The DSK case and the Sisterhood

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

Pour un article en francais sur l’affaire DSK voir Le Courrier International du 01.09.2011


13 thoughts on “The DSK case and the Sisterhood

  1. Emma Pathey:

    “I just read the CNN article. It’s nice to see someone taking the sensible view of the DSK fiasco. As they say, a woman with her skirt up can usually run faster than a man with his trousers down!”

    WOW, is all I can say to that.

  2. This was written back in September. With all the subsequent dirt that has come out about DSK (serial infidelity, sexual harassment, other victims, prostitution rings, orgies, etc.) I wonder do you still view him as innocent? Maybe the media and the maid were right.

  3. Pingback: France, US and UK: Misogynistic Patriarchies | The French Connection

  4. The trial was aborted because the DA must choose where to spend his scarce resources to provide the most benefit to the public he serves. He made a difficult, but likely well informed decision that the case against DSK provided less than reasonable odds of prevailing. This decision does not suggest anything about the facts of the case. DSK may be guilty, but if the DA can’t sell that “beyond a reasonable doubt” in the trail, he will spend an enormous amount of money and still have no conviction. For its many benefits, the US system of justice, like any other, has shortcomings. I think it still represents one of the best systems in the world.

    Regards “trial by media”, DSK chooses both to live a high profile life, and to take risks with his sexual behavior. As the saying goes, live by the sword, die by the sword…

  5. I just read the CNN article. It’s nice to see someone taking the sensible view of the DSK fiasco. As they say, a woman with her skirt up can usually run faster than a man with his trousers down!

  6. I am as baffled as you are. Trial by media it may be, but look at the other side – all the French women who are too intimidated to speak up against what you rightly describe as patriarchal culture. One woman in 10 dares to press charges; two percent of the 75,000 rapes a year end in a sentence, in a country where rape has been recognised as a crime only since 1980.

    And I could help but bristle at the jibe at ‘Protestant heritage’. The answer may lie there, yes, but on the other, isn’t ‘Catholic heritage’ is in the secrecy and the ‘selling of indulgencies’, what made France the place where DSK could have survived and prospered for such a long time. And others still do.

  7. Yes -and there was no hint of force or violence in regard to Clinton.
    I met him at a charity I worked for many years ago and he was charming – made you feel like the only woman in the room. Where as I have a feeling DSK would set all my alarms ringing !
    Also DSK now trying to claim “diplomatic Immunity” smacks of desperation.

  8. is not the answer that such a man is not to be trusted,even if only because of his reputation?Kennedy may have been a great president as well as a philanderer,but Clinton’s possibility of doing any sort of great things was surely lost by his irresponsibility. Isn’t responsibility the the important thing here?

  9. “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”
    Have you lost the plot? Rape is rape no pretty words hide the fact.
    OK so the case was lost in New York but do you think that this behaviour was Appropriate behaviour? so he is French and high up in the “elite” so all is OK
    Levy has no place in the feminist argument. I am sad that as a woman you have sold out to the “French idea ” of what is acceptable – If you live in France do something to change these idees fixe – I am trying to all on my own here in the south of France. . I was in the frontline in the 60’s to help women like you get where you are and you now stab us in the back. shame
    DSK 9is not “a great seducer” he is a sexual predator
    Get over your self

  10. Yeah, but you’re a journalist, you must know plenty of anecdotes that he has been an inveterate groper, needs fighting off and so on. You don’t need to be a member of any sisterhood to understand that his behaviour is indefensible. If a newspaper editor won’t send a women to meet him on her own because of the threat of attack, that’s entirely different from a libertine like, oh, Jagger who might well be expected to make his interest clear but who will take no for an answer.

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