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‘But, his reputation will be ruined! And what about France?’

News broke this weekend that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the current leader of the International Monetary Fund, had been accused of sexual assault. Actually, the media can’t seem to make up its mind about what exactly he’s been accused of, which is par for the course when rape is on the table. I’ve seen ‘rape,’ ‘sex crimes,’ ‘sexual assault,’ and our good old pal ‘forcible rape.’ Naturally, the media is in a tizzy over a high profile case involving a man tapped to be the next President of France, and, as always, it’s what swirls beneath the surface that is most interesting.

Like the narrative about his accuser, whom almost every story I read made a point to mention was an ‘African immigrant’ who had ‘worked satisfactorily’ for her employer for the last three years. Most stories also make a point of emphasizing the luxury of Strauss-Kahn’s hotel suite, which apparently cost $3,000 a night. There’s an underlying class narrative here reinforced by some of the quotes from friends of Strauss-Kahn assuring journalists that this is very out of character and that he would never do something like that—he’s just a nice wealthy man, and his accuser must be out to get something—despite the fact that he’s known in France as ‘the great seducer’ and appears to have a history of misconduct. Several women journalists pointed out that they were hesitant to do interviews alone with Strauss-Kahn because of his behaviour. In fact, the IMF had actually investigated Strauss-Kahn in the past in response to these known issues:

In 2008, early in his IMF term, he was investigated by the IMF’s staff for whether he abused his power by having an affair with a female staffer. Although he was cleared of abuse of power charges, several directors said they warned Mr. Strauss-Kahn that such conduct wouldn’t be allowed in the future and that he had brought the IMF into disrepute. (source)

One of my all time favourite comments on this case is from Jean-Francois Cope, who was offended to see images of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs:

I was, like all Frenchmen, very disturbed by the news, very disturbed by the images that I saw. There is the principle of presumed innocent.

People do seem to get riled up about seeing prominent members of the public in handcuffs, don’t they? I guess police should ask accused parties to come along nicely if the media is around, so as to spare us all the sight of a person in handcuffs, since, as we all know, handcuffs are morally equivalent to a judge and jury trial finding the accused guilty. Indeed, we could just dispense with the trial altogether!

Another favourite comment comes from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the environment minister, who informs us that there’s a victim we’re not discussing at all here: France, because, you know, the downfall of such a great man would be a terrible loss for France. The French media is vacillating between declaring Strauss-Kahn’s career over and saying that it might have a chance at being salvaged ‘if the charges can be dropped quickly.’ Focus, naturally, on redeeming Strauss-Kahn, not on ensuring that his accuser’s words and physical evidence receive a fair chance to be heard in a court of law. We must, you know, focus on blotting the stain from this very nice and very powerful man’s reputation.

But there’s more. After the allegations went public, another person stepped forward. Tristane Banon, a prominent French writer, is preparing to file a sexual assault complaint as well. Her decision to go public with the charges now is clearly rooted in the idea that she believes her hearing might have a better chance of being taken seriously, although she’s spoken about the sexual assault before under her own name and hasn’t kept it a secret. Chilling is the reason she didn’t file charges in the first place: her mother told her not to. Her mother claims that she felt the assault was ‘out of character’ (gosh, where have we heard that before), and urged her daughter not to report it.

Layers to unpack here, people. Layers. It’s difficult to tease nuance out of clipped quotes for the media, especially when they are manipulated for maximum impact, but reading between the lines here, the implication appears to be that nice men ought to get a free pass on sexual assault because it’s out of character. They must have been feeling off that day. Think about how the charges will ruin their reputations and they don’t be able to pursue public office or hold their heads up high in public. The real victim there would be the man’s reputation. Or, you know, France, apparently.

This comes up repeatedly in cases like this, where there is a stark power differential between victim and accused and the focus is on what this does to the reputation of the accused. Banon’s mother’s comments suggest she doesn’t seem to have been worried about the fact that her daughter would have had an uphill battle pursuing the matter in court and successfully pressing charges because of the social and political pressure Strauss-Kahn could have brought to bear, which is a valid concern. Women in a position of relative lack of power have good reason for not wanting to press charges, as we saw recently with the accusations against Julian Assange, where his accusers were tormented, threatened, and abused in every corner of the media for daring to speak out against a darling of the left. Banon could have run real risk by filing accusations at the time of her assault in 2002, but apparently the concern wasn’t for her safety, but for the safety of her attacker’s reputation.

But, there’s more! The Guardian‘s piece on Tristane Banon notes:

For some, the story of Strauss-Kahn’s fall from presidential hopeful to prison cell was a combination of sordid tale and Shakespearean tragedy. For others the story was so extraordinary it smacked of a set-up.

Only three weeks ago, Strauss-Kahn evoked such a possibility in an interview with French newspaper Libération when he said he thought he was under surveillance and named the three principal difficulties he foresaw if he was to stand for the presidential elections.

“Money, women and the fact I am Jewish.” He added: “Yes, I like women … so what?” He said he could see himself becoming the victim of a honey trap: “a woman raped in a car park and who’s been promised 500,000 or a million euros to invent such a story …” (emphasis mine)

Oh, goody, it’s not enough to haul out the old ‘this will ruin his reputation’ canard, we’ve also got to raise the spectre of false charges, which seems to come up every single time a woman dares to file a sexual assault charge against a powerful man. Since, you know, filing a rape complaint is super duper easy, especially when you are a marginalised person accusing a very powerful person, and thus, people do it for kicks all the time, just to see what might happen. And undergoing a full SART exam is just a barrel of fun, which is why people are so ready and willing to file false rape complaints. And of course there is absolutely nothing dangerous about suggesting that an accuser has filed false charges, so we should definitely all speculate about that as much as possible in cases such as these.

So far, the media seems to have done a passable job at screening the accuser’s identity, although some distinctive identifying details  (which I deliberately left out of this piece) have been dropped in news stories here and there. I worry for her safety as the media coverage of this case ramps up, and as people start howling for blood. Since, obviously when a prominent man is accused of rape, the correct response is to badger and bully the attacker into silence, rather than allowing the case to proceed through investigation and trial.


  1. Adamantine wrote:

    Thanks for this piece.
    This morning on Radio Nova, a French “alternative” radio which is usually quite progressive, I heard someone say something like “He couldn’t help it, he jumped on the first woman he saw.” Which is along the lines of what I generally hear about Strauss-Kahn here. What’s happening now is being conflated with what happened back in 2008, and though I’ve never heard Strauss-Kahn being called “the great seducer” or anything like that, what’s happening is that the whole idea of consent on the women’s parts is being completely erased, and Strauss-Kahn becomes only a man who loves women (“un homme à femmes”), never a potential rapist.
    Also, as Strauss-Kahn is a member of the Socialist party, many people who might have stood up for the accuser’s rights are not doing so. It’s Julian Assange all over again, includnig the whole liberals-can’t-rape thing.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  2. bluebears wrote:

    Yep. The rape apologists are already out in full force. I was just told online that Tristane Banon has “no credibility” because she works (or used to work?) for a right-wing newspaper.

    This is Assange Redux.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  3. clownybee wrote:

    So, so weary and sad and disgusted by French politics. I feel that unfortunately a lot of people will rush to DSK’s defense mostly because he was seen as the only credible opponent to Sarkozy. I am extremely scared of the backlash that will inevitably happen (see: Roman Polanski, Julian Assange) and the usual conflation of seduction and sexual assault.

    This is bad news for France, mostly because we once again have to deal with the disgusting hypocrisy of politicians and the ever more depressing lack of semi-decent human beings running for office. But we are not the victims here. I hope with all my heart that this case will be judged in the US, where there is a better chance that the facts will be looked at impartially. My thoughts go out to the survivors, and I frankly hope that if there are any others, they can muster the courage to come out as well.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Travis wrote:

    What is it about the “honeypot” thing that people love so much? Is it romantic to some people? The cold, calculating femme fatale (played here by a long-term employed maid) bringing low a powerful man before he can CHANGE THE WORLD with the power of her base, vile feminine wiles?

    If I had a big barrel of money, every time this happened I’d take out an ad in a national newspaper printing out just a FRACTION of the stuff we know about how sex offenders operate: They select their victims carefully; they count on their victims not reporting, and when they do, not being believed; by the time a sex offender is caught they’ve more than likely already committed sex offense before. Remind people that we know a TON about how people like this operate, and that special cases are few and far between.

    Nothing to do but pray for the victims and hope Justice is carried out.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  5. ugsome wrote:

    As usual you, and the commenters, say it better than I ever could. I live in Paris and work with dudes so of course there was chortling and stick-a-fork-in-him talk at the office, but fortunately I heard nothing truly heart-stopping, or someone might’ve gotten hurt.

    Anne Sinclair, DSK’s wife, is in a position nearly identical to Maria Shriver: a highly successful journalist, she married a high-profile politician and retreated from her own career, only to defend their husbands when they are humiliated in the most public way possible. That this keeps happening suggests some extremely ugly sexual politics amongst the elites. I wonder if on some level they *want* to humiliate their wives.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  6. speedbudget wrote:

    Oh, the poor men and their reputations. Even in my rape, with both of us being pretty powerless and very anonymous, that whole “what about his reputation” canard was trotted out.

    God, I am so sick of the hand-wringing over some dude’s future or reputation or whatnot. If he was so concerned, maybe he shouldn’t have done it. Duh.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  7. LC wrote:

    I was a big Anne Sinclair fan (I loved 7 sur 7 when I used to have access to it) and was so sad to find out that she withdrew from her role after marrying him.

    As for the honey trap thing, at least he put it out in a way that involves lots of money. (Usually, people seem to imply the “make up a rape charge” thing would be done for fun. Here at least he’s saying someone would charge at least a half-million to undergo it all.)

    As adamantine and clownybee point out, the inevitable blur between “seduction” and “sexual assault” is already starting and it is always what triggers me. Even the whole “great seducer”, “he loves women” thing always seems to be attached to someone whose pattern is assault and power pressure.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  8. samanthab wrote:

    Well, Travis, except that almost every victim is going to go through hell when they report their rape. I know you’re just repeating tropes, but I do find the “select victims carefully” line of argument to be victim blame-y, or at least when it goes along with the “the victim was perceived as vulnerable” by the offender. Why are we taking a sick person’s word as gospel? Why are we valorizing it? Their perceptions *aren’t* reality, at least to the extent that there’s one kind of person that gets victimized. I’ve known women of all different personality types that have been sexually assaulted. To be a woman is to be vulnerable, and it makes me squirmy to see it argued in any other terms.

    And, the honeypot storyline is really just a subset of the femme fatale myth, which of course *has* been highly romanticized since forever. See: film noir, the silents that pre-dated it, “Fatal Attraction,” and so on into virtual infinity. I think it’s not so much “loved” by people as it is useful to them, at least if they are men or women who feel safety in the status quo. I mean, it’d be nice to blame other people for my behavior sometimes! That would validate me! Although I think it would also fuck with my head? I mean, frankly, as a rape victim, I think that what allowed me to move on emotionally was when I came to the realization that I’d been exposed to an incredibly sick and distorted psyche, but I could walk away from that whereas a rapist can’t.

    I mean, I guess where I’m differing from your take is that you are focusing on where sex offenders- “people like this”- are distinct from societal norms. Fine, that’s very valid, but I think we need to be also examining how they are upholding society’s norms.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Matarij wrote:

    The ‘great seducer?’ This is just a synonym for ‘arrogant prick’ at the very least and ‘serial abuser’ and ‘rapist’ at worst. It is completely obvious that he has regularly overstepped the boundaries with women and deserves everything he gets for this.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  10. attie wrote:

    Aaaaaaaaaaand OF COURSE Bernard Henry Levy just jumped on the bandwagon, and he’s not even remotely subtle about it: “Défense de Dominique Strauss-Kahn”. Apparently rape accusations are some kind of irresistible bat-signal for the guy.


    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  11. The rule in France is that the press doesn’t publish pictures of the accused in handcuffs unless they’ve been convicted. That doesn’t mean that the authorities never handcuff anyone on the way to court. If people need to be handcuffed, they’re restrained. But at least the state has less of an incentive to handcuff people just to parade them around before the cameras in a state of presumptive guilt. It’s a pretty civilized convention, actually.

    BHL is a preening moron and a rape apologist, of course. I predict the evidence against DSK will speak for itself at trial. The state shouldn’t need showy perp walks to put the guilty away.

    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  12. Siobhan wrote:

    I truly don’t understand the whole “he was rich, she was poor, of course he wouldn’t deign to soil himself on her.”

    Maybe my classism goes the other way… “he was rich, of COURSE he felt he had the right to stick his dick wherever he wanted.”

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  13. Siobhan wrote:

    er, “THOUGHT he had the right.” And of course a poor woman isn’t a person, just a place to stick his dick, so not even a thought given.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  14. Marie wrote:

    I think France has dodged a bullet here. If DSK really is a rapist (and the evidence doesn’t look good for him), then it’s a good thing he won’t be able to run for office anymore. We owe the Anonymous Maid a great big thank you for having the courage to go to the police with this and making the press sit up and notice. Otherwise, they would never have reported on what is deemed as a politician’s “private life.”

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  15. Sarah wrote:

    This is all speculation and conjecture. Let the courts decide whether he’s guilty or not. He deserves a right to a fair trial does he not? The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of America’s criminal system. If a guilty verdict arrives, then you can rightfully pour scorn on him. You’ll never know the full facts unless your in the courtroom.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  16. Toitle wrote:

    “This is all speculation and conjecture. Let the courts decide whether he’s guilty or not. He deserves a right to a fair trial does he not?”

    He does, actually! So it’s a good thing that none of us are on the jury that will decide his guilt or innocence, and are therefore allowed to speculate as much as we would like about what seems to be his very likely guilt.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink
  17. G.F. wrote:

    Why is it that the people of the public are supposed to assume that a man is “innocent until proven guilty” of raping someone, but not to assume that a survivor is innocent of false reporting? Is that boogeyman SO ingrained into our culture?

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink