Don’t confuse DSK’s sex life with assault
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.