IT’S AN INTERESTING TIME to be a New Yorker in France. For those who have been dwelling in a cave, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—ex-managing director of the International Monetary Fund and former leading candidate for the French presidency—is accused of the attempted rape of a chambermaid in the Manhattan hotel where he was staying.
Franco-American tensions have undoubtedly played a role in reactions to the scandal: According to many in his native land, DSK (as they call him here) has been treated shamefully. France, unlike those crass Yanks, doesn’t do perp walks and it certainly doesn’t allow a member of its power elite to be pictured in manacles, looking disheveled and helpless. On the U.S. side, there may well be a desire to take revenge on French snobbery and anti-Americanism by not only punishing a well-known visitor to our country but doing it blatantly, publicly, unmissably.
More noteworthy, however, to my mind, is how men and women respond to the case. Most women take it personally, identifying with the (so far) faceless Ophelia. A friend confided that when she was a woman in her twenties, men in authority, a doctor and a boss, twice made sexual advances. “He grabbed me,” she said of the doctor. She never told anybody. We agreed that it is ludicrous to suppose that Ophelia would invent a story, knowing how terribly difficult and risky it is to make such an accusation at all (a recent essay in the French newspaper Le Monde, which has been unusually balanced in its coverage, asserts that DSK’s defense team will do everything in its considerable power to destroy the plaintiff’s reputation and life). Another friend called Strauss-Kahn a “predator,” and indeed, judging from his history of ill-advised affairs and call-girl patronage, it’s hard to see him as anything but. Even French journalists are starting to describe him as a sex addict.
Men—good men, anyway—react with disgust over their gender’s arrogance and cruelty, and perhaps with fear that some casual lustful gesture could land them in trouble. Many of them are understandably unnerved by the way a man this rich and powerful could lose his present position and future hopes in just a few hours, through an accusation that may or may not be true.
It’s dangerous to assume that we know what happened. Strauss-Kahn is innocent until his guilt is admitted or proven. But to women, attacks by powerful males on powerless females are as old as the droit de seigneur, probably older. It is a tale we are sick to death of hearing. Each time, we imagine the millions of stories mixing sex and violence that women have been too afraid to tell. Ophelia is brave to have told hers. I believe her.
On a less somber note, let me say that gender specialization—probably altogether unconscious—also operates in our French rental house. The proprietors are very strict about who takes care of what. When it’s a matter of the washing machine, oven, or schedule of garbage collection, I am the one informed. If it is the TV or the phone, my husband gets the word.
But do not suppose that pure stereotyping prevails. Because of the history of this Breton island—where the men were absent for long periods, pursuing the elusive tuna in their fishing boats, leaving the women in charge—in most cases wives take care of the business side of a transaction. Thus, I am the signatory on the rental contract. Vive la différence.