Where Minotaurs roam freely

In 1933, Pablo Picasso painted a series of works about rape. The main character of the paintings was the Minotaur, the legendary Greek beast, consorting with young girls. In 2015, at the end of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s trial for pimping, Gilles Maton, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, compared Mr. Strauss-Kahn to Picasso’s Minotaur: half-human and half-animal with a predatory appetite for sex.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn, commonly known as DSK, was the director of the International Monetary Fund and a very serious contender for the 2012 French presidential election. This bulky and charismatic man wielded a very large political clout and was widely admired for his intellect. But things started to fall apart in May 2011, a year before the election was due in France, when a chamber maid at the Sofitel New York hotel accused him of rape. DSK was able to wriggle out of what would have been a trial in the limelight of the international media. But at the same time, back home in Paris, French judges looked at the socialist party’s fallen angel’s recent past and habits. DSK was accused of sleeping with sex workers that his friends and contacts were procuring for him. The 14 persons of this group, including DSK himself, were indicted for pimping. The trial started on February 2, 2015 and the hearings concluded on February 20. The verdict will be out on June 12.

During the trial, all of DSK’s supposed sexual habits were described and commented upon when several sex workers were brought to testify. One of them, Jade, gave a very graphic account of her meetings with DSK, describing how she was made to do things against her will while she was being held by another man. DSK claims he did not know the girls were sex workers.

Impunity of powerful men

What was a trial for pimping suddenly revealed the sense of impunity powerful men have when they interact with women of a lesser social standing. The charge of pimping did not seem adequate, but neither Jade nor the other sex workers pressed charges for rape. As a matter of fact, the court is very likely to dismiss the case altogether for lack of conclusive evidence, and DSK will walk a disgraced but free man. Again. Rape culture still has golden years ahead in France. According to the High Committee for equality between women and men, a government body, 75,000 women are raped every year in France and 16 per cent of women have experienced sexual abuse at least once in their lifetime.

Throughout the trial, DSK and his lawyers have tried to brush aside the accusations by arguing that DSK is merely a libertine. Libertinage refers mostly to a sexual freedom — the word comes from Latin and originally referred to freed slaves — enjoyed by aristocrats in early 18th century France. It meant freeing oneself from the moral constraints imposed by both the Church and the upcoming bourgeoisie and placing pleasure before reproduction through the practice of group sex. Being a libertine still carries a positive connotation in today’s France. In the case of DSK, it lends an aura of cultural legitimacy to rape. It inscribes rape in the long history of free thought and sensuality and minimises it as cultural sophistication. It also reinforces the idea that upper class men can use and rape socially inferior women. Marie Allibert, member of the feminist association Osez le féminisme (OLF, Dare feminism), points out that “words carry a terrible weight. During the hearings, the male defendants talk about glamorous parties, libertines, pleasure, fun. Women plaintiffs speak of violence and butchery. The contrast is striking and reveals the deep inequalities at play.”

In the 1750s, the French absolute monarch Louis XV used to have sex with virgins, generally very young teenagers, in the Parc-aux-Cerfs, a mansion near Versailles. His official mistress was rumoured to have overseen the recruitment of the young girls in order to keep her influence on the King while providing for his sexual needs. When DSK’s lawyers claim that their client is a libertine, they try to paint his accusers as narrow-minded puritans. DSK, they would like us to believe, is the 21st century Louis XV. And so again, sexual and gender domination doubles up as a class domination.

The fact that the victims are sex workers contributes to further complicating the discussion about rape. For DSK’s defenders, and unfortunately for many other people, sex workers cannot claim to have been raped. The general opinion is that they knew what they were getting themselves into. The idea that they could refuse consent is often construed as absurd given the contractual nature of paid sex. Many feminist groups, including OLF, claim that sex work is a form of violence and all sex work can be viewed as rape. This stance is highly problematic and makes it difficult to envisage that a sex worker can even press charges for rape, says Morgane Merteuil, a sex worker herself, and the general secretary of STRASS, the Sex Workers' Union. “And when they press charge, the police often tells sex workers, ‘it’s your job to get raped,’” she explains.

Fighting the culture of rape

One way to fight the culture of rape is to bring attention to the violence that women encounter. All women, everywhere. Recently a young student was raped in public on a train and nobody came to her defence. If sex workers cease to be considered on a par with any other woman and are deemed people who cannot be raped, i.e., sub-human, any attempt at fighting the rape culture will quickly be stalled. At the end of March 2015, the French parliament will debate on a law that penalises the clients of sex workers and the debate around sex work and women’s rights will gather momentum.

Ever since the 2012 Delhi rape, rape stories in India have featured prominently in the French press. Readers are often horrified by the levels of violence against women in India and are quick to point the finger at the inequalities in Indian society and at the caste system. The testimonies during the DSK trial in Paris show that the rape culture also festers in a less conservative, less religious society than India. What the two countries have in common and what enables this rape culture is a deeply engrained patriarchal and heteronormative set-up. In the Greek mythology, the Minotaur is trapped in a labyrinth. In our contemporary societies, Minotaurs roam freely.

(Ingrid Therwath is a Paris-based journalist working for the news weekly Courrier International .)

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:17:32 PM |

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