What we learned from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal


There might be two sides to every story, but rarely are they so completely different. In a book published earlier this month, DSK Affairs: The Second Inquiry, French writer Michel Taubmann, who is friendly with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, described of the Manhattan Sofitel hotel on 14 May. The scene – which lasted around , from start to finish – was apparently one of simple, mutual lust between Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and , a hotel cleaner. "Emerging from the shower as naked as Adam," , Strauss-Kahn "was confronted with Nafissatou Diallo ... She looked him straight in the eyes. Then she unashamedly looked at his private parts. The flesh is weak. Dominique Strauss-Kahn saw this as a proposition. Rarely in his life has he ever refused the possibility of a moment of pleasure. He did not resist the temptation of oral sex."

The other explanation for Strauss-Kahn's semen emerged in the days immediately after the incident, when a New York police spokesperson described Diallo's reported experience. This involved Strauss-Kahn coming out of the bathroom naked, running towards her, pulling her into a bedroom, and starting to sexually assault her, before engaging "in a criminal sexual act". She also claimed he tried to lock her in the hotel room. It was this report that led to Strauss-Kahn being apprehended on an Air France plane on the afternoon of 14 May. He was charged with a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, and , before being released on bail. On 18 May he .

The fallout from Strauss-Kahn's arrest was immediate and explosive – not surprising given his position as . He was widely expected to become the Socialist candidate, with the potential to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. But about his alleged sexual proclivities – and the sheer number of people who had been aware of them – made his glowing political reputation seem astonishing. They prompted serious questions. Just how much did members of the French establishment protect their peers? Why was there so much silence in the press? What did this mean for anyone who worked for politically powerful figures - especially, perhaps, for the women who ended up in their orbit? In many ways, the Strauss-Kahn story recalled 1998, and the Bill Clinton fiasco, but with a darker undertow.

As one of Strauss-Kahn's affairs with a junior colleague emerged – a woman who had told investigators for the IMF that she had felt unprepared for his advances and "damned if I did and damned if I didn't" – there were people who argued, broadly, that it was inevitable that powerful men would have sexual relationships with less powerful women, on the basis that women apparently found such men irresistible. These arguments conveniently ignored the fact that anyone propositioned by their boss is in one of the ultimate lose-lose situations: accept and your professionalism is shot to pieces, decline and you've spurned the person who controls your livelihood.

The case also prompted criticism of the French press, which was depicted as bowing and scraping to the political class, however troubling their behaviour. The implication was that journalists had known about Strauss-Kahn's alleged tendencies for years, but had been too frightened, too cowardly, to report it. The story prompted a huge questioning, both internally, and externally, of how the press treats prominent, powerful figures – and in tandem with the in the UK, it was a key part of the year's arguments about where the line between public and private life should be drawn. Because if there was a problem with the British press overstepping the mark, there was clearly also a problem with the French press's hands-off approach.

Strauss-Kahn had his supporters. , 57% of the French public said they believed he was . His wife, the former TV star Anne Sinclair, stood steadfastly by him, putting up £3.7m in bail, and saying she didn't believe "for a single second" that he was guilty. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy who, "by delivering [Strauss-Kahn] to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other", while the former Socialist minister Jack Lang , on the basis that "no one had died".

But the case incensed women in France, the US and beyond. A spotlight suddenly fell on the treatment of workers in expensive hotels, which was sometimes clearly dreadful: when Strauss-Kahn arrived at court in New York for his arraignment, hotel cleaners gathered to protest, with one saying that while physical abuse was unusual in their work, verbal abuse was common, as were male guests exposing themselves. There were feminist protests in France, including a march in Paris where women chanted: French women's support groups said reports to them of sexual harassment rose by as much as 600%; as one French feminist put it, it was as though an invisible barrier had been broken. The women's movement was galvanised by anger and astonishment.

The allegations came in a year when the sexual behaviour of powerful men often seemed shocking – as did their chutzpah in shrugging it all off and forging ahead with their careers. There was the story that Arnold Schwarzenegger had had a consensual fling with his housekeeper, Mildred Baena, under the nose of his wife, Maria Shriver, which led to the birth of a child. recalled that in 2003, six women had accused Schwarzenegger of sexual harassment in , which had proved no impediment to . Herman Cain, briefly frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in the US, was toppled partly by the revelation that two female employees had complained about sexually suggestive comments towards them in the 1990s. (, although his then-employer had apparently reached a financial settlement with the women.) And in the UK, there was a strange new twist on sexual power with the . This enabled a few very rich, very well-known men to sleep with women – .

In the weeks following Strauss-Kahn's arrest, . She was named in the French press, and there were articles assessing her sexual allure; a New York newspaper suggested she was a prostitute, and she announced plans to sue them. In August, prosecutors : "The nature and number of the complainant's falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter between the complainant and the defendant." Diallo is still pursuing a civil suit against him.

Strauss-Kahn's legal problems continued on his return to France, where prosecutors were investigating claims made against him by writer Tristane Banon, of sexual assault, and attempted rape. They concluded, in October, that there was evidence of a sexual assault, but . ( "for lack of sufficient elements of evidence".) Then, in November, there were reports that Strauss-Kahn was linked to an alleged prostitution ring – which he denounced. Throughout, Sinclair stood by him, and was rewarded for her at times mystifying loyalty by in December. Her victory underlined the true import of the case. The Strauss-Kahn story broke open arguments about male and female roles, about dominance and submission, power and weakness, about the ways in which rape complainants end up being investigated as much as rape defendants – if not more so. It provided a map of the faultlines in male and female power in 2011. And that map wasn't pretty.