Sex education, for good and ill
Just like that, most of America can move on from any concern about the very existence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The former head of the International Monetary Fund is a free man, proclaiming his innocence. But what about our innocence? It still seems to be missing.
In May, the once-potential French presidential candidate was accused of sexually assaulting a luxury-hotel maid, and arrested in New York -- dramatically taken from his Air France plane at JFK airport. The case would unravel for prosecutors, as his accuser was caught making false statements; it ended up being dismissed.
The New York Times described it thus: "All we know for sure is that they had a sexual moment. The physical evidence confirms that. But whether the encounter was forced or consensual, or something else entirely, remains a mystery."
Perhaps what little we now seem to know about the incident is best captured by Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute: "It's odd how fickle public opinion and media templates are: It seems that now that the highly desirable topos of 'Third World female of color being abused by white male European' has been discarded, DSK is portraying himself without any noticeable dissent as a vindicated innocent, as opposed to a squalid adulterer. That latter fact is just pushed out of sight, including, it would seem, by his beaming wife."
It's hard to make a cut-and-dried women's rights issue of this case because of the credibility issues of the accuser. Though the sisterhood did have some words to say. "This miscarriage of justice exhibits all the hallmarks of a society that tolerates sexual violence by blaming and shaming the survivors -- but the real shame belongs with the perpetrators and the prosecutors who allow them to walk off scot-free," National Organization of Women president Terry O'Neill said.
It's actually not at all clear where the blame lies. And will NOW take some responsibility for contributing to a culture in which men and women are always adversarial rather than complementary? Where sex is the ultimate expression of independence and power, rather than a beautiful, intimate, life-giving act of love and mutual respect and human dignity?
Whatever happened in that hotel room, it was not the latter.
The lesson of the story, according to Strauss-Kahn's lawyers, is: "You can engage in inappropriate behavior, perhaps. But that is much different than a crime."
A friend commented about the case: "I am gathering he's a pig. I am gathering she is not fully credible. It reminds me a little of the Duke case. The woman was a disaster, as was the prosecution, and a pox on all of them. But very much forgotten was the boys' behavior there, too: Nobody, or too few, pointed out the frat-house ethics they were engaging in, hiring strippers to come over, etc."
I realize that when Midwest housewives are bringing stripper poles into their family homes in order to exercise and/or arouse their husbands, what's inappropriate may be up for grabs. But that is part of the surrounding story. God help any woman who is raped and God help any man who is falsely accused of rape. But God help, too, anyone who isn't creeped out by what the lawyers have to say about any of it.
And sticking to war-of-the-sexes, class-warfare talking points here does not serve justice, either.
Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard and author of "Manliness," points to the good news -- and it's not that Strauss-Kahn is innocent and headed back to his old workplace for a visit. It is, rather, that even though we are jaded citizens of a media-saturated world, fed on a daily diet of relativism, our capacity for outrage is not dead yet. Mansfield wrote earlier in the controversy that "old-fashioned home truths" were vindicated in the response to the initial accusations. Maybe this is true in the aftermath as well, in the lingering sense that something distasteful happened here, whatever else occurred.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't work too far from that courtroom where charges against DSK were dropped. From City Hall, he has mandated a sex-ed curriculum in city public schools that, as a detailed report from the World Youth Alliance demonstrates, is utterly incoherent. Ultimately, the goal in approaching sexual expression at a young age is to avoid "the exchange of body fluids," as one of the recommended resources puts it. I suppose that advice would have helped DSK at his Sofitel suite, but it doesn't quite cut it. We want and need more -- to do our human dignity justice.
Mansfield tells me that, if he had to write his spring assessment of the DSK case all over again, he would add honesty to the list of moral truths that do have some sway over us, even in our weaknesses, even in our incoherence. We might consider honesty in how we educate our most innocent on matters of men and women and sex now, too.