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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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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.

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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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