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.