue the matter. Why?

Because the journalistic protocol of the day was that one’s private life remained private. Which is not a bad rule generally, except when public figures are involved.

The media brouhaha in NYC IS justified by the fact that DSK is (1) likely a recidivist and (2) a Public Figure and perhaps most importantly (3) France has no Extradition Agreement with the US (and he was arrested on a flight to Paris).

DSK was head of the FMI for which apparently this sort of licentiousness in which DSK self-indulges seems to have been endemic to the institution since its inception until very recently. DSK was thus within a world environment that condoned the licentiousness.

Yes, rape must be proved for DSK to be sentenced, but let us hope that his perverse and public licentiousness has destroyed his political career.

And, finally, one note from the French new journal Le Point: It appears that DSK’s last words just before his arrest on the Air France flight to the stewardess was, “You have a nice ass”.

Is this the sort of behaviour that is conscionable in a public figure? Methinks not.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

If I understand correctly, you emphasize that neither accused nor accuser should ever be subjected to inferences or questioning about prior sexual history, sexual experience, number of past partners, apparel, or any other aspect of sexual or other personal behavior, insofar as the prior history has no connection with allegations of assault. So, for example, if an accused person had previously been convicted or credibly accused of forcing sexual contact on another person, that information might be relevant in the context of the current case, but habits such as reading pornography or having multiple past sexual partners are never relevant. Likewise if the complainant had a prior history of making unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault, that might be relevant, but the complainant’s appearance, demeanor, manner of dress, past sexual history or number of prior partners are never relevant. The only question to be adjudicated, then, is whether or not the accused made forcible or otherwise coerced sexual advances upon the accuser.

ll this seems so logical and even-handed that it would be difficult to take exception to any of it.

I would merely point out that such personal matters (along with many others) might be legitimately raised in connection with a character witness, but otherwise not at all.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

Another Bernie Madoff?

Posted by kerrythetool | Report as abusive

Philanderers very much enjoy the company of women and like sex with them; on the other hand, rapists hate women and are violent towards them. These two concepts and behaviors do not go together in the same individual. Indeed, rape is not a sexual act, although it may involve sex; it is a violent assault, much closer to the category of homicide, and many times ending in homicide.
It is not possible to determine in advance how aggressive and insistent a pursuit or conquest can be, because this is defined by cultural and social contexts. Similarly, consent is seldom a matter of Yes or No, since the interplay rejection/ acceptance is a major part of the seduction and foreplay process. Indeed, women who have graduated from feminism are able to see how much they enjoy the Yes/No cat-mouse game, which reportedly provides them with a much greater level of sexual excitement. I believe all these elements may have played a good part in the DSK incident.
In a puritan country like the USA, fascinated with sex but unable to fully accept it and exercise it, alleged sex crimes are culturally viewed as much worse than homicide. False concepts lumping together sexual behavior and rape are easily introduced and repeated, and then go on without any questioning. Aware of the average person’s lack of knowledge and sophistication in these matters, law enforcement certainly supports and promotes these confusions, to the point that presumption of innocence does not exist in sex cases. It does in murder cases.

Posted by Citrine | Report as abusive

Apparently, powerful men regularly get hung up by their petard: Clinton, Spitzer, Assange, DSK are recent cases.

I’d be very suspicious about honey traps. There are many unscrupulous billionaires at jeopardy, and billions of their dollars at risk. Plus, it is a fact that many woman are particularly attracted by power. And then you have the prosecutors who are repelled by other’s power. I’m just surprised that such cases aren’t more common.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Are you guys serious? Please be HONEST for a minute… We all read the court documents and we are among grown up adults, OK? And you mean to tell me that a 62 years old dude, fat,non sportive unarmed and in birth suit would be able to grab a FULLY DRESSED woman in her 30s, undress her, force her to perform oral sex (quite dangerous…)bruising her all over and eventually penetrating her? All that with no noise and without him being scratched or bruised of course… Hahaha what a JOKE! If such a guy would start to have this kind of behavior, ladies, would you let it all happen or slap the c**p out of the idiot, open the door and walk away in 2 seconds???? I do NOT buy this Rape story.

Posted by Meauxus | Report as abusive

You’re right Ms Freeland, don’t confuse the two.
So why are you doing just that?
Furthermore, to suggest that his power grants him anything so he doesn’t need to rape cleverly rewrites the fact rape is not immune to power.

All kinds of people rape, not just non-rich, crazy drunks.
DSK is just as likely to rape as the next guy.

Meauxus, I hope you don’t have any daughters. God forbid if they get raped and you don’t believe them.

Posted by sad_noodle | Report as abusive

The Predatory instinct is in all males, most males have this in control and do not offend. What constantly shocks me is that people cannot understand that men in power are at the same risk of losing control as a general laborer. Those in power who get caught offending seem to defy logic to the average person, but think about it, power is associated with predatory traits. The person in power will gradually show his predatory traits if he has been overlooked, or permitted to do as he pleases due to his position. Respect can only go so far, we have to see with clear lenses that are not biased.

Posted by MarcoCota | Report as abusive

Let’s face it! Americans hate the French!

Posted by Smitty77 | Report as abusive

Ms. Freeland, your article sounds like Reuters just got a phone call from the DSK PR machine which of course in in overdrive these days. To make this kind of apology for DSK that he is a promiscious and not a rapist makes me sick and truly wonder how you got your job.

I have seen over and over again where men in a position of power use their position to get women subordinates to sleep with them. A subordinate sleeping with her boss is perhaps Consensual in the sense the woman was not a knife or gun point, but the trigger on her career aspirations was certainly in effect. If a woman says no to her boss or other superior, does she really think she will still get promoted. Most like no.

That’s why for all sense and purposes it is rape. The woman has no position to say yes or no unless she wants to give up her job and career. Is that fair? Is that justice?

DSK is a pig. How the IMF, the French Socialist and his wife can ever have supported him is beyond my comprehension.

By the way, I am male and find it absolutely disgusting when women are treated like a as a toy.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

Ms Freeland makes clear the point of the subject, there is a huge difference between consensual and forced sex. There are many circumstances in which a man can coerce a woman. The French culture doesn’t have the monopoly on these situations, this happens al over the world. Besides that is the hole point of statutory rape, because a minor is not in the position of saying no. There is power that a man (or a woman) can exert were the woman (or man) has no choice.
Culture can only make it seem permissible what is not right, but it can not make it right. There are many circumstances were it would be impossible for somebody to say no and not suffer the consequences, and even be credible after the fact to get justice. This is not about culture; it’s about nature, nurture, but mostly about personal decisions, character, conscience and doing the right thing. Intimacy is about demonstrating love to one another, not about brutalizing somebody.

Posted by oalva | Report as abusive