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.