A hotel worker’s allegations of sexual assault by IMF chief and possible French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn are disturbing. But also disturbing is the way the case is being reported in some sections of the media.
Strauss-Kahn has been arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a woman at his expensive hotel suite in New York. This is a summary of the story from the New York Times:
According to the law enforcement official, the woman entered Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s suite early Saturday afternoon by saying “housekeeping.” She heard no answer and believed that the suite was unoccupied. She left the door open behind her, as is hotel policy.
She went to the bedroom and a naked man rushed from the bathroom to the bedroom. She apologized, the law enforcement official said, and tried to leave.
But according to the official, the man chased her, grabbed her and shut the door, locking it. He then pulled her toward the bedroom, the official said, and tried to attack her there.
He dragged her to the bathroom, the official added, and forced her to perform oral sex. The police said the woman eventually escaped from the suite and reported the attack to other hotel personnel, who called 911.
So how did Crikey headline this story yesterday? Like this:
Although it is common in American usage, the word “maid” used to describe the woman also conjures up pornographic fantasies of Fifi the French maid in a skimpy frilly apron. But Strauss-Kahn was charged with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. How does a report of these charges warrant Oh la la, an expression of feigned surprise with a salacious undertone?
When the journalist Lara Logan was assaulted in Cairo, was that characterised as Oh la la and a “sex scandal”? Of course not. But allegations made by a hotel cleaner against a French high official seem to be attracting a different approach.
Other women who have had dealings with Strauss-Kahn allege a history of reckless indifference to consent in sexual matters. Strauss-Kahn himself had predicted in a recent interview with Libération that this history would lead to him being the victim of a set-up:
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 …”
Jean-Marie Le Guen, a Socialist party MP who has known Strauss-Kahn for 25 years, said the story was “not credible” and inconsistent with what he knew of the politician’s character. “Seduction, yes, but no way would he use constraint or violence. A certain number of facts, and certain aspects of the story we are hearing from the press, make this not credible.”….
Le Guen said his friend knew he would be the target of mud-slinging but added: “What they are asking us to believe … it’s just hallucinations. I’m a doctor and I know this can happen. We knew there would be hyper-violent attacks on him [Strauss-Kahn]. We could hear the knives being sharpened in preparation.”
Seduction? That is not what the women allege. For example, Anne Mansouret, the mother of Tristane Banon (the goddaughter of Strauss-Kahn’s second wife) claimed on Sunday that Strauss-Kahn had attacked her journalist daughter in 2002, in the course of an interview. In a 2007 television program, Banon named Strauss-Kahn (it was bleeped) and she described him as a “rutting chimpanzee” in telling how she had struggled with him:
It ended very badly, because we ended up fighting … I told him clearly. … We fought on the ground, it was more than a couple of slaps, I kicked him, he opened my bra, tried to open my jeans. … It finished very badly. …
I got out of there and he immediately sent me a text message saying “So, are you scared of me?”… I had said the word “rape” when we were struggling to scare him, and it didn’t seem to scare him, as if he was used to it. After [the incident] he wouldn’t stop sending me text messages saying “Are you scared of me?”
In 2002, Banon’s mother persuaded her not to press charges. But Mansouret now says she is sorry to have discouraged her daughter to complain against him. “my daughter, despite the passing years, is still shocked by these facts”.
And yet the story here continues to be depicted as that of an aging libertine who has unfortunately been a little naughty with the hired help – unfortunate because of the consequences for his career. The Australian headline today read: “Brought undone by his sex life”. Sex life?
Little has been said about the possible impact on the woman. The New York Times reports that she is an African immigrant with a teenage daughter. Hotel employees were instructed not to speak to her about the allegations, but to give her a hug, “Because she is sad.”
Some French journalists are reporting that the allegation is unlikely because the woman is “très peu séduisante”. Very unattractive. Strauss-Kahn, who has not used his twitter account since Christmas 2010, posted a tweet today citing this report: (basic translations)”the lawyers were surprised at the appearance of the arrival of a very unattractive young woman”.
Strauss-Kahn, in contrast, is described as ‘a charmer of women’ , who has a ‘taste for the fairer sex’, is ‘unresistant to feminine attractions’ and ‘romantic’ . His reported perchant for repeated harassment of women is described as a ‘quirk’.
All this plays into Oh la la: charming old French admirer of women couldn’t keep from helping himself to the feminine attractions of a chamber maid. Albeit an unattractive one. (They should get their story straight on the “honey trap” scenario here.)
Strauss-Kahn has not has his day in court, and I am not assuming he is guilty. What I am taking issue with is reporting along lines that are very common in rape mythology. Men attacking women is not charming or romantic. They cannot be excused as ‘unresistant to feminine attractions’.
The unfolding story here of an unrestrained sense of entitlement to any woman from a journalist to a hotel worker. There’s nothing remotely Oh la la about any of it.