Of Politics and Morality
After the weeks that followed the Charlie Hebdo massacre invited us to think about religious fanaticism and the legacy of France’s social diversity policies, the media has turned to another type of news: the trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (usually referred to as DSK) for his alleged participation in a network of organized prostitution.
It all started in a hotel room, with a maid…
Even though DSK was known by most people in political circles to be quite the amateur of frequent sexual encounters outside his marriage, it was the well-publicized incident at the Sofitel in May 2011 which brought his sexual appetite under the spotlight. And it is certainly not a coincidence that it was in America–where DSK was working as head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund)–that the scandal erupted; for if the incident has taken place in France, you can be quite sure that the whole thing would have been quickly filed at the police station, the woman dismissed for wanting to get attention from her encounter with such a high profile figure.
But it happened in what the French like to deridingly call “Puritan America”, and the French authorities had to recognize that the legal procedure–even though it ended up being settled outside court–could not be so easily forgotten and forgiven.
At that time, heated debates already opposed those who thought that DSK was the victim of a machination to prevent him from being elected president during the upcoming election for which he was a favorite, and those who thought that he had indeed committed a sexual offense which justified his demise.
Many people also stood in the middle, arguing that his sexual life should not be discussed in public. And that is precisely this point that is once again the subject of discussion as his trial for abetting an act of prostitution opens.
DSK admitted to having participated in “libertine” parties in all cities where he was occupying his functions. What the tribunal will have to decide on is whether he was involved in the organization of these parties or not (having paid sex is not punishable in French law, but procuring and abetting in an act of prostitution is.)
Is DSK a victim of his own success?
But the reason why this trial arouses the interest of the public and the media alike is that an important underlying question is being asked; which is: should we judge our politicians’ private-and especially sexual-lives?
This question seems all the more relevant since it was only a year ago that France woke up to discover pictures of its President cheating on his newly-appointed partner-for whom he had divorced from his wife and fellow presidential contender Ségolène Royal-with a relatively famous French actress.
Before I attempt to give an answer to the afore-mentioned question, I need to say that I am very much of a sex-positivist, and it is not my intent to statute on the amount of sex–and of sexual partners–that is appropriate or not to have. In my view, unpaid sex between two or more fully consenting adults is great. I also need to disclose that I believe that our government should focus on the protection of “willing” sexual workers, and should create structures to protect and help “unwilling” sexual workers to find another way of earning their lives.
Now that this has been said, let’s get back to the question at hand.
I think that the first problem is that many French people (journalists and individuals with whom I have spoken) are likely to see DSK as a victim. In many pictures in the press, you can see him with a bowed head, and a sullen expression. The effect these pictures have on the reader should not be underestimated; should this picture have been chosen instead, one would probably read the article with a different bias-a bias that would not necessarily be truer than the other one.
But DSK is not a victim. He made his choices which nobody forced onto him, and he is now facing a fair and lawful trial (he is of course presumed innocent until judged), which is a right every citizen has.
Secondly, the reactions that one can hear and read highlight the trial as a (collective) judgment of his private life. But it is not a trial about what DSK was doing in his private life. It is a trial about the alleged implication of a French citizen in procuring with aggravating circumstances.
DSK has readily admitted his participation in the organized parties but denies knowing that the women were paid for it; he therefore also denies organizing the recruitment of the young ladies who, he seems to have thought, were just coming to all his parties freely, certainly for the mere joy of being around his great person.
Admitting that he was not involved in recruiting and paying the sexual workers, one can still wonder how one can participate in numerous parties of the same kind in various cities around the world without asking his friends who were supposedly the ones procuring the prostitutes: how do you find all these women? Do you put an ad on a website and hope for the best as to whom will show up?
The “I didn’t know” excuse has been so widely used in trials involving politicians of all political allegiance that it would be comical if it were not revealing of the disrespect that political elites have towards the citizens they represent, and towards the legal system of the country or international organization they work for–and earn their salary from. Only last year, as one of the recurring political scandals unfolded, former president Mr. Sarkozy stated that he “didn’t know” how his presidential campaign had been funded.
It would seem that there is a terribly contagious disease within our elite: they are clueless about the way the major events in their lives are administered! And of course they certainly never ask any questions to those who manage these events for them, because the potential repercussions of meddling in illegal behavior are totally unknown to our politicians. You see, they are the victims. Nobody tells them anything and everyone around them keeps doing illegal stuff!
But back to DSK: not knowing with whom you engage in sexual proclivities is something that all PRs brief their famous clients against. Nobody wants revenge sex tapes, incriminating photos, or first-hand accounts of “I had sex with [insert famous name here]” in the tabloids. If it happens from time to time, a celebrity will generally rely either on trusting that the person has nothing sufficiently concrete with which to feed the media, or is nice enough to understand the need for privacy; or a bribe can be arranged for the sexual partner to repress his/her desire to brag to the press.
Now, if you participate in frequent sexual activities of the orgy type, you might want to know who else is going to be there in order to avoid having your private life exposed by numerous participants. Especially when you are preparing yourself to run for president, and are likely to win the election.
So yes, it strikes me as extremely careless of DSK and his PR team not to have thought to ask who he was having his libertine parties with. Or maybe he knew very well, and that is why all the years prior to the New York incident he had no problem hiding his sexual activities from the public eye. This is when we need to remember that this trial, although technically independent from the incident that took place in New York, is very probably made easier precisely because the Americans first dared breaching DSK’s untouchability.
To summarize, I do not believe in the slightest in DSK’s innocence, but regardless of my opinion, the tribunal will give its verdict.
Why should we care about our politicians’ private lives?
What we can give our verdict on is the initial question: should we care about our politicians’ sexual lives? I will start by giving the short answer, and will explain it in further detail afterwards. Yes, I think we should care, for the simple reason that a high-ranked civil servant is given power by society, and therefore has the responsibility to use his/her power for the benefit of the country-and not for his/her own good, for as long as he/she serves. It is a responsibility that is largely moral, although it is sometimes framed by the laws: notably in the case of corruption.
Why do I speak of using power responsibly in connection to the DSK case?
Because one has a different social aura when one has power. Any position of power-from teacher to doctor, from parent to president-comes with a responsibility.
Let’s start with an extreme example: as a parent, you can hit your children as often as you want or abuse them psychologically at your discretion; but if it comes to public knowledge, you will have to face the legal consequences. Should it remain a private matter? After all, it is your private life, within your home, that we are talking about. But I think we can agree that it is normal that you are judged, for you inflicted damage onto someone who was under your responsibility. As I said, that was the extreme example, but it illustrates that privacy should remain untouched only so long as nobody is harmed within its boundaries.
If a doctor inappropriately touches one of his/her patients (one very good example can be found in this recent case), does it not constitute an abuse of a position of power? As the case linked above showed very well, most people do not report such abuses for a variety of reasons that range from feeling that the person had authority over them and therefore a right to them, to being scared that the power-full person would stop helping them with what they came for in the first place.
For a politician, it is the same. They have political power. People look up to them, because they have been given a position that gives them the power to change things; ask any politician, and they will tell you that from the moment they were appointed at a relatively high-rank (whether it be deputy, mayor of a small town, and even more so when their face starts appearing in the media), people will start asking things from them: advices to make a plot constructible, a connection to someone who can help finding a job, or money to contribute to a worthy project.
The combination of power and money is also often rightly said to be attractive to women and men. Why? Simply because if you have an ordinary social position, you will have to fight to obtain things. To buy yourself that thing you dream of, to meet the fascinating people you see in the magazines, to have the opportunity to work or live in a sphere that is socially valued and envied, you would have to work very hard, maybe in vain, to develop great skills, maybe only to be outdone by someone who has the right connections. So some people understand that they can play a different game, that is by associating with those who have already reached this elevated social status. It may be shrewd of these people to do so, some see it as morally low, but nonetheless it is a possibility that exists within the system and some use it.
So yes, once you are a male politician such as DSK, you will enjoy a new-found popularity with the fair sex that could make you giddy. Maybe you would indulge in it too, after all why not if these people want it? I would say yes and no. Yes because as long as it is between consenting adults and that no money is involved, and that it does not take place during your work schedule, you are not doing anything but enjoying a privilege granted to you by society (social status and its associated power).
And that is also precisely why I would say that no, a politician should not indulge in the sexual favors offered to him/her by strangers. Because one has been granted a privilege, and therefore a responsibility. Whether one wants it or not, this special status gives them a power of influence that they are expected to use for the purpose of the common interest. If you are a teacher, you probably understand that using your influential position to sleep with your adult students (I am not even going into the subject of teachers sleeping with their underage students) is not the purpose for which you have been appointed.
Likewise, I do believe that politicians should be mindful of the privileges they enjoy, and should not use these privileges to obtain sex, just as they should not sue their power to obtain more money, or to give their friends or family jobs that someone else is better qualified for. And yes, here we are entering the grounds of morality.
Yes, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, abusing people is a crime, not a libertine’s prerogative
We can agree that moral judgments fluctuate throughout history, and certainly (and often fortunately) we now do not judge things with the same moral filter than in previous centuries. But admitting that morality is a social and cultural construct does not mean that no common ground can be found when it comes to morality. To me, using political power for something that has nothing to do with one’s job missions can be deemed immoral. And it is not the thing that is obtained (sex) that I judge immoral, it is the irresponsible use of a power that comes with a function one has been entitled to.
This, for me, is a sufficient reason to breach someone’s privacy. If DSK had had sex with ten of his neighbors because they all know and like each other and share the same sexual preferences, I would say good for him! Let him have his fun!
But here we are talking about a man who has been accused of abusing his power position to take advantage of some of his coworkers and subordinates, and who is accused of having been part of a network which hires and sells the services of sex workers. Selling people for sex and/or treating sex workers like commodities, I think we can agree, is not only illegal but also damaging to human beings [for more on that, you can find in the Further references section some of the testimonies of former sex workers involved in the case]. And since we spoke earlier of power of influence, let’s add that the pimping network was also composed of other power-entitled figures, amongst which were a high-ranked police office and a lawyer.
Justice is and should be blind when it comes to power. Whatever your social status, if you are involved in abetting to an act of prostitution, you should be tried. Whoever you are, if you are entitled to a position of power and you abuse it, you should face potential consequences. Even if you have powerful friends who can help you negotiate a settlement to avoid a trial, even if a few police officers help you cover your responsibility in illegal activities, even if your own wife defends you to save her own social status, you cannot pretend to be a victim. And the society that granted you its trust has the right to discuss, deride and condemn your lack of morality.
 DSK is an economist and politician who was one of the barons of the Socialist Party (PS) and who was commonly thought to become the next president at the 2012 election.
 With journalist Anne Sinclair, once a popular figure in the French journalistic landscape. She has always stood by her husband throughout his trial(s).
 He was arrested by the New York police following an accusation made by a maid working at the Sofitel hotel, according to whom he had sexually assaulted her. The charges were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence and contradictions in Mrs. Diallo’s testimony. DSK however recognized he had a sexual encounter with Mrs. Diallo and that he had committed a “moral fault”, but argued that it was a consensual act.
 Another lawsuit had been filed in 2011 against DSK by a journalist and writer who accused him of sexual assault. The case was eventually dismissed even though the tribunal stated there had been sexual assault and DSK recognized he “made a pass” at Mrs. Banon.
 Articles 225-5 and 225-7 of the French penal code.
 Journalist Valérie Trierweiler, who published a book in September 2014 to describe her relationship and denounce the way Mr. Hollande humiliated her.
 By which I simply mean sex workers who have not been forced into the sex trade and who would choose to stick to this job if proposed an alternative.
 By which I mean all victims of the human trade, and immigrants as well as local women who become sex workers for lack of other option to earn a living.
 The judge further emphasized that the proceedings will ensure the respect of DSK’s privacy and will emphasize decency in dealing with this affair.
 Numerous phone calls, texts and testimonies have shown that DSK was asking his ‘friends’ to “bring girls” whether for private parties in restaurants, for night outs or in hotels. See the references below for more details.
Photo 1: © Chappatte https://twitter.com/chappatte
Photo 2: © Joel Saget / AFP
Photo 3: © Benoît Peyrucq
– An excellent article (in French) about the trial of André Hazout, the renowned gynecologist who abused many of his (female) patients: