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Rape in High Places

| May 5, 2011

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, currently being prosecuted with soliciting a minor.

Israeli journalist and women's rights activist Merav Michaeli analyzes an iniquitous sense of entitlement among the leaders of nations—and women's resistance.

What a busy spring we had: within one month, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven-year imprisonment and an additional two-year probation following his conviction for rape and sexual assault, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is being prosecuted with soliciting a minor. Is there an increase in rape in High Places?

Rape in High Places is, essentially, no different from your "ordinary" rape. Every man in a position of authority (including fathers, brothers or uncles) enjoys superiority, trust, free-access, the ability to hire and fire, and respect not only for himself individually but also for the office or status he holds; all the things that make it so easy for too many to rape.

In High Places though, all of the above are enhanced by even greater power, with its symbols and manifestations. A pointed realization of it was at the 2006 rape trial of South Africa President Jacob G. Zuma, then a former deputy-president. Zuma arrived at the Johannesburg High Court in a motorcade of four black cars with flashing lights, surrounded by an army of bodyguards in suits and with earpieces, allowing Zuma to enter the courtroom through a side door. In addition to the media being barred from the courtroom, there was no sign of a charge sheet against Zuma; nor was there an entry in the court log that he had ever appeared there. Bodyguards grabbed The Star photographer's cameras to prevent him taking Zuma's photograph.

In Europe and North America such exhibits may be more subtle, but the power wielded by the accused rapist may be greater. Berlusconi is the owner of a big chunk of the Italian media; thus he has been able to practically create a reality in which women are sex objects in every arena, in any profession. Though Berlusconi did not appear at the opening of his solicitation trial, he did make a well covered appearance the day before at another perfect setting he created for himself, a soccer game of the major team he owns, and said: "I did a poll among women asking them if they would have sex with Berlusconi; 33 percent answered yes, 67 percent said 'again?'"

Israel's former President Katsav also made sure to never be seen in the dock. He always waited for the media to leave the courtroom before taking his place even if the judges were already sitting. He is currently appealing against his conviction claiming there are flaws in the verdict—that the court has ignored the evidence and the logic he has brought before the court, and that the two victims are lying. Katsav never admitted to the rape and sexual assault of which he was convicted, nor to the accusations  by the eight more women who came forward during the police investigation. All  ten women were his former employees. While his lawyers insinuate there may have been consensual relationship, Katsav denies any relationship at all. According to him all the women were in love with him, and having been rejected by him and even fired, they're taking their revenge.

"Love" is the oldest argument in the book: Berlusconi and Zuma both claimed consensual sex. And indeed, as long as eroticism between a man and a woman is still defined by the supremacy of a man over the latter, and the exercise of sexual domination of women is an essential element of virility, and as long as what is required from women is "consent" rather than free will, it's made easy to confuse among a supporting boss, a paternal attitude, courtship, an affair and sexual harassment and assault. All of them are on the same axis of male control.

Katsav's dual strategy could be inspired by former President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky episode. In a very sophisticated way, Clinton argued both denial and consent at the same time. Could such an argument hold today—13 years later when presidents are being prosecuted for sex exploitation?

Rape in High Places is nothing new, really; what's new is that women insist on not seeing it as part of the territory anymore. Women's struggle for our autonomy in body and soul, and mind, as well as in law and in sex, is starting to bear fruit and to change the territory. In turn, the lords of their domain (which is supposed to be also ours) are fighting back; using every tool the territory affords them.

While Israeli law already criminalizes sexual harassment and exploitation of authority in a work relationship, the law does not in America, where it is a civil court matter. And while the financial sanctions under Title 7 may be a deterring tool for some, money is no issue for the truly rich and powerful. Moreover, when the only option to punish a sex felony is with money, it sends a problematic message that accepts and fixates the principle of buying sexual services—even if it is for a very high price. It seems that America, in its role of the leader of the free world, should take the next step and criminalize sexual harassment and abuse of authority, to state that the United States does not accept these crimes as part of a fair and equal life. This will be another step in liberating so many of us who are subjected to those men in High Places.

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