Going Public: The Silences in the Shadows of Privacy

Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual harassment.

It was a whisper, a murmuring, but an audible one in a few news outlets ranging from the BBC to the New Yorker. A recognition of something oft unregarded, unreported, and unnoticed.

The rafts of journalism produced by the case of IMF Chairman and Socialist party patriarch Dominique Strauss-Kahn has taken a variety of angles on his alleged rape of a hotel chambermaid in New York City except that which may matter most: the perspective of the maid herself. The whisper and murmur I heard was the fact that journalists were noticing this. Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker said the following in his blog about the French reaction to the rape case:

Listening to the political classes attempting to come to terms with the destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn today, I heard hardly a thought for his accuser. It seemed a good measure of the depth of France’s political malaise that it took a Le Pen to show solidarity with the working woman against the Socialist Party’s favorite son.

Emphasis mine. This is the great invisible wall of silence that surrounds rape in our society and puts the lie to any notion that men accused of rape are automatically condemned at the end of a woman’s pointed finger. That a few journalists are at last speaking about this, albeit in hushed tones tucked at the end of articles, is heartening. But it calls attention to the glaring absence of concern for the victims of rape, or even those who- in the public eye- come to be known by the title of “accuser” with all of its hectoring, negative connotations.

In all of the commentary out of France over the last few days what we have seen in cavalcades of speech and soundbites is concern for the IMF, for the reputation of France, for the fate of the Socialist Party. Yet none have said, even with due deference and qualified tones, something to the effect of: “if the accusations prove true, my heart goes out to the victim of this horrendous assault.” We are instead fed the lie that “innocent until proven guilty” or scrupulous neutrality in general means to assume that Strauss-Kahn is the victim of some set-up. To dare to suggest that it is, in fact, likely he raped that young chambermaid is to be hopelessly biased. To say you believe a conspiracy has netted him and that he’s just not that kind of guy- as many French politicians across its political spectrum have- is ‘neutral’ and ‘unbiased’ thinking.

To clutch one’s pearls about France’s reputation but not spare a thought for one moment that this young woman’s reputation may be forever tarnished by this case is supposedly fair and balanced.

To look at the comment sections of many news websites is to find armies of people- mostly men if the screen names are any guide- saying that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, propounding on their virtuous fairness and neutrality, refusing to rush to judgement and so forth. All while saying that some invisible mass, some nebulous powerful force, is presuming him guilty. It is difficult to fathom what it is these people are seeing when most commentary on these articles appears to assume Strauss-Kahn is innocent. As has been said, it is no more neutral to say you believe he didn’t do it and that such a crime is ‘far fetched’ than it is for me to suggest it is, in fact, very likely.

Strauss-Khan has a reputation of sorts. Ironically this is being touted as precisely the reason it would make sense to ‘set him up’ with a false rape accusation. It’s a nightmare that the man himself nursed according to an interview with the newspaper Libération:

Strauss-Kahn then volunteered to the journalists a hypothetical example of something that could bring him down: “A woman raped in a parking lot who is promised half a million euros to make up her story.”

Yet this is rarely described as ‘far fetched’ and ‘fanciful’- even though it is. Malicious false rape accusations- charges made by a woman who knows she was not raped, and is intentionally setting up a man- are exceedingly rare[1]. 500,000 Euros is rather a pittance for leaping headfirst into the jaws of a misogynist media that will eviscerate, with glee, a lying temptress- the figure of many a male nightmare. Most women, even those who have not been harassed, assaulted, or raped, know all too well that there is no joy in dealing with the criminal justice system (whatever country they may live in) when it comes to charging a man as their assailant. To say nothing of that fact that generally women are simply disbelieved. We are the “accusers,” magically transmuted into the active one doing something to a man, rather than reporting something done to us. This is, again, considered a scrupulously neutral posture on the subject.

To return, however, to Strauss-Kahn’s history, it is hardly irrelevant to point out that he was a womaniser. Far more important, however, is the task of dealing with the invidious distinction between public and private that shields people (particularly men) from scrutiny, accountability, or justice when it comes to sex crimes.

To begin with, French journalist Michel Taubman said of his idol and the subject of a biography he’s just written: “This Dominique Strauss-Kahn bears no resemblance to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn I know, and those close to him know: a seducer, yes, a rapist, no.” This tends to be the line a lot of politicians and members of France’s journalistic elite are taking. Strauss-Kahn is a regular Don Juan, a ladies man, The Most Interesting Man in the World, International Monetary Fund Man of Mystery. He loves the ladies and they love him back. But he’s not a rapist. The problem with this story is that for powerful men the line between seduction and sexual harassment is so blurred as to be beyond consideration for them. For them, seduction often means simply an imposition of their sexual will on women (and in rare cases, other men too) less powerful than them.

Is this seduction?

Others in France spoke out. The Socialist party MP Aurelie Filipetti recalled a “very heavy, very pressing” come-on to her by Strauss-Kahn. She said that afterwards: “I made sure I never ended up alone with him in a closed space.”

When I’m seduced by someone I tend to want to spend more time with them in enclosed or at least semi-enclosed spaces.

 Brussels correspondent for Libération, Jean Quatremer, wrote on his blog: “Strauss-Kahn’s only real problem is his relationship to women. Too heavy … it borderlines harassment.”

What emerges tentatively, in whispers and murmurs similar to the journalistic concerns for the chambermaid, is a picture of a man whose ‘seductive’ streak was interpreted rather differently by at least some of the women at whom his attentions were directed. Yet as is often the case we are expected to treat Strauss-Kahn’s interpretation of events- that he is a seducer and not a harasser- as objective and fair. Whither the perspective of the women who decidedly did not see it that way?

From this many of Strauss-Kahn’s defenders turn to the fact that this is his “private life.” On the question of private lives I will turn to a respected feminist legal scholar’s take on the public/private dichotomy and its gendered dimensions:

The realm in which women’s everyday life is lived, the setting for many of these daily atrocities [rape, sexual harassment], is termed “the private.” Law defines the private as where law is not, that into which law does not intrude, where no harm is done other than by law’s presence. In everyday life, the privacy is his. …Wives are raped in private. Women’s labour is exploited in private. Equality is not guaranteed in private. … In private, women who cannot afford abortions can get them, but those cannot afford them get no public support, because private choices are not public responsibilities.

Women in everyday life have no privacy in private. In private, women are objects of male subjectivity and male power. The private is that place where men can do whatever they want because women reside there.

Catharine MacKinnon’s words here are, as usual, bracing and shocking. Yet if one has dealt with issues of what Howard Zinn termed “intimate oppression”- rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, emotional abuse, exploitation in the home- one has looked into the abyss of “the private.” When Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual depredations in France are called his “private life” it is a euphemism that suggests women’s suffering is his private domain into which we would be wrong to intrude, and certainly the law has no place there. He has rights, after all.

Two French journalists have suggested the following:

The journalists, Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois, broke a taboo in their 2006 book, Sexus Politicus, about politicians’ sexual behaviour. They wrote of Strauss-Kahn’s tendency to “seduction to the point of obsession”, mentioning, but not naming, female journalists who had been irritated by his gestures towards them. They also referred to one senior civil servant who didn’t take up his offer to “come up to his office to relax”

More of his private life, some might say. As usual the passively spoken ‘neutrality’ of such statements obscures the fact that they are expressed from Strauss-Kahn’s perspective on the matter. To the women he has harassed, their privacy was non-existent and subsumed into the all consuming sphere of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s. Let us also not forget that sexual harassment often takes place in areas that are not traditionally thought of as private. The workplace, in particular. That many of the people Strauss Kahn “irritated” were politicians and journalists says that while these women were somehow engaged in work, Mr. Strauss-Kahn imposed his ‘privacy’ onto them. The most dramatic case of this is illustrated in the charges of Tristane Banon, a woman journalist who says that Strauss-Kahn raped her in 2002 when she was trying to interview the man. Is this also a question of privacy? Whose expectation of privacy is being privileged when we clutch pearls about antagonising Mr. Strauss-Kahn about his private life?

To return to the Guardian article by Angelique Chrisafis which has helpfully collected many of these statements and charges:

[Banon’s] mother, Anne Mansouret, a senior Socialist figure, said that she advised her daughter not to file a lawsuit at the time because Strauss-Kahn was a politician with a bright future, as well as a friend of the family. But she said that even the fact that her daughter later spoke out publicly about the attack on TV had left her “traumatised” by the subsequent “harassment” in her professional life over having dared to speak out.

Her mother suggested there was a kind of “invisible barrier” put up on her work projects, as if media bosses and publishers feared the consequences of “what she could reveal”. Strauss-Kahn’s spokesman has previously denied the claim, and said Banon had invented the allegation to generate publicity for herself.

Is it a matter of privacy that one’s career as a journalist becomes disrupted and thrown into a measure of disrepute? The private, in the formulation most people understand this term, is where women are to suffer in silence and obediently refuse to challenge men’s interpretation of events. That Ms. Banon refused to do this is precisely why she faced harassment for speaking out. She went public with what is “rightly” private. The private is something that follows men like Strauss-Kahn as if it were a forcefield or aura; privacy is where he is and what he does.

From another Guardian piece:

Libération editor Nicolas Demorand suggested France was having its first sex scandal “à l’anglo saxonne” and was “brutally entering a zone of public debate which, up to now whether because of the cultural exception, the ‘latin’ identity or democratic weakness has been confined to rumours and gossip among a small inner circle”.

“Politicians … enjoy a particular tolerance on this subject,” he wrote. “Part of the shock comes also from the unusual scene, until now unthinkable here: police arresting a top-level politician on a matter of morals.”

What is particularly interesting about this snippet is the slightly different way euphemism is used here. The suggestion that the New York City police arrested Strauss-Kahn and brought him to trial over “a matter of morals.” I was under the impression that understatement was a British talent. To be certain, rape is absolutely immoral, but the contextual suggestion from Demorand’s statement is that rape is akin to other sexual matters about which one “moralises” (with the prudish connotations that accrue to that term) such as adultery. This manoeuvre again serves to place harassment and rape in the same ‘private’ category into which we file a person’s ‘sex life.’

Once again we return to the fundamental reality of all cases like this: the privileged perspective is that of the alleged perpetrator, that of the man. It is privileged to the point where it becomes the neutral median from which all deviation is judged as subjective, and simply biased.

The utter invisibility of the chambermaid, to at last return to her, is a symptom of this unregarded thought form. That Strauss-Kahn’s arrest can represent an offence to any and everything- nations, political parties, multinational institutions- obscures with a blizzard of pearls the person whose feelings should matter most in cases like this. Even if one wishes to piously presume Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty one could still express sympathy for the woman. Yet to do so is to do something many people, including women (lest we forget, many of the Socialist Party apologists most prominently quoted have been some of the few women in the upper echelons of French politics) are loath to do. Confront the reality of rape.

Even assuming that, as many people are secretly hoping, the charges levelled by this chambermaid are false, cases like this dredge up the possibility of an uncomfortable confrontation with rape culture and with a macho culture of sexual harassment that still pervades some traditionally male-dominated institutions. It is to wrestle with the question of privacy and of sexuality. Many men no doubt secretly ask themselves if what they do might not also be harassment, and this is not an easy thing to grapple with. Far better to say all harassment is private (or ‘seduction’) and all rape never happened than to stare in the face the troubling possibility of both believing women and taking our perspectives into account.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the ecology minister, did at least mention the 32-year-old chambermaid allegedly attacked by Strauss-Kahn. “As well as the presumed victim, the chambermaid, there is a proven victim … France. We should remember the facts are very serious; in France we tend to treat things like this a little bit lightly,” she told news agency AFP.

Kosciusko-Morizet touches on the matter while still steering near to the party line- that France as a whole is a victim. She says, as some have dared to say aloud, that a culture of harassment is tolerated in France. What is left unsaid is that the culture of silence in this country- as it does in most countries to one degree or another- is what keeps the harassment going. It is an imposed silence, a relegation to the private, and outrage at the rare public surfacing of a woman’s suffering that allows such a system to grind onwards.

This silence-as-social-system particularly antagonises women of colour, transgender women, women with disabilities, working class women- any women who might have an identity that can be further brought to bear against them to impugn their credibility in any public setting. The trans woman deceiver, the fiery Latina, the animalistic Black woman, and on and on go the litanies of white cis men’s pornographic stereotypes of women they may subordinate at one time or another, making it altogether harder for them to speak out and be heard, much less believed. The chambermaid is a black African immigrant- how long before her background is deployed against her in ways overt and covert? What would it have to do with the facts of this case?

Piorska Nagy, a woman who emerged from the shadows. (Photo credit: Dieter Nagl, Bloomberg)

Dredged up in this whole mess was the personification of precisely the kind of situation, the “moral” matter, about which one would be inclined to say is merely a “private” affair: Strauss-Kahn’s supposedly consensual extramarital relationship with economist Piorska Nagy, a colleague at the IMF. When that scandal exploded, Strauss-Kahn escaped with little in the way of opprobrium for his actions- this was in 2008, after all. It was an affair, hot sex, nothing to get all prudish and moral about, and it was his private life… Except for one thing:

They have added weight to claims by Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian-born economist, that the fund’s director engaged in sustained harassment when she was working at the IMF that left her feeling she had little choice but to agree to sleep with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2008.

In a letter to investigators, she described Strauss-Khan as “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command”.

Once again, tacit weight was given to Strauss-Kahn’s interpretation of events. Fewer people dared to pay attention to what the woman thought in this situation, how did she understand what was happening to her at the time? In Ms. Nagy’s case, as harassment and coercion. While one harps on consent, true rigour demands that we ask how Strauss-Kahn obtained consent. As Nagy herself says,  “Despite my long professional life, I was unprepared for the advances of the managing director of the IMF. I did not know how to handle this; as I told you, I felt ‘I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.’” Once again, a professional woman working publicly finds herself at the centre of someone else’s “privacy” unexpectedly.

What all too few men understand about situations like this is that women can be and very often are pressured into sex. Consent is anything but enthusiastic and comes at the end of much coercion, badgering, cajoling, and- of course- abuse of power. As many women abused in the workplace will point out, their assailants are often bosses and managers. In this case, it was the head of the IMF. A man with the potential to exercise great power over his subordinates. Under what circumstances can this be considered equal? How is it that the power dynamics of such a situation can be ignored in what ought to be a rigorous analysis of the matter? Why does his word matter more than hers? Good answers are not forthcoming.

Women’s perspective will tell you something that will also answer the supposedly burning questions of interested men (“why didn’t she just report it as sex abuse?” “if she slept with him, didn’t she want it?”) We know that people will ask questions like this, and will tacitly, subconsciously, but substantially weight our male assailant’s point of view over our own- especially if he is white and well heeled- and immediately see us as the finger pointing “accuser” who- in spite of all the wrenching horrors to which women who accuse are subjected- is perceived as somehow benefiting from making such a charge. We want our “15 minutes of fame.” I cannot think of any woman I know who wants 15 minutes of fame tarred as an unscrupulous harlot trying to destroy a good man, and as a slut, whore, and golddigging liar who is not to be trusted.

Employment at any level is not easy, even when it is fulfilling. To add to this the incredibly ponderous and difficult process of going through human resources or even the police to potentially gain some scrap of earth called ‘justice’ after months of drawn out mudslinging and emotional exhaustion is hardly an enviable position. To make such a charge is to publicly situate yourself as that raped woman, if you are believed, or that bitch liar if you are not. It will cast a pall over your workplace, make people turn on you, make it impossible to concentrate on work- even if it’s work you love and live for- and see all areas of your life (including the vaunted ‘private’) consumed by an investigation that threatens to violate you all over again.

Given all of this it becomes easy to see why a woman might think “Maybe if I fuck him this will all go away.” It can seem like the easy way out. Because it is. Because men in power make it the path of least resistance. Stay in the private, don’t go public, let him have his ‘sex’ and everything will be okay in the morning. Until he wants it again.

Rape shield laws do offer some measure of protection for survivors. But even now I am watching the slow drip-drip of information about the chambermaid being leaked to the press, and it seems enough for a stalker (read: tabloid journalist) to piece together the puzzle and discover the woman’s full identity and then leak it to the public. There will be little hue and cry about “privacy” if and when that happens. She is a woman of colour from the Bronx, a working class woman, and an immigrant. It is women like her who are often turned into property for men in power.

In private, of course.

[1] See for example: Kelly, L., Lovett, J., & Regan, L. (2005). A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases. Home Office Research Study 293. London, England: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.

(Available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/horspubs1.html)

Other studies include:

Clark, L. & Lewis, D. (1977). Rape: The price of coercive sexuality. Toronto, Canada: The Women’s Press.

Grace, S., Lloyd, C., & Smith, L.J.F. (1992). Rape: From recording to conviction. Research and Planning Unit Paper 71. London, England: Home Office.

Harris, J. & Grace, S. (1999). A question of evidence? Investigating and prosecuting rape in the 1990s. Home Office Research Study 196. London, England: Home Office.

Heenan, M. & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria, 2000-2003. Melbourne, Australia: Office of Women’s Policy, Department for Victorian Communities

One thought on “Going Public: The Silences in the Shadows of Privacy

  1. Graphictruth May 21, 2011 / 7:50 pm

    An insightful, if slightly pedantic and timid reaction to the enormity. But that’s not my response, as while it’s timid and rather cautious, it’s less so than most.

    No, what pisses me off is the “trigger warning.”

    Thank you ever so much for your patriarchal presumption that if a person is raped and abuesed, they can never actually contemplate the issue of rape happening to another person without turning into a gibbering, drooling caricature. They can never, *ever* be trusted to be *rational.*. We are the very ultimate example of the “disgruntled former usee.”

    In point of fact, your article was about as clinical as an article in “Nature,” or “Scientific American,” it was an conscious effort to intellectualize an abomination. Well, dear.. dissociation is my friend. I could even call it a close relation. Possibly an intimate companion. I can argue with myself and lose – as a consequence of rape.. and even greater betrayals.

    Yeah, you don’t actually want to know. trust me.

    So dear, don’t patronize me, and I won’t abuse size you. Tell your truth, and trust us to handle it. That’s what *I* took away from alt.sexual.abuse.recovery.

    …a form of recovery.

    And welcome, once again, to the real world, where no matter how you try, you can’t avoid having some former victim have a tantrum at you for inexplicable reasons.

    As sincere as my reaction actually is, nonetheless, my advice is this: “Respect me enough to not presume I MUST be coddled. If I need to cry, I know how to do it. Spare me your cruel compassion!”

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