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The Kibbitznik: Rape Is Not an “Encounter”

Alyssa Goldstein
May 24, 2011

by Alyssa Goldstein

So by now pretty much everyone’s heard of the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of a chambermaid in a New York hotel. Rather than postulate about DSK’s innocence or guilt, I want to talk a bit about some of the media coverage of the case, specifically this Time Magazine article by Nancy Gibbs. called “Sex, Lies, Arrogance: What Makes Powerful Men Behave So Badly?” in which she compares the DSK case to the revelations about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trysts and the New York Times editorial by Ross Douthat, in which he imagines DSK’s story being made into a movie.

Let’s start with Douthat, because it’s such an epic fail. For instance, he writes “The movie might begin with a decorously edited (rather than NC-17) version of Strauss-Kahn’s Sofitel encounter.” Listen up, Douthat. Rape is a brutally violent act of dehumanization. It is not an “encounter.” Nor can it be made “decorous.” Nor it is a nice metaphor for you to use on your cinematic flights of fancy. And when Douthat ends the article with the line “a drama that involves so much hubris seems likely to finish in tragedy instead,” I have to refrain from yelling at my computer screen. Rape is already a tragedy! Articles like these are much of the reason why I have no respect left for the New York Times.

Enough of that, on to Nancy Gibbs. Time isn’t the only publication to frame this as a case of Powerful Men Gone Wild, but I think it perpetuates a number of harmful assumptions about rape. Now don’t get me wrong, this article is definitely not the worst. For instance, Gibbs makes it clear that accusations of sex crimes should be taken seriously and she doesn’t engage in victim-blaming. This may not seem like a lot to ask from a journalist, but after New York Times’ shameful coverage of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas, my expectations are set mighty low. However, the entire premise that men having affairs and men raping are similar phenomena is a deeply flawed one. Though Gibbs states that if DSK “is guilty, he’s not a player--he’s a predator,” her caveat is undermined by the entire premise of the article. A guy who has an affair (and it’s not just men who do!) may have a deep communication problem, or he may just be a douche. Cheating on a partner can be a painful breach of trust. Raping someone, however, is a violent act of dehumanization in which sex is used as a weapon of torture. I’m not talking just about your stereotypical “stranger with a weapon in the bushes” rape here. I’m talking about all forms of sexual violence--most of which are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, and which do not necessarily involve overpowering physical force.

Gibbs goes on to say that the DSK and Schwarzenegger cases “both suggest an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust. And both involve men whose long-standing reputations for behaving badly toward women did not derail their rise to power. Which raises the question: How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age, when men and women live and work as peers and are schooled regularly in what conduct is acceptable and what is actionable, that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?” Again, this framing is fraught with problems if you dig a little deeper. Gibbs makes it seem, in both this passage and the rest of the article, that rape is something that mainly famous, powerful, narcissistic men do, and that it’s a shocking exception to the normal relations of equality between men and women. However, I would argue differently. 1 in 6 American women will be raped in the course of their lifetimes--this makes it commonplace rather than an exception. And it’s not powerful or famous men who commit all those rapes--it’s ordinary men, the majority of them acquaintances, intimates, or friends of their victims. Gibbs has a point about the role that power plays in sexual violence, though. However, it’s not just prominent men like DSK who wield it--it’s called male privilege and in our society, every man has it in at least some situations, depending on his race, class, sexuality, and other factors.