The DSK Debacle Uncovers a Cultural Divide on Rape
The French and the Americans are at odds thanks to the arrest of “The Great Seducer,” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now-former head of the IMF. I feel required to mention Strauss-Kahn since I’m the SunBreak’s beleaguered correspondent in the Paris hot zone, but it’s not easy for me.
For one thing, typing the words “The Great Seducer” up there made me feel dirty and angry. For another thing, I usually write humor, and after examining this story from all angles, I’ve determined there is not a smidge of humor to be found in it.
Our French friends love to talk with us about the case, in particular, about how they think the U.S. sucks. Also, we are prudes. They’re upset their DSK was shown in handcuffs. They’re horrified cameras are allowed in American courtrooms. They are disgusted by our “perp walk” and the American penchant for crime spectacle. (That’s one thing, at least, on which we agree.)
My French teacher believes the DSK affair has been made a bigger deal than it really is because it happened in America, and Americans are uptight about sex. I said, Yes, it’s true we are more uptight about sex, but what we’re really uptight about is people raping people. The two are not the same. She then said rape isn’t as shocking to the French. I responded with, Why the hell not? Honestly, what the hell is wrong with you, woman? Not my most coldly logical argument but my incredulousness overruled my reason.
When I brought up allegations of DSK’s past sexual aggression, a friend of ours acknowledged perhaps he has “a weakness.” A weakness? A weakness? I don’t think “being rapey” can be considered a weakness–it’s more a sociopathic character trait that makes you a menace to civilized society. That same friend said, “So he loves women….” and let the sentence trail off with a shrug of the shoulders. Another friend’s mother-in-law said it couldn’t be rape because rape only happens when the “propositioning man” has a weapon. Then my head exploded.
If my husband mentions Strauss-Kahn at work, his co-workers fire back that our politicians aren’t perfectly behaved either–why, just look at Bill Clinton! It’s true powerful men the world over have tried to get away with things, but the relevance of the Bill Clinton argument eludes me. Monica was a willing participant. Monica liked cigars. If she had said, “I don’t want a cigar anywhere near me,” we would have had a whole different problem with what happened in the Oval Office. I think we, as Americans, make the distinction between extramarital dalliance and act of violence. I’m not sure the French do–in fact, I’m starting to wonder if they even know what rape is.
The majority of French people seem to believe Strauss-Kahn was set up. Others say the maid is lying for money. Most say there’s no way he would have done something so careless, and in the land of uptight prudes no less, right before a run for the presidency.
He is vigorously defended; the victim is persecuted. The victim’s full name has been printed in the French press. It was suggested early on we needed to see a picture of her, hinting that her attractiveness or lack thereof would be a clue to what happened. I’ve now stopped reading French press on the subject, for while there are many level-headed people out there calling for an examination of deep-rooted misogyny in French culture, there are just as many, if not more, stuck in their caves.
I understand the French don’t want the allegations to be true. Strauss-Kahn is a respected politician and their best hope to beat a hugely unpopular President in the next election. I understand they want him to emerge from this unscathed and come home to beat Sarkozy to a bloody pulp. Perhaps they’re willing to defend anything to make that happen. Who knows, maybe it will happen; maybe it will turn out to be a perfectly executed plot all along. All we can do is wait, and hope the trial brings the truth to light.
But regardless of the outcome of the trial, another truth has already been exposed, and it’s ugly. France is not the sexually open, sexually progressive society it would like you to believe. What it offers is sexual license for powerful men. Is it “open” of the French to excuse the extramarital affairs of their politicians and argue they don’t affect a person’s ability to govern? Perhaps. Is it “open” to excuse sexual assault, and obvious disrespect for half the population, and argue it doesn’t affect a person’s ability to govern? I say no, but I’m an American prude.
We’ve got a long way to go in our attitudes towards sexual assault and victim-blaming in the U.S, too, but compared to what I’ve seen here, we’re light years ahead of France’s fabled sophisticated sexuality. I’ve lived in both cultures now, and I much prefer the one where a rape victim at least has a chance of being heard.