Why Strauss-Kahn case should give us hope

There is one hopeful note in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault of a New York hotel maid. The maid's story was believed and quickly acted upon. And after an initially defensive reaction to DSK's arrest, the French now face an opportunity for self-reflection.

In the still-unfolding, still-exploding scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former International Monetary Fund chief and prospective French presidential candidate, and his alleged sexual assault of a chambermaid in a $3,000-a night room in a New York hotel recently, the one cheering note is this:

The maid’s story was not only believed, but acted on – with impressive dispatch.

In too many scenarios involving the powerful and the powerless, the powerful prevail, with the powerless person dissuaded from even thinking of his or her own rights, much less pressing for them. This disparity is perhaps most acutely reflected in the crime of sexual assault, which, with few witnesses, often comes down to a duel of he said/she said, with “he” holding the power card. If he’s rich and powerful, as Mr. Strauss-Kahn is, that card is all the more daunting; indeed, it has silenced several of his complainants in the past.

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But not this time. In this case, the maid not only found support among her coworkers for her account of the assault (“In the world, she is a good person,” said one). More essential for traction, her employer (Sofitel Hotel), rather than defend the VIP guest or downplay the incident, came to her defense by calling the police to report an attempted rape. This is one enlightened hotel.

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For its part, the New York Police Department likewise acted commendably and expeditiously, treating an allegation of rape seriously and swinging into fast action, including tracing Strauss-Kahn via his cellphone. Port Authority detectives arrested him shortly thereafter at JFK airport, sitting in first-class on an Air France flight preparing for departure to Paris.

And now, Strauss-Kahn has been indicted by a grand jury and will stand trial for sexual assault. Released on bail for $1 million cash and $5 million on bond, he will remain in New York under house arrest. More serious than this, it’s hard to get.

Time for self-reflection in France

Reaction in France in the immediate aftermath of the arrest has been defensive. His supporters claim DSK, as he’s known, is the victim of a political setup by his presidential opponents. Others decry the “humiliation” of a major personage in the French establishment being subjected to NYPD’s “perp walk.” A French judge (a woman, dismayingly) called it “brutal,” though – truly, truly – it is sexual assault that is the brutal act. Fortunately, the French public is now recognizing and increasingly voicing this fact, and scorn of “puritanical America” is diminishing.

No doubt the French, whom I’ve long admired, will examine with their characteristic rigor this scandal’s many implications: For one, the droit de seigneur historically taken by many powerful French males (and many men worldwide, for that matter) to sexual favors, consensual or forced, and how that “right” squares with the egalité France exalts, and how the French press failed to do the squaring.

For another, the fact that the chambermaid in question is an African immigrant (from Guinea) conjures up the French colonialist past and raises questions about the openness of French society with which the French still grapple today. For yet another, the fact that DSK is a leader of the Socialist party, the putative champion of chambermaids, brings up a sharp sense of political irony and hypocrisy.

A teachable moment for US, too

To be fair, this is a teachable moment for America, too. Rape in the US military and the Peace Corps is a serious problem and needs to be redressed. And we might rethink the perp walk: The circus atmosphere it generates undermines the hallowed principle that an individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Still, for America and especially for women, this is a good day: Rape is finally being treated here as the serious crime of violence it is. And it’s a good day, too, for the once-upon-a-time powerless: In this conflict between a mogul and a maid, score one for the maid.

Of course, there is much more to come in this compelling case. But at least for now: We’ve come a long way, people.

Carla Seaquist served a 10-year career in civil rights, culminating as Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego and member of the California Governor’s Task Force on Civil Rights. At present she is a writer of commentary and plays.

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