The Wednesday Weigh-In: DSK Sex Party Edition


Ed. note: This post is part of the second round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contributor contest (background here). Stay tuned all week as our six finalists take turns turns covering the blog and giving us a sense of their personal contributor style. The winner of the contest and newest member of the Feministing team will be announced next week!

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been back in the news, with a big piece in Sunday’s New York Times reviewing the former IMF managing director and alleged rapist’s public relations strategy in advance of his big November prostitution hearing. The defense? I may be hypersexual, but lust isn’t illegal—or, in New York Mag’s words, “Being Horny Isn’t a Crime.” The Times details a series of lavish sex parties and aggressive, adulterous proposals, which DSK will now cop to as unusual, maybe even kinky, but not problematic. The last year of scandal, DSK seems to imply, isn’t the result of abuse but the distance between his progressive, adventurous appetite and our collective prudishness.

Before breaking down just how ridiculous this argument is for the context, I have to say that I’m unexpectedly on board with aspects of DSK’s sexual theory. I appreciate his distinction between sexual deviance—defined by an ever-changing public morality that has historically marginalized same-sex desire, BDSM, female sexuality, and pretty much anything fun—and nonconsensual sexual harm that necessitates legal restriction. It’s frustrating how often the press conflates scandal and abuse, and, more seriously, our collective inability to distinguish between these two categories allows for the continued criminalization of sex work and some BDSM in the U.S. and “sodomy” in many other countries: When we can’t distinguish between behavior that simply deviates from the assumed mainstream and behavior that violates others’ autonomy, we end up outlawing anything that seems a little “out of step,” to use DSK’s terminology.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - Strauss-Kahn meeting in Toulouse for the 2007 French presidential election 0242 2007-04-13

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Yet while I’m into the acknowledgment of this difference, it seems obvious that DSK and his team are assigning his own behavior to the wrong category. As Jezebel points out, DSK hasn’t been charged with being a gentleman on the street/freak in the bed: He’s been repeatedly accused of rape and harassment, the very kind of violence from which he tries to differentiate his actions. We can all agree that lust isn’t necessarily destructive but still see that a hell of a lot of what he’s doing certainly is, and that much of his behavior is illegal under long-standing anti-rape law and this year’s new sexual harassment legislation, inspired by the “libertine” himself.

Surely, if any of the multiple assault accusations are true—as I’m inclined to believe at least one, if not all, must be—lust is no excuse. Nor would a “high libido defense” explain away DSK’s questionable dismissal and payoff of an employee with whom he’d had an affair. Bloomberg suggests that businesswomen are split on whether they would be willing to join DSK’s new consulting firm given his history, but a couple of ladies who feel tolerably comfortable depending on an alleged rapist and serial harasser for a paycheck don’t negate the concerns of others who don’t. Designating a given individual’s behavior as sexual misconduct doesn’t require a unanimous vote by the Council of All Women Ever.

But even if we focus solely on the French soirees at issue in the November hearings, it is clear from the Times’ account that DSK has pursued potential sexual partners with condemnable force, groping and “demanding sex” despite their vocalized disinterest; while I’m all for celebrating desire, DSK seems to extrapolate from the legality of lust to the admissibility of all possible means to achieve satisfaction. Further, while DSK is right that there’s nothing necessarily abusive about fancy orgies, his defense ignores the potentially dangerous power dynamics of these parties. We don’t have enough information to know if all participants were willing, but Olivia Cattan of Words of Women explained to the Times that the political influence of figures like DSK can serve to coerce female attendees, particularly those working in government.

What do you think of DSK’s defense?  Can we judge DSK’s sex parties with the available information? Does he deserve to be blacklisted from politics? Has our judgment of his adultery affected our perception of his crimes? Is the “harm principle” a legitimate measure for judging sexual behavior? Discuss!

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/statisticslie/ Kate

    I agree that there are two very distinct ideas being lumped together in his defense—the assault allegations, and the sex parties. The former, if true, are obviously vile and criminal, while I think we don’t have enough information to fully evaluate the latter—though the fact that these shindigs were by organized by “businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with Mr. Strauss-Kahn,” and the fact that prostitutes had to be hired to make sure there were enough women there who were DTF DSK certainly give me pause. Though there are cases where the clearly consensual, if gross, behavior of male politicians gets demonized in ways that are irrelevant and unproductive (John Edwards, for one), I’d hesitate before putting Strauss-Kahn in that category. There’s something about his argument here that smacks of the kind of “boys will be boys” rhetoric that transmutes objections into whining and targets into prudes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/jordanlc4/ JordanLC

    YES. It was exactly this “conflat[ion] of scandal and abuse” that fueled the “chaud lapin” hypersexuality/infidelity narrative, rather than, as you say, violation of autonomy. The uncoupling of deviancy from a lack of consent is, as I think you gesture toward, crucial both theoretically and in order to avoid alienating queer communities.

  • http://feministing.com/members/benlmiller/ Benjamin Miller

    “DSK seems to extrapolate from the legality of lust to the admissibility of all possible means to achieve satisfaction.” Hit the nail on the head. I’ll wager that whatever his lawyers argue, his personal moral self-justification for those alleged incidents is grounded in that very idea.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rachelkn/ Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

    I’m so glad you acknowledge that DSK’s philosophy on sexual deviance is valuable, and I think it is– especially in a time when we have two men on the presidential and vice presidential ticket who believe that sex should only occur in the context of procreation and who also believe they can prescribe that value on the entire country. It’s because this conversation is so important to have that I’m crushed it’s being brought to the public’s attention through someone who seems more like a criminal than a progressive “libertine,” and I’m concerned that the conversation we need to have will be entirely dismissed as a result. Some public figure with serious credit needs to express these beliefs too–who will it be!

  • http://feministing.com/members/demetrah/ Demetra Hufnagel

    “Designating a given individual’s behavior as sexual misconduct doesn’t require a unanimous vote by the Council of All Women Ever.” Preach. Absolutely spot on!

  • http://feministing.com/members/valcb/ Valerie

    As a 70’s feminist, I enjoyed this opinion piece. The author nailed it with her analysis. Must get my friends to check out “Feministing”!