This is not going to be an exhaustive post on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. There are a number of things to say about the charges and the reactions to them from various national and international quarters—not to mention the fact that the case has sparked some awareness about the sexual assault risks faced by hotel staff as a class. There are some good pieces out there on these aspects of the case and more, but here I want to talk about something that may seem minor—but really isn’t.
Unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of news media for the past month, you know that the Strauss Kahn case broke a mere two days before reports of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marital infidelity surfaced in the Los Angeles Times. Both have been big stories here in the U.S., and as you’ve probably noticed (again, unless you’ve been living under a rock since early May) reporters, pundits, and all manner of media commentators have often spoken of them in the same breath. Usually it’s in an offhand way, as a convenient transition between the two stories or simply a reminder that two “sex scandals” are making headlines these days. And there have been some think pieces too (see here for the New York Times’s contribution and here for that of the L.A. Times) , that link them under a “men who take advantage” framework. But these remarks, casual and deliberate, do the work of erasing a crucial fact about the two stories: one of them is not like the other. In a really, really important sense.
Bear with me. I know you be may thinking, “This does not seem like that big of a deal. What’s important is that Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim get justice, and that if he’s guilty, Strauss Kahn’s enormous power and privilege doesn’t prevent that justice.” And you’d be right. That is what matters most. (You may also be thinking that the Schwarzenegger story raises troubling questions about power and inequality in ostensibly consensual sexual relationships, as Gregory Rodriguez does in one of the pieces linked above. You’d be right there too. That discussion is outside the scope of this post, but I welcome comments.) But how we talk about the case matters, too—and it tells us a lot about how sexual assault is perceived. Here’s what I’m saying: these two stories are profoundly different, and when we join them together under the sign of the salacious, we say (whether we mean to or not) that rape is a scandal rather than a (violent) crime. Now, I know it’s not semantically incorrect to call the Strauss-Kahn case a “scandal.” One meaning of the word, after all, is “damage to reputation; rumour or general comment inurious to reputation.” and that’s certainly true here: Strauss-Kahn’s reputation has been irrevocably damaged, and there has cetainly been plenty of “general comment” accomplishing that.
But notice what the term scandal directs our attention toward: the accused’s reputation or honor. The story of the scandal is the story of a fall from grace, or a “rise” into infamy. When we talk about a scandal, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s why the term can also mean “malicious gossip.” (These definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, by the way.) In other words, a scandal is “dirt” on someone or something—it’s sensational, perhaps even salacious. We use it frequently to describe stories that arouse what the Supreme Court likes to call our “prurient interest.” There can even be a kind of lewd or perverse pleasure in observing the scandal. So that’s why it’s a term w so often used to describe infidelity, illicit liaisons, and births that we have (thankfully) stopped calling “illegitimate.” And you know what? Rape doesn’t belong in this category. A case of sexual assault is not a dirty story, it’s an act of violence and hostility. It’s not about sexual mores, any more than aggravated assault is an offense against politeness. We wouldn’t group the latter with failure to return a dinner invitation or other etiquette violations, and we shouldn’t subsume sexual assault under the same rubric as the Schwarzenegger/Shriver divorce.
And this matters, I believe, because being accurate about what rape is matters. When we think of it as a scandal, as gossip—in a culture where “gossip” is big business, revolving mostly around celebrity excesses and exploits—we minimize it. We excuse those who don’t take it seriously. We make victim-blaming questions (What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Why did she go there alone?) seem relevant. It’s not that we need to be correct for the sake of etymology, or for the sake of “correctness” itself. It’s that the terms we use both reveal and reinforce common perceptions. The way we talk about sexual assault tells us a lot about what we think it is and how seriously we take it. And the references I hear to the Strauss-Kahn case that place it alongside stories like Schwarzenegger’s remind me that too often we still minimize it, just as too often we doubt and disparage survivors.