Although I have always called myself a feminist, I was, in the days following Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, unable to join the sisterhood in condemning a man — albeit of dubious moral record — for the crime of attempted rape before he had actually been found guilty.
Having written a piece (that was never published) attempting to explain the French outrage at the “perp walk” and public shaming of someone theoretically innocent until proven guilty, I ducked the flak and watched the case unfold in silent bafflement that my own views could be so at variance with those of my fellow female journalists in Britain and America.
Have I gone native, I wondered? Have I been corrupted by French libertinism?
I would not describe myself as a libertine.* I believe in the wisdom of monogamy for optimal happiness and I think that transparency in a relationship is a desirable goal. I do not, however, underestimate the difficulty of marriage and I refuse to judge others for a failure to live up to the above standards.
I also accept the notion that it is possible to be happy in what used to be called “an open marriage,” and although that would not be my choice, I refuse to judge others if it is theirs.
Knowing, as I did, Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a sexual predator and philanderer, I was not drawn to the man, even before he went to America and I doubt that I would have voted for him, but I still felt queasy at the sight of those shaming placards outside the courtroom on the day of his release, or of the abusive cry of: “DSK, you’re a sick bastard and your wife is even sicker.”
Clearly I have little stomach for the witch-hunt because I was also shocked by a column in Britain’s Daily Telegraph that attacked even Strauss-Kahn’s long-suffering wife, Anne Sinclair, for her decision to stand by her husband. Allison Pearson’s tirade was entitled “When forgiveness goes a step too far.”
“Forgiveness is good,” writes Pearson. “Even so, the nauseating sight of French heiress and journalist Anne Sinclair standing by her man, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, sets a new low. The former IMF chief may have been acquitted of attempted rape against a hotel maid, but is there anyone who can look at that swaggering silverback primate without a shudder? Ugh … Shame on his indulgent wife.”
Why is it that this woman feels she has the right to condemn this couple in this way? What is it about our culture that makes us so quick to judge, and so quick to blame? Are we all so blameless ourselves that we can be so censorious when our public figures slip from the path of moral rectitude?
I believe that the answer lies in our Protestant heritage. The Catholic practice of confession allowed for sin as an inevitable part of being human. In abolishing the privacy of the confessional and in making the congregation the only moral arbiter outside that of our own conscience, we paved the way for a society in which the media has replaced the congregation in an endless pursuit of moral voyeurism.
No one in France underestimates the horror of the crime of rape. Agnes Poirier — a French journalist based in London whose thankless task it has become to explain her contrary nation to the rest of the world — points out that “It is the shift (from ardor) towards coercion that makes the sex act a public matter. If it is between two consenting adults, it remains a private act.”
She bravely goes on to suggest that cheating on your wife does not automatically make you incapable of doing your job, adding, “but I know that this argument is impossible for most Americans and British to understand.”
Why impossible? Surely we can all agree that sex is a complicated business, that one man or woman’s ecstasy is another’s nightmare and that judging others carries the very real risk of being judged ourselves.
Surely this case proves how dangerous these trials by media are? We all thought we had the perfect victim in Nafissatou Diallo. She was poor, black and female. Strauss-Kahn was rich, white and male. It was a no-brainer. And yet here we are with a woman sufficiently dishonest for the case to have been dismissed by a district attorney whose interest it was to see a prosecution.
As French writer and commentator, Elisabeth Levy points out in ‘Causeur‘, we do not know what happened between those two people in that hotel room. And D.A. Cyrus Vance was brave enough to admit that, even at the risk of ruining his chances of re-election.
Levy goes on to condemn the fuzzy logic that Strauss-Kahn must have raped Diallo because he publicly confessed to cheating on his wife. “In other words,” writes Levy, “all adulterous men are rapists. I imagine, dear male readers that some of you may be starting to feel a little uneasy …”
Levy is what I would call an old guard feminist who, like me, laments the battles that now being fought in the name of equality.
For the Strauss-Kahn case has uncovered the divide, not between men and women so much as between old and new feminists. Old feminists, from Genevieve Clark to Erica Jong, believed that the goal was political and sexual freedom for women, not the political and sexual subordination of men.
I cannot accept the idea that womanhood automatically implies victimhood, nor do I think that it is a desirable state of affairs when women see men as the enemy.
The man-hating tirades of my female colleagues are nothing but puritanism in disguise and I suspect that our feminist forebears would be dismayed by the climate of inquisition that seems to dominate relations between men and women today.
* Significantly, there are 2 definitions of the word Libertine. In English we tend to forget the second in favour of the first.
1 a person, esp. a man, who behaves without moral principles or a sense of responsibility, esp. in sexual matters.
2 a person who rejects accepted opinions in matters of religion; a freethinker.
A version of this post appeared on http://www.cnn.com
Pour un article en francais sur l’affaire DSK voir Le Courrier International du 01.09.2011