The right to protect – but whom?

As shown in the DSK case, the politicisation of sexual assault trivialises serious crimes, doing no service to victims.

The quick arrest of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, along with the breach of privacy rules among the French press, raised some red flags regarding how politicised the case has become [GALLO/GETTY]

A woman is sexually assaulted. She reports the crime. Within a few hours, her alleged assailant is arrested. Current statistics suffice to show this would be, by any account, a striking denouement. Add the fact that the individuals in question are an immigrant hotel maid and an internationally known public figure, and that the latter’s arrest would raise almost unprecedented political and diplomatic risks, and the case becomes positively extraordinary, indeed, exceptional.

This ostensible exceptionality is two-fold, and nationally inflected. On the one hand, in France, the DSK case is a breach of privacy, given the French press’ steadfast refusal to cover the sex lives of politicians. On the other, in the United States, the case remains extraordinary for the speed with which a sexual offence has been publicly addressed; after all, even low-profile accused rapists rarely find themselves in police custody within a few hours of the crime. And yet these two dynamics of exception and rule hide the banality of the case with regards to a much more general rule, namely, the exercise of sexual, economic and military power.

I don’t discriminate, I assault everybody

Much of the discussion surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s purported “indiscretion” has focused on sexuality and privacy. Translated into the international language of the right to protect (R2P), the debate could be construed as voicing two competing concerns for protection: the protection of women and the protection of privacy. Thus the putative difference between France and the USA (now we know why “the West doesn’t exist”): “sexually liberated” French political elites have sex but the press won’t talk about it out of a concern for their privacy, whereas the “puritan” public in the US is defined by its concern with the sexual (mis)conduct of politicians.

Hence the recent flood of articles in both the French and US media comparing attitudes towards sex and politics in the two nations, as well the soul-searching by some French journalists about their “code of silence” and its effects. As Pierre Haski, a leading political commentator and journalist told the New York Times, “We felt we were superior to the Americans and the British by upholding the principle of protecting private life.” Haski goes on to regret withholding information about previous French political figures, such as foreign minister Roland Dumas’ affair with the daughter of Syria’s defence minister in the mid-’80s and the separation of Socialist power couple Segolene Royal and Francois Hollande while Royal was running for president in 2007. Concludes Haski: “not everything private is private”.

There are a number of peculiar consequences to this construal of the DSK affair, although the peculiarity begins no doubt with the premise that DSK’s actions are of a sexual, or private, nature. Let us assume for the moment that it is true, that his is a sexual offence, one that therefore raises the issue of privacy and its limits. Let us also consider the other public figures who have been invoked as DSK’s scandalous predecessors – namely, Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, and Julian Assange – those “liberal demigods” (as the New York Times put it) who, appearing to be working for the public good, and doing so with a manifest commitment to the underdog, seem more likely to be (and indeed, have been) hit with accusations of sexual conduct or misconduct.

The debate is overall comparative, even competitive. It recalls other “sexual indiscretions” and assesses attitudes toward “privacy.” It also goes to the heart of our conception of victimhood. For what is here adjudicated is whether sex can be recognised as consensual and whether the invasion of privacy is, indeed, a comparable offence. As it posits the constant possibility of sex as an encounter between sexual predator and sexual victim, it also construes the public (assuming that that is what the media represent) as preying on the remaining privacy of hapless and visibility-harassed public figures. Either way, it aims to rise to the defence of the victims. R2P2.

The hierarchy of victims

If we pursue this comparative approach, erasing any distinction between sexual assault, sexual harassment, and paid-but-consensual sex, we might come to wonder whether having sex outside marriage is a worse offence than sleeping with a bank, or with a pharmaceutical company (or their assigned lobbyist), or with the daughter of a defence-contract client. We might then ask, as some supporters of Assange did, whether it makes a difference to have injured one person (at least one at a time) as opposed to have taken away in one fell aerial or transactional swoop the life or life savings of millions.

That is why the debate goes to the heart of reigning notions of victimology, while the comparisons keep coming. Moving from sex and privacy (and the alleged concern for women) to another global underdog, the Jews, some have gone on to ask why, among financial elites, the two criminals who have now registered on the global consciousness are also two Jews (Madoff and Strauss-Kahn). Indeed, symptoms of, and complaints about, anti-Semitism abound on the internet.

The ominous spectre of choosing between victims rises further. In our humanitarian concerns, should we protect women from sexual predators, Jews from accusations, or men from intrusions into their privacy? Note that in each case, one could claim, with a measure of self-righteousness and unimpeachable indeterminacy, an ethical stance. For who would want to argue against protecting victims?

Collateral damage (the new faith)

The mistake in the account we have been adhering to so far resides in the following. Much as it distinguishes between victims, it separates sexual from financial or economic (and racial) offences, treating some as public (or political) and others as private, others yet as inconsequential. At this level as well, victims are distinguished, pitted against each other. But the so-called responsibility to protect does more than distinguish between victims and predators. It posits some victims as victims, and others as collateral damage. From the innumerable, and unanswered, victims of domestic violence to the recipients of “economic restructuring” that only benefits the few, this version of R2P attends not at all to “collateral damage”.

As we asked earlier, why has it become more offensive to engage in sexual (mis)conduct with a woman than to rob millions of people of their livelihoods or to bomb them back into the Stone Age? One can only dream of the swiftness with which justice rained down on DSK (and Spitzer and Assange) applied to the Wall Street bankers who brought us our current recession, or to the Bush lawyers who redefined torture and the rules of war. Or to most perpetrators of domestic violence.

But “sex” does not simply serve to occlude other forms of violence here. The term itself is already an occlusion. The media’s invocation of DSK alongside Clinton and Spitzer – all brought down by “sex scandals” – fails to note the obvious, namely, that the DSK episode has little to do with sex, and therefore with the question of privacy. Far from engaging in private sexual activity or even expressing a preference for “rough sex” (as some have posited), DSK might be more properly accused of having coercively and violently exercised his power, doing so not only by means of harassment (allegedly pressuring a junior colleague at the IMF to sleep with him) but also through reported physical assault and attempted rape.

It remains, of course, difficult to know what to make of the consent ostensibly granted by Monica Lewinsky to her Commander-in-Chief, though one can hazard that the problem in that case was not that Clinton “had sex with that woman” but rather that he had sex with that woman, a subordinate intern. And even if power and consent are messy terrains to parse, surely we can easily agree that both DSK and Clinton differ from Elliot Spitzer, who quite clearly secured consent for the sex he had by paying for it. By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex – precisely through these comparisons of “sexual indiscretions” on the part of various politicians – and by narrativising this incident as a private act-turned-public scandal, we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.

The dominant narrative

The recent narrative that has emerged, in which the US – in the form of the valiant NYPD and the justice system – appears as a protector of women is therefore troubling. To return to an earlier point, journalists and pundits have begun to deploy another logic of comparison to set France and the United States apart, the former seen to protect privacy and the “art of seduction” at the expense of protecting women. Sexual harassment, then, and nonchalant attitudes towards it, would seem to be a French, perhaps European, problem, though certainly not an American one. Thus the New York Times begins an article titled, “At IMF, Men on Prowl and Women on Guard” with the following observation: “It [i.e. the IMF] is an international island in the midst of the American capital, a sharp-elbowed place ruled by alpha male economists.” The article goes on to describe “an institution whose sexual norms and customs are markedly different from those of Washington, leaving its female employees vulnerable to harassment. The laws of the United States do not apply inside its walls.”

Women working in the capital (indeed, anywhere in the US), and in the hyper-capitalist, hyper-alpha-male financial institutions of Manhattan, might be surprised to hear that sexual harassment is confined to that international island where US law does not apply. And rather ironically, on the same day that DSK appeared for his arraignment at the Criminal Courts Building in lower Manhattan, twelve floors above in the same building another case was proceeding, that of two NYPD officers, one accused of raping a woman while the other kept watch. (Ever committed to serving and protecting, the officer accused of rape admits to having kissed the woman, “cuddled” her in bed, and called 911 himself to give the officers an excuse for returning to her home that night, but claims to have done all this to help the very-inebriated woman feel better.)

The point is that the United States can hardly claim moral superiority when it comes to violence – sexual or otherwise. Yet it blithely does just that, affirming its role as protector of women and others. R2P has thus become the go-to justification for a whole series of US-led military operations, from the war in Afghanistan to the more recent NATO bombardment of Libya (with little attention, of course, to the consequences – economic, physical, and political – of daily bombings for women, and men, and children). Within the United States itself, the NYPD’s rapid response to DSK’s alleged assault remains nothing if not extraordinary, as many victims of domestic and sexual violence know all too well.

Neither of these narratives – that of “sexual scandal” and that of US exceptionalism – actually serve to promote justice in any way. By casting sex (or privacy) as the main issue, and by publicly framing DSK’s acts as “sexual indiscretion” rather than violent assault, nothing is done for the protection of women. Instead, one makes sex – and its often-indeterminate complexity – into a visible and marketable problem, thereby avoiding, indeed confusing and even occluding, the question of power. Sleeping with women should not be a worse offence than sleeping with banks, nor should the two be seriously compared. Nor should one have to condemn sexual indiscretions the way one is asked to pay ethical dues these days by condemning terrorism and the growth of anti-Semitism. This is not to say that sexism (rather than sex) in its many forms has garnered the kind of condemnation heaped upon these other evils, even if R2P claims to do just that.

In the end, the comparison between French and US sexual-political culture (again, as if this were a problem of sex in the first place) only serves to mitigate harm against women, in the United States and in the target-sites of the global war on terror. After all, these frenzied debates have little genuine concern for the victims, most of whom have long been relegated to the dustbin of the New Faith – the doctrine of collateral damage. Destroying the livelihood of billions of people with financial weapons of mass-destruction, bombing and assassinating the world over simply because one can – now these should be crimes for which a large number of our ruling elite could be made to answer. In France or in the United States of America.

Mayanthi Fernando teaches in the Anthropology Department at the University of California – Santa Cruz. Gil Anidjar teaches in the Department of Religion and the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. They are currently Fellows in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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