Tuesday, May 17, 2011

strauss-kahn, schwarzenegger, and the state of gender relations

I don't know what happened with Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid at the New York Sofitel the other day, although I would have to say it doesn't look good for him from here. (When you head to the airport and hire a famous criminal lawyer, it's not a very good sign). But a couple of points should be made that, I think, have been overlooked in the reporting:

1. It's often said that French, Italians, and other Europeans have a more "liberated" view of sex than Americans. I think what they actually have is a more "feudal" view. There's nothing particularly erotic about a 60+ executive emerging from the shower to tackle a chambermaid, or an aging prime minister (Berlusconi) attending parties with confused, teenage Moroccan girls. While such behavior is sometimes dismissed on the basis of real or imagined cultural differences, it has a real cost in the countries involved, which tend to have lower labor force participation and lower birth rates precisely because of the treatment of women (France has actually been a little bit better than Italy, or Israel, on this score). In any event, the event in took place in New York, not Rome or Paris: as Buzz says to Woody in Toy Story, we're not on my planet, are we?

2. Ditto for the French complaints about the "brutality" of American criminal law. Sure, the civil and common law have different criminal procedures. Americans couldn't understand why Amanda Knox didn't get a jury; Europeans can't understand why Strauss-Kahn had to do a "perp walk" and isn't free on bail. But his treatment seems pretty consistent with what others facing similar charges would endure: if he were treated better the political uproar would I think be quite forceful.

3. I still wonder about the anonymity of accusers in cases of sexual violence. The woman in question appears to be a hard-working family person who behaved quite courageously (or so it would seem) in reporting the event immediately to her colleagues. Is it really helping or hurting her to keep her identity secret while the sympathy flows to her alleged assailant?

On a broader level, the Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger stories--which coincidentally broke at about the same time--make one wonder just how much has changed in gender relations. We seem to have a formal world in which everyone is equal and all sex takes place in loving, egalitarian relationships covering a substantive one in which powerful men regularly use their positions for sexual advantage, and perhaps pursue these positions in large part for that very advantage. (Together with allegedly assaulting a French writer, Strauss-Kahn apparently had a "consensual" affair with an IMF employee which she perceived very differently than he did.) I don't think the answer here is to give up on feminism or to assume that "boys will be boys" and that's the end of it. But I do think we need a more honest conversation about what is acceptable and what isn't, rather than the obvious double or sliding standard that seems to apply right now.

Addendum: As if things weren't bad enough, it appears Strauss-Kahn is 3/4 Jewish and his alleged victim is . . . a Muslim. Oh dear.


At 9:37 AM, Blogger Nadine said...

3/4 Jewish? You're either Jewish or you're not. Was his mother Jewish? If not, we don't have to claim him.


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