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"What Happened in Room 2806?": On Strauss-Kahn, the Maid, Power, and Our Fictions About Sex

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I've been following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story with a  mixture of bemusement, horror, and frustration, and intrigued by every turn the story has taken so far.  Last week, the New York Times reported, with more than a hint of glee, that the sexual assault case against  the former head of the International Monetary Fund was "said to be near collapse."  Why?  Because the alleged victim may have "repeatedly lied," according to even prosecutors and senior law enforcement officials who also claimed that she may have lied on her asylum application and may have "possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering."

The article goes on, listing all her possible infractions and lies, but it never asks the real question: Why should any of this prove that there could have been no sexual assault?  Apparently, if one follows this logic, liars and drug dealers are never raped.  Subsequently, the New York Post claimed that the hotel maid was in fact a prostitute.  The Post and five of its reporters are now being sued by the maid for defamation.

As someone who works and writes on immigration, I'm especially interested in the issue of the maid's asylum case, and I'll have more on that later.  For now, I'm intrigued by the peculiar moral framework that's slowly emerging from this case, one that demands perfect victims and evil rapists, all the while preserving larger cultural fictions about the things we call sex and love.

Take this recent Times piece, "What Happened in Room 2806: Three Possibilities," for instance,  which purports to be a bare-bones, just-the-facts, "You should make up your own mind, dear reader" round-up about the evidence found so far.  The article shows how there are "three possible sequences of events, and how the available evidence — physical, electronic and witness testimony — could support each of them."  Depending on how we analyse the material provided (and, I would argue, depending on how we've already framed the issue in our minds), we could see what happened as a "forced, and brief, encounter," "a consensual act," or "a misunderstanding." 

On the face of it, the Times is simply providing a range of scenarios.  The last one in particular is one that I've often wondered about and at least for a brief and shining moment, the paper manages to put matters succintly: "Under this theory, the oral sex began as a consensual act, but something later drove the housekeeper to press criminal charges." But any possible nuance evaporates in the assumptions that undergird the rest of the piece which reveals the central myths about power, sex, and desire we keep repeating to ourselves.

While I'm wary of the general rush to make too many judgements one way or the other, I have to admit that some of the assumptions here floor me. For instance, the Times writes that "[p]eople familiar with the defense’s investigation would also focus on Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s actions after the encounter; they say that he had a leisurely lunch with his daughter at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant. If that is the case, defense lawyers would see if surveillance cameras at the restaurant captured that, and suggest that such behavior was not indicative of a man who had just committed a crime."
 
Um, no, actually. A powerful man who is used to such acts of sexual intimidation (and there are more than hints in his past history to indicate this) would have no problem with taking a leisurely lunch with his daughter - because he would not have been bothered one bit by what he had done. 

Going by the logic presented by the Times, defense lawyers would work on the assumption that, for reasons completely contradicting what we know about many such men, Strauss-Kahn would be, what? Terrified? Ashamed? Furtive?  Repentant?  But if his alleged past history is any indication - and based on what we know about men in power used to assaulting women with impunity - it would in fact be perfectly natural for him to have a relaxed lunch with his daughter.  I would push this further and argue for a more complicated analysis of how a wealthy and powerful French family might in fact respond to such accusations with equanimity, given its protection and insularity from the untidy issues of race and inequality that, they assume, only affect the masses. We might consider the fact that it would be perfectly natural for Strauss-Kahn's family to be unruffled even by evidence of his assault, if such emerges at a future date. We like to think of France forever frozen as the land of 

Amélie but the truth is that the country's history of colonisation  - the maid is from Guinea, and a native French speaker like her alleged attacker - leaves it with a complicated and contentious history of race and all its tropes, including those of the sexual fetishisation of black women as readily available objects of sexual prey.

But, looking at matters from another perspective, I'm also disturbed by what emerges in this piece in terms of how or why a voluntary sexual encounter may have occured.  Outlining the case for the encounter to have been more complicated than either entirely forced or entirely consensual, the Times writes that, "to accept the encounter as truly consensual would require envisioning a 32-year-old woman spontaneously deciding to engage in oral sex with a man nearly twice her age whom she had never met before."

 
Really?  First, I've been there, on hook-ups with complete strangers, and so have many women, either with other women or men: going down on complete strangers for the heck of it, that is.  Our discourse on public sex is driven by the demonisation of queers and gay men who frequent parks and restrooms in search of anonymous sex and our pretence that heteros and nice gay people who just want to get married don't do that sort of thing.  The truth is that even straight bars are filled with men and women hooking up for all kinds of sex, often in public, and age is not always a barrier: the Times' suggestion that a 32-year-old would never spontaneously have sex with a man in his 60s reinforces the rather ridiculous idea that we are all only attracted to people in our age group.

Second, if in fact (and I have no way of knowing this, I'm just going by what I've read so far) she was/is someone who supplements her income with sex work (not uncommon in the hospitality industry, I might add: let's stop pretending that "hospitality" does not have multiple meanings, especially in the most elegant hotels), it is quite possible that she readily consented to oral sex for money.  We could push this further and conceive that she may even have done it for pure pleasure.  Or some combination of both pleasure and the profit motive.  Which is to say: our current discourse around consent/the lack thereof demands that we see sex as something given freely, given for money, or not at all.  We like to think of sex as either the result of  "love," lit by rainbows and wrapped in the fuzzy warmth of "commitment," or tainted by the coareness of commerce and without pleasure.  The truth is vastly more complicated.

Yes, I'm fully aware of the massive power differential between the two of them: an extremely powerful man, arguably one of the world's most powerful men, and an immigrant hotel maid. But the Times piece and our general discourse on such encounters depend on unrealistic ideas about sex and power.  "What really Happened in Room 2806" purports to be an objective exercise, but it is in fact typical of larger cultural assumptions about guilt, innocence, power, and sex.  It assumes that people who commit sexual violence are always ashamed of their acts or even understand that sexual violence is something they should be ashamed of when the reality is that lots of very powerful men repeatedly assault women because they're always able to get away with it. The article also assumes that any encounter between a hotel maid and a powerful man could only be non-consensual. The truth might well be that it was a sudden tryst gone suddenly awry but even in acknowledging that, the Times pulls back and reiterates cultural stereotypes about sexual attraction and consent.

My thanks to Jaffar Jolie-Pitt for sparking this post.

 

 



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