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Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger, and the Failure of Public Discourse

First came Strauss-Kahn. Then Schwarzenegger. And now Goodwin. Three powerful men, all married, all accused of sexual impropriety. Cue the inevitable trend pieces in the press: why do influential men cheat? But something is wrong here: one of these does not belong. The accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn – that he sexually assaulted a housekeeper at his Manhattan luxury hotel – are vastly different from those confronting Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sir Fred Goodwin. The fact that our media culture seems incapable of properly distinguishing rape from simple adultery suggests a failure of moral sensitivity, and perhaps a triumph of prurient gossip-mongering over sincere ethical concern.

TRIGGER WARNING: if you experience discussion of sexual assault as potentially traumatizing, it may be best to read no further.

First, the facts briefly. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until last week head of the International Monetary Fund and potential Sarkozy-toppler, is accused of bursting naked from his bathroom at the uber-expensive Sofitel in New York and forcing himself bodily upon the housekeeper, a widowed Guinean immigrant supporting a young daughter. Arnold Schwarzenegger, outgone California Governor and frequent Hollywood co-star with explosions, has admitted to an affair with his former housekeeper, who bore him a child. And finally Sir Fred Goodwin, much-hated once-boss of Royal Bank of Scotland, was revealed in the House of Lords to have obtained a court injunction hiding his relationship with a colleague.

Assuming the various allegations are substantive, Schwarzenegger and Goodwin are not good men. They betrayed their wives, lied to a number of people, and might have engaged in exploitative relationships (with an employee or subordinate). But it is no part of these allegations that either man raped his secret partner. Still, a sizable proportion of the press coverage seems incapable of recognizing this difference. (Here and here are admirable exceptions.) The fault is not confined to the media – the rest of us seem just as guilty. One NPR call-in show begins with an attempt by the host to properly distinguish the two cases, then proceeds through a series of callers who insistently run them back together.

It is worth stopping here to consider the particular evils of sexual assault, to remind ourselves that being a violent sexual predator is not simply a personality quirk. Sexual assault has terrible consequences for the victim: the terror and pain of the moment, and the often very long-lasting psychological ramifications of always remembering, always being wary. Attempting to rape someone reveals an attitude of tremendous disrespect toward the victim, whom one seemingly regards as a mere object of one’s own sexual satisfaction, and whose volition is apparently beside the point. The intimate nature of sexual assault, its direct manipulation of the body in which a thinking and feeling person is inextricably encased, conveys to the victim a severe devaluation of her or his capacity for thought and experience. Sexual assault is an almost uniquely horrible act, comparable, if at all, only to the furthest extremes of torture and killing.

Why, then, does so much popular discussion of these cases fail to recognize that crucial difference? I want to suggest two explanations. Treat these as attempted diagnoses of a cultural sickness, of a collective failing to make and demand the right sort of considerations in public discourse.

First, there is a failure of cognition. We are familiar with the trope: rich and powerful man brought low by sex scandal. The Strauss-Kahn case seems to bear many similarities to this trope, so we lazily assign it to that undemanding mode of thinking. Hence Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger, and Goodwin can all appear as instances of the same type. What we fail to appreciate is that most such instances involve sex which is scandalous for reasons other than lack of consent: it involves adultery, or lying, or a “love child”, or less weighty matters that appeal to our desire to peer through keyholes. It takes effort to appreciate the differences between Strauss-Kahn and the others, an effort which we rarely care to expend.

Many of the current reports do offer a nominal recognition of these differences, which are typically framed in terms of severity. Phrases like “much more serious charges”, in the context of a trend piece linking Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger, suggest that they are accused of offences that differ in degree, but not in kind – as if sexual assault were merely an aggravated form of consensual adultery. We seem drawn to a narrative centered on the clandestine nature of the sex, failing to register deep differences in the reasons for that concealment.

Further explanation comes out in the following account (in a New York Times piece discussing media attention directed at the women in the Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger stories):

“It is part of a fascination with the man,” said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. “What sort of woman could this powerful man have been attracted to? I think as a society, we care about the lives of powerful celebritylike figures.”

“That curiosity extends not only to their home decorating, but also to who is in their beds,” she added. “The women suffer the collateral damage of our interest.”

Our second failing is one of appropriate moral empathy. We regard these women only as reflections of the powerful and famous men linked to them. These stories seem to us populated by main characters – DSK, the Governator – and lineless, interchangeable extras. If we did stop to consider the perspectives of the women, then the stark contrast between the stories would be obvious, unavoidable. Whatever harms have been done to Schwarzenegger’s long-term mistress, they simply cannot be the same as the experience of the Sofitel housekeeper who suddenly found herself prey to an allegedly rampaging, naked Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

These cases seem similar, they seem to fit into the same trend, because we direct our capacity for moral empathy at the wrong actor. We think about the perspective of the perpetrator (“what drives men like these?”) and not the perspective of the potential victim. This failure of empathy reinforces our failure of cognition; grounds for drawing the appropriate distinctions between adultery and sexual assault are much clearer if we start by considering the perspective of the other party – is she a sexual partner, or an unwilling victim?

I don’t mean to deny that people can be wronged by consensual sexual relationships, particularly those with power imbalances. Schwarzenegger’s housekeeper/mistress may have been exploited. We don’t know the details of Goodwin’s professional relationship to his partner. Indeed, there is likely an empirical link between such relationships and sexual assault: apparently Strauss-Kahn had a long history of taking sexual attitudes toward his subordinates, and perhaps he might have been stopped sooner if that behavior had received appropriate response.

But we make several grave mistakes when we fail to adequately distinguish between adultery and sexual assault. Our responsibility – those of us in the media, and those of us who consume and sustain media – must be to work harder to appropriately extend empathy to the bit players in public drama, and so come to see our way to rightly judging their situations. To those whose misfortunes provide fodder for our gossip, we owe at least that much.

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17 Comment on this post

  1. Dmitri Pisartchik

    It seems to me that, for the most part, you're making a problem out of whole cloth rather than bringing forward an actual one.

    This may be a difference in perspective, as we are very likely to have experienced substantially different media coverage of these cases, but it seems to me that the grouping of the three cases you discuss is not at all of the kind you describe. I have yet to witness someone treating these three cases as moral equivalents – that is, as Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger, and Goodwin as having committed an equally wrongful act. No one to my knowledge has claimed that Arnold's infidelity is as morally abhorrent as Straus-Kahn's sexual assault (or the other way around, depending on which you hold to be the greater moral failure). Indeed, the grouping that has been done was of influential men, men of power and means, behaving unethically and this seems to me a perfectly reasonable grouping.

    All three men share these general properties – they are wealthy, powerful, in seemingly stable and satisfactory family relations and yet they each have transgressed moral boundaries (also a similarity that each case is one involving sex). Indeed, as I have heard asked by a host of local radio here in Toronto, Why do powerful men seem to be predominantly the ones to act unethically?, and he used Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger as examples.

    Based on the (true) similarities of the cases as described above it seems quite reasonable for the press to run the cases together in the same article.

    On the Devil's Advocate side, suppose that some do run the cases as moral analogues – that is, that each case may be considered to be of equivalent moral abhorrence. Is there any obvious way in which this is false? Intuitively, steeped as most of us are in the doctrines of autonomy, the case of actual sexual assault (some would say especially, notably feminists, but I think this is true of assault generally) is obviously a greater moral wrong. But this is only obvious given the high value of autonomy and personal liberty that we take as given. It is not inconceivable that a coherent moral outlook may hold these to be morally equal – in particular, a moral outlook that places a substantially higher value on the integrity of and commitment to a family relationship. To be sure, the three acts would be unique in their own way and, indeed, the case of assault will be (morally, even) distinct from the cases of infidelity. But this distinction would not necessarily undermine the judgement that the three cases are equally morally wrong and further argument must be presented for this to be evident.

    In other words, it may be granted that "one of these does not belong" in some way, but then the reply would be that that particular criterion of distinction is not the one appealed to in grouping the three cases together. In addition to showing how the sexual assault case is different from the others, you must also show why it ought to be treated as different (not to be grouped with the others) as well. This later requirement, however, seems unfulfilled in the original post.


    1. Hi Dmiti,

      thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm a bit confused, as you start off suggesting that I've misrepresented the press treatment, then later say that "it seems quite reasonable for the press to run the cases together in the same article". I'll take it that we don't actually disagree about what the press has done, but rather about whether or not it was reasonable/appropriate for the press to do so.

      I didn't (intend to) suggest that anyone treated the cases as "moral equivalents". I complained instead that the media appear to treat them as being different only in degree, not in kind. And I argued that they are indeed morally different in kind, making it inappropriate to run them together in a single trend piece. (This is also a response to your devil's advocacy: I summarized two or three arguments for the particular wrongness of sexual assault in paragraph four. I take it your devil didn't find those convincing?)

      My point wasn't to suggest that there are no similarities among the cases: obviously they involve powerful men, sex, etc. And probably they are all morally wrong to some degree (at the least, Schwarzenegger and Goodwin betrayed their wives). But I don't think those similarities are enough to justify similar treatment in public discourse. The cases of Lizzie Borden and a girl who steals some tools might both involve women, hatchets, and actions morally wrong to some degree, but this doesn't make it reasonable to class them together.

      Of course, there's always an element of arbitrariness in how one categorizes anything – it all depends on your interests. Here we can ask what interests are implicit in the practice of drawing together various cases in denunciatory public discourse. Presumably these include public instruction on right conduct, with the aim of drawing a common lesson from several instances. If one chooses the instances poorly, then the wrong common lesson will be drawn. In this case, if one runs together adultery and sexual assault, the wrong lesson will follow: the common evil drawn to our attention is infidelity, or clandestine sex – not the particular wrongness of sexual assault.

      More generally, subsuming an instance of sexual assault under some broader category – one whose boundaries have nothing to do with the particular evils of sexual assault – risks diluting public perception of the wrongness of that act. Many people think that marital infidelity is a sort of marginal wrong: you shouldn't do it, but it's not really the business of anyone but you and your partner if you do. Implicitly treating sexual assault in that way entails a vast misunderstanding of its nature, and can lead to horrific consequences for victims. Irresponsibly minimizing reference to sexual assault in public discourse is one of the foundations for rape culture.

      Hence we really should take care to appropriately group these very different wrongs, and we should hold accountable influential media folk who don't. My post is primarily an attempt to diagnose why we tend to fail.

  2. Dmitri Pisartchik

    Thank you for the swift reply Regina,

    To reiterate, I still think that you misrepresent the issue here by claiming that these three cases are receiving "similar treatment in public discourse." From what I remember of the coverage I witnessed, and reading up on some links that you include the original post, the cases can only be said to receive similar treatment in so far as they are referenced together. However, the unifying principle under which they are grouped together, as the Globe and Mail article put it, is that of "powerful men behaving badly." Surely, and you seem t agree, this is a legitimate grouping, but (and here is the disagreement, I suppose) this is not similar treatment in the way that you characterise it.

    While the Chicago Sun Times article did compare SDK's act as "much more heinous" that that of Arnold, thus implying that it is 'more morally wrong' this does not necessarily mean that the two cases are treated in the way you suggest, as different only in degree and not in type. Murder and theft, as clear cut examples, are both different in degree, murder is more wrong than theft (in most cases anyway), as well different in the degree, murder is <i>categorically</i> more wrong than theft (on most conceptions anyway).

    To summarise my objection: Nothing in the coverage I've seen prevents the media, or the audience, from taking the position that sexual assault is a very different kind of wrong from infidelity – that it is categorically worse. (In is, in fact, the position that seems to be implied in many cases.) Of course, nothing prevents them from taking the position you characterised, but I have yet to see a concrete example of this.

    Your account seems to be more normatively strong than it has grounds for (at least as they are outlined) in claiming that the assault case ought not to be grouped as it was with infidelity, despite the relevant similarities that we seem to agree on. You may well have a point here. But the categorical difference is not denied in the press and you seem to still require a positive case for why this difference ought to be highlighted more than it already has (and it has) <i>in addition to</i> preventing any possible dilution of perception by avoiding the kinds of groupings that we are discussing.

    As to "risks [of] diluting public perception of the wrongness of that act" of sexual assault, I would have to contest that. Generally, I see no principled reason I this would be so. That is, I do not see how grouping sexual assault as 'morally objectionable sexual behaviour' necessarily runs the risk you invoke. I would concede your point if there was an <i>equivocation</i> of sexual assault with other moral wrongs in that category, but this is a particular kind of grouping and one that I do not observe in this case. And I would also contend your assertion that grouping sexual assault along with infidelity under a common heading 'immoral sexual behaviour' would imply in any obvious way that sexual assault should be treated as a "marginal wrong" and would count as irresponsibly minimising reference to sexual assault in public discourse (which I agree, when it is the case, is among the foundations of rape culture.)

    1. Perhaps the following example will help to clarify my point. Suppose someone said "Wow, people have been doing a lot of bad stuff this week! My neighbor claimed a tax deduction he wasn't entitled to, my sister's friends lied to her about where they were on Saturday, and Muammar Qaddafi used civilians as human shields in order to stay in power and keep on massacring dissidents."

      This utterance is so bizarre as to be almost comic. Notice, though, that there's nothing wrong with it, if taken strictly literally. Each of those does indeed qualify as bad stuff. Why does it seem bizarre then? Because listing those items together seems to suggest (it conversationally implicates, if you like) that they are in some way <em>comparable</em> to one another, and that is clearly a failure of moral understanding.

      I think that the mention of Schwarzenegger, Goodwin, and Strauss-Kahn in the same piece should strike us as similarly bizarre, because the act of which Strauss-Kahn is accused simply isn't comparable to the other two. (My arguments for the special wrongness of sexual assault were in the original post.) But, apparently, we don't have the same reaction – the utterances in these news pieces don't strike us as bizarre. My post is an attempt to explain why we react in that way (according to me, due to linked failures of moral cognition and moral empathy).

      It seems that you are objecting to my view that we should find such media utterances bizarre – or, to put it as I did before, that it is unreasonable/inappropriate for media folk to make such utterances. As I understand it, your main argument is that "Nothing in the coverage… prevents the media, or the audience, from taking the position that sexual assault is a very different kind of wrong from infidelity – that it is categorically worse." And you're right – as a strict matter of logic, nothing prevents us from appending that view to the press reports. But, similarly, nothing prevents us from appending to the utterance about tax evasion and Qaddafi the position that massacring dissidents is a very different kind of wrong. Logically speaking, such a view is not ruled out by the utterance. And yet it certainly sounds as if the speaker is implying something else, and that is why the utterance seems so bizarre. I claim that a similar conversational structure is at work in the Strauss-Kahn reports, and that we ought to have similarly perplexed reactions (and, further, that we would have such reactions if not for the failures I go on to diagnose).

      You might suggest a disanalogy between these utterances, in that the Strauss-Kahn coverage draws attention to factors shared by the incidents beyond their bare wrongness, unlike the utterance about tax evasion and Qaddafi. Specifically, the Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger incidents both involve powerful men engaged in clandestine sex with women other than their wives. So, you might say, that common trait serves to qualify the implication that the incidents are comparable: they are comparable only in that they share this common trait, not in some broader sense. Hence (this objection concludes) here is an unproblematic explanation for our nonchalant reaction to the Strauss-Kahn coverage.

      But that objection doesn't work. Consider: "Hey, what's up with people doing bad stuff involving refrigerators? My flatmate keeps stealing my yogurt out of ours, and Jeffrey Dahmer stashed dismembered chunks of victims in his." Per the objection, we ought not find this utterance bizarre, since it calls attention to a common trait of the two incidents (specifically, they both involve refrigerators). And yet it is a bizarre utterance, in part because it still appears to implicate some broader sense of comparability between the acts – again, a failure of moral understanding. So merely drawing attention to a common trait isn't enough.

      Let me consider one additional objection (which I think is connected to some of what you say). Perhaps, says this new objection, the Strauss-Kahn reports don't strike us as bizarre because they actually don't conversationally implicate any broader sense of comparability between the acts. This is because the purpose of these utterances isn't to draw attention to a moral comparison, but instead simply to direct inquiry toward an empirical question of human psychology (specifically, why powerful men cheat). Obviously conversational implicature depends in part on the purpose of the conversation, so if the purpose of these reports is not what I've indicated (denunciatory public discourse), then the implications will not be what I suggested.

      I don't accept this objection, for two reasons. First, I don't think it's clear at all that these reports are intended purely to inquire about the psychology of such men: all of them are also at least implicitly condemnatory, and some explicitly so. Second, even if we grant this framing, there are still grounds for suggesting that the utterance should strike us as bizarre. Consider: “Why do powerful men lie about their deeds? For instance, Bill Clinton lied about cheating on his wife, and Joseph Stalin lied about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of people sent to the Gulag.” Again, this is a bizarre utterance. Even though its ostensible purpose is to inquire into the psychology of powerful liars, the selection of examples seems to implicate a sort of comparability between two acts that are simply not comparable. It suggest moral obtuseness on the part of the speaker.

      So I think my reading of the situation stands: the Schwarzenegger/Strauss-Kahn reports do indeed implicate a broader sort of moral comparability between the acts; this implication ought to strike us as bizarre; but it doesn't, and that amounts to a failing requiring diagnosis. I’d add that, if I’m right, and the reports do indeed implicate comparability between adultery and sexual assault, and that implication hangs in the culture unchallenged, then it subtly contributes to a continued minimization of the wrong of sexual assault. Hence, I’ve claimed, it’s important that we get this right.

      1. Dmitri Pisartchik


        As most philosophical debates, ours could go on for quite a while (and indeed may in the end turn out to be over nothing of consequences, as many "great debates" have). However, I must still object, though to avoid simply chasing my own tail let me try to re-articulate my objection, perhaps giving it a different spin.

        You say that the mention of Schwarzenegger, Goodwin, and Strauss-Kahn in the same piece should strike us as bizarre (whatever this means), because the act of which Strauss-Kahn is accused simply isn’t comparable to the other two. Now, I do have to press you on what it is that you mean by "comparable" since the term turns out to be ambiguous. We may compare the three cases in at least two ways: first, by means of similarity of some set of features that each case displays as contained in their factual description, or by their moral nature (that is, their wrongness), so to speak.

        Now it seems to me that the three cases obviously share a number of factual features that warrant a legitimate grouping. As has been mentioned: all three men are men of means, power, fame and success; all are in presumably stable and satisfying (over all anyway) family relationship, and each has committed a moral transgression involving the fulfillment of his sexual desires. This much similarity, I think, is both beyond dispute and makes the cases comparable factually (not fully, but to a sufficient extent).

        On the other hand, we may try to compare them from the moral point of view, and try to group them together by virtue of (and exclusively by virtue of) some morally relevant factors that they may share. Now, I think it beyond controversy that these cases do share some morally relevant features – deception being one that comes most readily to mind as all three likely lied about their actions at least once. Here, the legitimacy of the grouping will rely very much on the moral theory that you bring to the table, as that will determine the closeness of fit, so to speak, of the relevant moral factors.

        As I mentioned above, steeped in autonomy and personal liberty we would immediately see that there is a very significant moral factor, the sexual assault (liberal conceptions would emphasize assault, while feminist conceptions would emphasize sexual) of the maid, in the SDK case. This factor is not only absent in the other cases (presumably, at any rate) but is of such great moral weight as to counter any other cohesiveness that may be derived from whatever other morally relevant factors are present.

        (although this is a view that I largely share, the dominance of autonomy is taken as a given when it really requires an argument, specifically given the fact that other moral theories, less focused on autonomy, would acknowledge the assault as a relevant and weighty difference, but may not necessarily make it strong enough to exclude the SDK case.)

        Suppose that this is the case, that the SDK case is morally "incomparable" to the other two, as it plausibly is. Now comes the question – but who says we were comparing the cases <i>morally</i>? Really, if there was any comparison at all it was a factual comparison of the cases of the kind I outlined above. Indeed, as I believe the Globe made an attempt to do, the SDK case is in fact being presented as morally incomparable by being referenced to as "much more heinous." Your position seems to be that this is in some sense not enough of a distinction. But I see no grounds for this request, since even taking as given your arguments for the wrongness of sexual assault, this seems to be accommodated by the Globe's reference – that is, nothing they say contradicts, and in fact (though weakly) supports, the claim that sexual assault is (incomparably) more morally wrong than infidelity. The questions I would have for you, Regina, are: (1) Why should we view the apparent comparison in (at least some of) the media as being of a moral kind? and (2) Why ought these cases be compared exclusively on moral grounds? The assumption behind the second question seems to me the crux of your position and it is one that begs further justification.


        1. While (as you may have seen from my comment below) I disagree with some of what Regina says and agree with some of what you say, I am surprised that you do not see the articles as necessarily making a moral comparison between the behaviour of Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger. Early on in your post you argue this is the case, and later ask Regina to provide support for such a reading. While I disagree with Regina's reading, I see this less as due to our having differing moral frameworks, but more to do with differing discursive or discourse analytic frameworks.

          Regina's moral framework of emphasising harm as the basis for moral comparison (which I agree with) renders the two cases morally incomparable for her. You suggest that other frameworks may be legitimate, or at least conceivable. I agree that the articles use a different moral framework – along the lines of the responsible use of power and/or the importance of sexual self-control. Both frameworks are recognisable as (and implicitly expressed as) moralising discourses, at least to me. I think Regina is arguing they are not appropriately deployed in this case.

          Where I think Regina gets it wrong (or at least has a different reading to me) is in considering the genre of the articles. While she does seem to recognise them as part of a single recognisable genre, she seems to consider them closer to apologias rather than to polemics, for example.

          If we took other examples of other objectionable comparisons (on the grounds of incomparable harm, as used by Regina), nonetheless made by serious writers, it might make the difference in interpretations clearer.

          An article comparing taxation and forced labour or slavery.
          An article comparing homosexual activity and paedophilic activity.
          An article comparing wearing a burkha and terrorism in the name of Islam.
          An article comparing voting labour with supporting war crimes.
          An article comparing opposition to invading Iraq with supporting Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses.

          Such articles could be written polemically: designed to condemn the former with reference to the latter (implicitly assumed to be the height of evil), putting them on some kind of continuum.

          Such articles could also conceivably be written as apologias, critiquing condemnation of the latter by making comparisons to the former (implicitly assuming them to be socially acceptable) while rendering the victims of the latter invisible.

          In my view the articles linked to are closer to polemics than apologias. I would characterise them as attempting to stigmatize Schwarzenegger by comparison to Strauss-Kahn.

          To extend the comparison, Regina's post is like a complaint that rightwing libertarians are bizarrely trying to minimise the evil of slavery by comparing it to taxation, or a complaint that anti-war polemicists are minimising the evil of aggressive wars by comparing it to voting for parties supporting those wars. The actual intent of the articles seem to me to be the opposite – to harness the outrage about slavery, war and sexual assult in order to stigmatise taxation, voting Labour or sexual infidelity.

          As such the articles can only work by presupposing that sexual assault is morally unjustifiable, and that this intuition is widely shared. In addition, the less the reasons are explained, the stronger the mplicit assumption of shared values condemning sexual assault. So I think the articles are strongly moralistic, but I seem to read them in the opposite way from Regina. Which is interesting, and my intuition is that she may frame the articles as being in a different genre to the one I assume. Not that we have different moral frameworks, as you suggest as an alternative possibility.

        2. There seems to be a lot going on here. To keep things manageable, let me just address your two concluding questions (plus one clarification).

          1. Why should we view the apparent comparison in (at least some of) the media as being of a moral kind?

          Two reasons. First, some of these pieces are explicitly editorial, and explicitly condemnatory. It seems trivial that those invite moral comparison. For the rest – those that not explicitly editorial – I think the moral dimension is implicit, and not even very far from the surface. Why do journalists assume that their audience cares to be informed about these activities of Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger? After all, there isn't anything intrinsically noteworthy about the events, in the way that a G8 summit is. Presumably because (it is expected that) the audience wishes to pass moral judgment on the activities. (Whether or not these are legitimately sufficient grounds for media attention is another discussion.) Hence, moral comparison is readily at hand.

          2. Why ought these cases be compared exclusively on moral grounds?

          It's a bit tricky for me to answer this question. In one sense, my view is that they shouldn't be compared on moral grounds – they are, as I've said, morally incomparable. More precisely, they are of such different moral types that any casual moral comparison between them amounts to a mistake on the part of the speaker. Of course, there is one legitimate sense in which they may be compared – that is, the sense in which I've just compared them ("they are of such different moral types that…"). If these reports were aimed at making that point, then of course I'd have no complaint. But that isn't their aim.

          So my view is NOT that these cases should be compared exclusively on moral grounds. If there were some way to compare them on some totally non-moral matter, then I wouldn't have an objection. But I didn't believe these reports aim or succeed at making a wholly non-moral comparsion – in fact, I suspect that it is impossible to do that with these cases, in this context (per reasons given in response to your first question). Given that these reports implicitly (at least) imply moral comparison, and such moral comparison is a mistake, these reports make a mistake. My original post takes all of this more or less for granted, and attempts to explain why the mistake was made.

          Last point, quickly. You suggest that my view about the particular moral wrongness of sexual assault presupposes some conception of autonomy. I'm not sure that this is true. The reasons I briefly summarized in the original post do not appeal to autonomy – they appeal first to the negative consequences for the victim, and second to the objectionable attitude expressed in the act of sexual assault (roughly speaking, these are consequentialist and then deontological arguments). Autonomy might be one way to unpack these arguments, but it doesn't seem the only way. You might be right that there exists some radically different conception of morality on which these arguments cannot find purchase. But I'm not clear on why that matters to this discussion. I don't think it's plausible to attribute such radical views to the journalists responsible for these reports. So I think it is possible to criticize the media here without entering into discussion about radically different moral frameworks.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thank you, Regina, for giving us a balanced acount. I agree very much with what you write and your analysis of the lack of cognition and the lack of moral empathy rings true. I would like to suggest a third explanation for why much of the media treat the differences in the cases as merely one of degree.

    This explanation is the media’s prurient passion for revealing private lives of the famous. The media encourage the amalgam between sexual crime and consensual sexual behaviour in order to justify this exploitation. If the actions of DSK and an international footballer differ only in degree, then the media can pretend to have a duty to reveal everything that is in the private domain.
    The current anglo-saxon press attacks on the french media (in short : “everyone knew that DSK was a womaniser but didn’t dare publish” ) builds on exactly this amalgam to try to sustain this sordid self-justification.

    1. Hi Anthony,

      thanks for your comment. I want to agree with you in part, but also disagree in part.

      I think you're right that the conflation of sexual assault and simple adultery does serve certain prurience-indulging interests of the media. An editor who wakes up in the night wondering whether she's done the right thing by dispatching cameras to stake out Schwarzenegger's mistress's home can salve her conscience by thinking "well, this is all part of the same thing with that rapist, Strauss-Kahn, so it's a matter of legitimate public interest!"

      I do want to disagree, in part anyway, with your comments about the French media. There are very good grounds for criticizing the earlier silence of the French press. Previous allegations against Strauss-Kahn were not simply that he committed adultery. They also included allegations of sexual harassment of coworkers and subordinates, and even one earlier accusation of sexual assault;. These allegations ought to have been thoroughly attended to, and if born out should have disqualified Strauss-Kahn from high office.

      That said, it's probably right that the mistakes of French and English-language media are two sides of the same coin. English-language media minimize the wrong of sexual assault by reporting in in the same breath as adultery. French media minimize the wrong of sexual assault (and sexual harassment) by treating as a "private" matter, like adultery, and not reporting on it. I'm not sure which is a worse mistake, but it does seem that the French attitude has some really pernicious effects on the mindset of senior public figures.

  4. I think the issue of the values implicitly promoted in public discourse (sometimes in direct contradiction to those explicitly expressed) is extremely important for philosophers and the public to be sensitive to, so I am very pleased you brought up this issue, Regina.

    I have not been following the press closely on these issues, and only looked through the articles you yourself linked to (after I had read the argument in your posts and agreed with them fully), and to be honest they did not strike me as bizarre as I expected to, or as they seem to you (like connecting mass murderers to thieves for example). The article in the Guardian appeared to make the least differentiation both explicitly and implicitly between the cases (although it was still conscious of it).

    The first few articles actually appeared to me to be making the opposite case to the one you detect (and more similar to the position Anthony Drinkwater suggests) by explicitly making clear how different sexual assault is to infidelity, but suggesting that Schwarzenegger is suspected of having a history of groping (which I interpreted, possibly wrongly if Anthony Drinkwater is right, as being making unwanted sexual advances similar to those Strauss Kahn is accused opf prior to the current accusation). So the case they make seems to me that we should not minimise supposedly mild sexual assaults in Schwarzenegger's past, just as we should have made more of a deal of Strauss Kahn's previous groping, because people in power have a greater ability to exploit people with less power, including sexually.

    I take Anthony Drinkwater's point that drawing attention in vague ways to connections in their sexual histories before the more sensational and very different specific accusations came to light may function more to justify prurience than to critique the exploitation of power differences for personal sexual pleasure. However I am less convinced of this after reading the articles than I was before!

    So am I being insensitive? I accept that is possible. But I think it is also possible that Dmitri is right to say that the presentation of the cases do sufficiently (explicitly and implicitly) draw attention to how different the cases are, and are making the case for taking infidelity more seriously as a symptom of potential abuse of power rather than for taking sexual assault less seriously as merely a matter of infidelity with greater consequences/more victims.

    However, I am not suggesting my reading is better than yours, and would be open to persuasion/sensitisation back to the position you are taking.

    1. Hi Arif,

      thanks for your comment. You suggest a charitable reading of the reports, one which would dispel some of my concerns. I would amend your interpretation a bit, but roughly it would go like this:

      Both Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzeneggger are alleged to have lengthy histories of sexual harassment and/or unwanted sexual contact with women. That pattern of behavior suggests a set of psychological problems that may be responsible for the men's now-famous acts. In Schwarzenegger's case, we were lucky that he (allegedly) only committed infidelity, but in Strauss-Kahn's case, he (allegedly) did something much, much more terrible. Since such patterns of inappropriate sexual behavior do not allow us to predict which of these courses any given offender will take – infidelity or rape – we should respond to all such patterns with strong condemnation and intervention.

      If that were the argument of the reports, then I wouldn't have any complaints. I think this is a pretty good argument. But, unfortunately, I think this is a bit too charitable of an interpretation. I just don't see it coming through in any of them.

      Another charitable reading, also perhaps implicit in your comment, would be this:

      The Schwarzenegger case seems to be one with a strong possibility of exploitation, given that the women in question was his live-in housekeeper, whose livelihood depended on his good will. Possibly, this relationship was less than fully consensual. Hence, the Schwarzenegger case is closer to sexual assault (and so to DSK) than to simple adultery.

      I don't know if this argument is correct, but it would at least not trigger the worries I raised in my original post. But, again, I just don't see any grounds for attributing this interpretation to the reports.

      I'd like to assign charitable readings whenever possible, but I guess I just can't see it here. It seems much more plausible to take these reports at their literal word: they are comparing Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault with Schwarzenegger's infidelity, and paying only minimal heed to the moral differences between them. Hence my worries.

  5. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for your reply, Regina.
    I should have been clearer in my post : I don't justify all that the french press has written (or not written) and am in complete agreement with the french feminists you link to – some of the public reactions "in defence" of DSK, especially those of the self-styled world-famous philosopher BHL are sickening.
    But I don't think that the solution is for the french press to adopt anglo-saxon press practices either.

  6. I think the issue of sensitivity is crucial here. While reading Regina's post I was particularly struck by the following: "Sexual assault has terrible consequences for the victim: the terror and pain of the moment, and the often very long-lasting psychological ramifications of always remembering, always being wary. Attempting to rape someone reveals an attitude of tremendous disrespect toward the victim, whom one seemingly regards as a mere object of one’s own sexual satisfaction, and whose volition is apparently beside the point. The intimate nature of sexual assault, its direct manipulation of the body in which a thinking and feeling person is inextricably encased, conveys to the victim a severe devaluation of her or his capacity for thought and experience. Sexual assault is an almost uniquely horrible act, comparable, if at all, only to the furthest extremes of torture and killing."

    Perhaps what Regina is really missing in the media coverage is the anger and outrage that she feels should accompany any consideration of what DSK is accused of. For me this raises two questions: (i) to what extent do commentators, on blogs or elsewhere, have a duty to empathise with (willing or unwilling) participants in the dramas on which we commenting, and (ii) how relevant is Dmitri's comment that sexual assault is only obviously a greater moral wrong because of "the high value of autonomy and personal liberty that we take as given". A related question is whether the "terror and pain of the moment" and subsequent "psychological ramifications" are AT ALL exacerbated by the high value that Western society places on autonomy and personal liberty, or whether the causality is entirely the other way round (i.e. we place a high value on these things because of the emotional/psychological consequences of their violation).

    My own hunch is that the causality is to some extent two-way, and that sexual assault may be less psychologically damaging when it takes place in societies that place a lesser value on autonomy and personal liberty. But it's just a hunch: it would need to be tested empirically. One thing I do find missing in Regina's analysis though is a distinction between spur-of-the-moment impulses and premeditated acts. The extent to which the culprit actually INTENDS to show "tremendous disrespect toward the victim" surely depends on the extent to which the act is premeditated. On whether we have a "duty to empathy" as commentators, I certainly think we do to some extent, and I agree that we need to compensate for our natural tendency to empathise with celebrities and ignore the "bit players". What we must not do, however, is to empathise to such an extent that we lose our ability to be objective and look for constructive solutions.

  7. Hi Peter,

    thanks for your comment – I think the word "sensitivity" is very much appropriate here.

    I want to distance myself a bit from a couple things you suggested. For one, my view isn't that media personalities must express anger or outrage about sexual assault. There is certainly a place for the dispassionate reporting of events, shorn (as much as possible) of overt emoting. My worry is more about what the apparently dispassionate simultaneous mention of adultery and sexual assault implies about the relation between the two acts. I invoke a failure of empathy (directed toward the victim of sexual assault) as a possible explanation for this mistake. But I think it is possible (and in certain contexts advisable) to employ appropriate empathic considerations before and apart from the moment at which one engages in public discourse. Had that been done in this case, I think these reports would have been conducted differently (whether or not they are overtly emotive).

    Is it possible that the trauma of rape partly depends on contingent facts about our culture's attitude toward personal liberty? I don't know – in fact, I'm a bit skeptical. But I'm not sure it's helpful to speculate here. We would have to be very careful to frame the matter in such a way that avoids minimizing or delegitimizing the actual experiences of victims. (I'm not at all saying that you are doing that, of course! I just mean that responsibly exploring this idea further would require extraordinary care, and since it's ultimately an empirical question we can't answer, it doesn't seem worth the risk.)

    As far as the distinction between impulses and premeditated acts. Of course this is an important distinction in moral theory. I'm not sure, though, that it's of great relevance to the issue I'm attempting to raise here. I don't think that the act of sexual assault reveals an attitude of "tremendous disrespect toward the victim" only when the act is premeditated. After all, such an attitude may be implicit or latent. It's built into the character of the act that the agent lacks the relevant sort of respect toward the victim. One does not mistreat someone in such a way, not even on impulse, if one sincerely holds respect for that person. (That said, criminal law does and should recognize distinctions between spur-of-the-moment and premeditated offenses. Our grounds for punishment do depend, in part, on that distinction.)

    1. Thanks Regina – I think I agree with almost all of that. The only issue where I remain somewhat sceptical that sincere respect makes mistreatment entirely impossible. Perhaps the distinction is between "impulsive" and "compulsive". To take an extreme example, people with brain tumours have be known to completely change their personalities and display such behaviours. Does this mean that their previous respect wasn't genuine? I certainly DO agree that a lack of respect can reveal itself in spur-of-the-moment acts, but I also think that they can have other causes, which in extreme cases no amount of respect can overcome. If so, this would be important not only from a moral point of view but from a practical prevention/rehabilitation point of view.

  8. Still, interesting to see that the US press was criticizing the French media for hiding Strauss Kahn problems, and thelsemves said nothing about Governator…

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