Wednesday, June 1, 2011

C'est N'est Pas Magnifique

As more French women feel emboldened to come forward about sexual assaults committed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other politicians, there are some in France who are desperately trying to insist that turning private behavior into a subject for the public discourse is purely American. The fact that there are political consequences is pronounced even more ridiculous. After all, it was the French who rolled their eyes and could not comprehend the ire when Bill Clinton was being publicly raked over the coals for being a rake.

The difference is, back then, the French had a point. While the president was not going to win any awards for being a good husband, and given the political atmosphere should have been more circumspect, one still needs to draw a distinction between consensual acts among compos mentis adults, and highly unwelcome coercion.

Both Maureen Dowd and Katrin Beinhold have written cogently about the ongoing story and the wider discussion regarding gender disparity. Kelli Goff made the further point that poor women come in for extra scrutiny. Plus ça change – women are no sooner done fending off attacks than they must defend themselves in the public eye. It must be blissful for the conservative cranks who want to turn back the clock to the 1950s. It was the rare woman then who, if she was assaulted, wasn't accused of having asked for it.

The larger problem, as both Dowd and Beinhold point out, is that men take up a disproportionate amount of political and journalistic space, meaning men still get to set the gender agenda, along with the political discourse. However the women conduct or present themselves, the contempt the men have for them is abundantly clear. In the 1950s – and earlier, and later - girls were told that they had to be chaste and modest or else boys wouldn't respect them. Guess what? Boys don't respect them anyway!

Australia recently elected a female prime minister, but that doesn't equal equality. When Finance Minister Penny Wong was interrupted in a meeting and firmly requested to be allowed to finish, MP David Bushby MIAOWED at her. She told him exactly what she thought of his schoolyard behavior, and he eventually apologized, but will it change anything? Some of the world's more repressive regimes justify their lack of women in the public sphere on the grounds that they are protecting the women from this sort of harassment.

Wittgenstein said "The world is everything that is the case," but increasingly, women are saying that it had better not be. They've been considered as having to be responsible for their own behavior and that of men for centuries. Decades ago, when Israeli ministers suggested a curfew for women to avoid possible rape, Prime Minister Golda Meir responded: "But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home."

She won that round, but the battles continue. In the States, it's the far-right that proves itself inherently misogynistic again and again in both behavior and policy – it's hardly shocking that so many proposed laws are directed at women, attempting to keep them "in their place." When Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she was discredited as a bitter woman trying to bring a good man down.

Thomas prevailed, but plenty of men on the far-right have been brought down by sex scandals of their own creation. But cheating on a spouse, while reprehensible, shouldn't destroy a career. No, the problem is that these are the men who have extolled themselves as moral exemplars, so much so that they freely legislate how others live and love. They seek to punish women for putative promiscuity by taking away access to affordable contraception and safe abortions, but clearly hold themselves above their own moral law.

In France, they congratulate themselves for not being so hypocritically puritanical. Maybe not, but neither have they progressed. Liberté and égalité are very much just for the fraternité. A fraternité that might do well not to rally so enthusiastically around DSK and assorted atavistic attitudes about women. Assault is a crime, pure and simple. As Richard Nixon might have had it, there's a difference between being a dick, and being a crook.

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