The sordid tale of Dominque Strauss-Kahn — as of this writing, he is sitting in a New York jail and charged with sexual assault — is both a cautionary sign of progress and a warning of how difficult it is to convince even supposedly smart people that rape is a violent crime.
The details of this story are by now well known, as is Strauss-Kahn’s plea of not guilty. Like all accused, he deserves the presumption of innocence. That said, there is some satisfaction in seeing the claims of his alleged victim considered so seriously. The prediliction of men in power to take brutal advantage of women who work for them — in the ordinary office, the fancy hotel, the fancier mansion, wherever — is centuries old, and even in these modern times, seems to continue unabated. (See: Schwarzenegger, Arnold.)
But while Americans may perceive a sense of justice-for-all at the sight of the powerful chief of the International Monetary Fund handcuffed on the perp walk, the French see an assault to their misogynist elitism. It’s sobering to read the defense of Strauss-Kahn by his friends and ideological allies — not because of their sympathy for a person they admire, which is understandable, but because of the expectation that he be treated differently than any other man in America accused of forcing himself on an unwitting partner.
The very fact that the French press is naming the maid who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape is another illustration of insensitivity toward victims. It’s harmful enough that the American media have sussed out her neighborhood and family, tarring her before justice has had a chance to run its course.
As the Israeli public painfully learned with the rape conviction of former president Moshe Katsav, the sight of powerful men forced to answer to the law can upend a society’s notions of class and gender. It can also put on notice those who believe it is their right to violently take advantage of the powerless.