Opinion

Why Strauss-Kahn arrest and French reaction shouldn't surprise us

Many French have leapt to defend former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn after his arrest for allegedly raping a hotel maid in NYC. This rush to defend powerful men accused of sexual violence isn't uniquely French. It's a symptom of the deep-seated misogyny that exists around the globe.

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This week’s arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, on charges that he sexually assaulted a maid at a chic Manhattan hotel, has led prominent figures in France to dismiss the victim’s allegations as “impossible” or even a political “set-up.” But neither they nor we should be surprised that politically powerful and respected men are capable of acts of sexual violence against women.

Just last December, an Israeli court convicted Moshe Katsav, the former president of Israel, for raping a woman while still in office. When the accusations first came to light, Vladimir Putin, then-president of Russia, caused a minor scandal by calling Mr. Katsav a “mighty man” and joking that “we all envy him.”

Making light of claims of violence against women is nothing new. Nor is blaming female victims for the violence they suffer at the hands of men, which remains the norm across the globe.

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A history of dismissing victims

In 2005, Jacob Zuma, then a rising star in the political firmament of the African National Congress, was put on trial for having raped a young AIDS activist. Mr. Zuma, who was acquitted, is now the president of South Africa. But many South Africans believe that Zuma was given a pass by the courts, and women’s rights activists at the time rightly faulted Zuma’s attorney for putting his accuser on trial for her past sexual behavior.

Here in the US, our own culture never seems to tire of the pornographic myth of “Girls Gone Wild” – that girls and young women “ask” to be sexually abused and objectified. Yet nowhere in our lexicon do we have an expression for “men gone wild," to describe the pervasive abuse of women and girls by men. When a woman claims to have been attacked by a powerful man, her accusations instead are typically met with public skepticism.

In February 1999, business owner Juanita Broaddrick gave a heart-wrenching account on NBC’s “Dateline” of how then-President Bill Clinton had allegedly raped her in a hotel room in 1978, during Clinton’s first campaign for governor of Arkansas. Soon after the show aired, a CNN poll found that most of those surveyed did not believe Ms. Broaddrick’s account, and two thirds wanted the media to drop the story altogether.

A similar public skepticism has greeted Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest back in his native France, where Jean-Marie Le Guen, a Socialist member of parliament, described the maid’s accusations against Strauss-Kahn as “not credible” and claimed that the IMF head’s behavior may have involved “seduction” but certainly not “constraint or violence.”

Symptom of deep-seated misogyny

In reality, the criminal behavior Strauss-Kahn is charged with is all too believable. Men do this sort of thing all the time. And not just “seedy,” powerless men, but well-heeled and well-connected men, too. Sexual violence against women is found at every level of the social and class hierarchy.

Tragically, so too is the tendency to excuse prominent men for their predatory behavior. In 2009, when the Los Angeles district attorney asked Swiss authorities to extradite the filmmaker Roman Polanski to the US to face charges from the late-1970s of having raped a 13-year old girl at his home and then skipping bail, a host of artists, intellectuals, and literary figures lined up on both sides of the Atlantic to declare their “outrage” at what they described as the “harassment” of a great artist. Eventually, bowing to international pressure, the Swiss refused the extradition request and dropped all charges against Mr. Polanski.

Such alacrity on the part of educated men and women to leap to the defense of powerful and respected men accused of sexual violence is a symptom of the deep-seated misogyny of our culture. That misogyny transcends race, class, religion, national identity, and political ideology.

Signs of dawning feminist consciousness?

In Israel, when several women in President Katsav’s office first came forward to accuse him of rape, sexual harassment, and attempted sexual assault, Katsav’s conservative Likud supporters accused them of having made the charges up. The same reaction could be seen last August, this time on the political left, when a local district attorney in Sweden began making inquiries into the alleged sexual misconduct of Julian Assange, director of the muckraking website WikiLeaks.

As in the Polanski case, thousands of politicians and activists rallied to Mr. Assange’s defense. Not a few accused his female accusers of acting as shills of the American government, which allegedly wanted to extradite Assange to the US for trial or imprisonment for his role in leaking sensitive US diplomatic cables.

They could not get their heads around the possibility that Assange might be both a hero of the left and a sexual perpetrator at one and the same time.

The same cognitive incapacity is afflicting members of the French Parliament this week, where MPs on both the left and the right have angrily condemned Strauss-Kahn's arrest by the NYPD.

It is a sign of our dawning feminist consciousness that more women are feeling freer to come forward to report attacks by "respectable" men, and that many of these women are being taken seriously by the police and being believed by the courts. But it is a sign of how much further we still have to go that when women do come forward to accuse the powerful, their claims are still received by many with an ugly mix of disbelief, mockery, and denial.

John Sanbonmatsu teaches philosophy and politics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

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