When men behave badly

Attempted rape, deception and infidelity. What does the alleged behaviour of rich and powerful men this week tell us about attitudes to women?

Some weeks give off a noxious stench, and few more so than this one. The rot began on Sunday, when the news broke that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, had been arrested in New York on charges of attempted rape, sexual abuse, a criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching in an attack on a woman who works as a hotel cleaner.

Strauss-Kahn is, of course, innocent until proven guilty; standing down from his IMF post, he referred to his love of his wife and said he denied "with the greatest possible firmness all of the allegations that have been made against me". But in the days following his arrest, we were treated to an unpleasant insight into Strauss-Kahn's sexual reputation. Journalist Thomais Papaioannou said: "Everybody knows, everybody – particularly in Paris – has a story about Strauss-Kahn flirting, text-ing. He is the great seducer, the 'lapin chaud' – literally hot rabbit in English, but it's an expression that means when he sees a woman he likes to chase her."

So he is known as a seducer; not a crime. Then other allegations emerged of sexual assault, sustained harassment and aggressive behaviour. French journalist Tristane Banon, goddaughter of Strauss-Kahn's second wife Brigitte Guillemette, alleged that he assaulted her when she visited him for an interview in 2002. Other allegations emerged, accusations of harassment from an ex colleague and of "aggressive" behaviour from a brothel owner. Then out came Strauss-Kahn's supporters. There were suggestions that he was the victim of a plot – a poll shows that almost 60% of people in France believe this to be the case – and that the allegations are "hallucinations". Michel Taubmann, author of an official bio-graphy of Strauss-Kahn, said he was "a well-known seducer, but does not have the profile of a rapist". As the feminist writer Natasha Walter says, "Isn't it awful that people still don't get it, that they don't realise that anyone can be a rapist, that anyone can experience rape? That you don't have to be a slut and asking for it, and you don't have to be a dirty old man, desperate for it."

The philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy wrote an article on the Daily Beast. He also asked why Strauss-Kahn had been delivered to "the crowd of photo hounds", and treated like "a subject of justice like any other" (perhaps because he is the subject of justice like any other). He went on to say that Banon had "shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television".

Walter describes Lévy's article as "outrageous, and I suppose in a way I find the tone of the support for Strauss-Kahn, and the trivialising of the women involved, as shocking as the original alleged crime. If we're asking why so many men get away with rape, why juries don't convict, there's your answer. Because people still don't really see it as a crime. They see the women as fantasists, grabbing their 'golden opportunity'."

They also take every chance to shame and traduce them. Yesterday it emerged that the French press, known for its protection of powerful people's privacy, had named the woman who had made the attempted rape allegations against Strauss-Kahn. And Paris Match ran quotes assessing her sexual allure, with Strauss-Kahn's lawyers calling her "not very seductive", and a taxi driver suggesting she has "big boobs and beautiful buttocks".

Schwarzenegger's secret

At the same time as the DSK horror was unfolding, Arnold Schwarzenegger confirmed to the LA Times that, more than a decade ago, he had fathered a child with a family employee, a housekeeper, who had continued to work in the home ever since. His wife, Maria Shriver, only learnt about "this event", as Schwarzenegger called it – after he ended his term as governor of California in January.

The news that he had behaved with such rank entitlement, having an affair with a paid employee, under the nose of his wife (the two women were apparently pregnant at the same time) won't have come as such a surprise to anyone who has followed his career. In 2003, when he was running for governor of California, the LA Times ran an article in which six women claimed he had "touched them in a sexual manner without their consent". Three said he had grabbed their breasts, a fourth that he had put his hand up her skirt, a fifth that he had tried to remove her swimming costume, and the last that he had pulled her on to his lap, before whispering: "Have you ever had a man slide his tongue into your [anus]?"

Schwarzenegger's response to these claims was to admit he had sometimes behaved badly. "Those people that I have offended," he said, "I want to say to them that I am deeply sorry about that." The groping allegations had no obvious effect on his gubernatorial run, and few believe this most recent revelation will affect his future ambitions in the political and entertainment fields.

It is hard to imagine a married female politician's career continuing in the face of a similar reputation, but as feminist researcher and activist Finn Mackay says, it seems as if rumours of promiscuity can actually enhance a male politician's reputation. "Look at the way that Berlusconi is received in Italy," she says. "I've seen a lot of commentary there which suggests that the allegations of sexual promiscuity boost his ratings because people say 'Look what a virile, masculine leader we have.'"

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly usual for men to gag the far less powerful, far less economically advantaged women they have slept with behind their wives' backs. Some of the women who have been the target of superinjunctions are those working in prostitution, so we now have a rather grotesque system in which a man can buy a woman for sex, then visit his lawyer to buy her silence.

The only spark of light this week has been the growing anger of feminist activists expressed immediately and widely over social networks such as Twitter about, for example, the decision by parts of the French press to name the alleged victim of Strauss-Kahn. Feminist writer and broadcaster, Bidisha, says she has seen "an incredible sharpening of women's unity and activism recently, specifically around these extremely important issues – women are ready to confront the government, the justice system. I think that often it takes the agglomeration of these really appalling cases to force people to take their hands away from their eyes and ears."


Kira Cochrane

The GuardianTramp

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