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When Bad News is Good News—Notes of a Feminist News Junkie

| May 23, 2011

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Robin Morgan

WMC Cofounder Robin Morgan on surrealism and sexual predators.

Have you been feeling the urge to wave your arms wildly and yell “We are NOT making this up!”?

First, there was the pornography discovered in Osama bin Laden's computers —and herbal Viagra found among his medicines. Media wags smirked he had to “satisfy” his youngest wife, Amal, the Yemeni who’d been married off to him (over objections from his other wives and even his mother) at age 15, when he was 43. Don’t you bet she’s enjoyed heaps of marital satisfaction? Pundits also wondered how his fundamentalist brand of Islam’s severe repression of women—imperative because we’re sexual Jezebels—could coexist with porn and sex drugs. After all, in his 2002 “Letter to the American People,” bin Laden sneered “You plaster your naked daughters across billboards to sell a product without any shame.”  (Had a point there.)  But exposing and commercializing the female body for male titillation and shrouding it as a movable bolt of cloth to protect men from “temptation”  are flip sides of the same coin. Neither bunny suits nor burkhas factor in what women want. Porn actually needs sexual repression and demonized women in order to proliferate. Take sexuality out from under a rock and let it dance amicably in the sunlight of equality—and porn loses its audience. So, sorry guys, bin Laden's porn stash is no contradiction.

Then there was the (now former) French presidential candidate, millionaire Socialist, and International Monetary Fund executive—the one who seems to confuse himself with Berlusconi. Where to begin here? That Dominique Strauss-Kahn (for short, DKS), 62, managing director of the IMF, allegedly did to one African widow what the IMF does to her continent?  That a 32-year-old Guinean émigré working as a hotel chambermaid while trying to raise her daughter with dignity might not burn with the mutual lust DSK’s attorneys argue was—honest-to-god—consensual? That claiming this is a set-up by DSK’s French political rivals—mais c’est absurd? That the power elite boys in global business and European politics have dismissed what they drolly termed Strauss-Kahn’s “womanizing,” for decades? That being indicted for criminal sexual assault, attempted rape, forced oral sex, and unlawful imprisonment are not the peccadilloes French men are pooh-poohing as American puritanical exaggeration? Interestingly, French women don’t agree; 1000 feminists signed a petition that ran in Le Monde, denouncing DSK’s defenders and their “sudden rise of sexist and reactionary reflexes, so quick to surface among part of the French elite.”

My French must be rusty, since I forgot “womanizing” apparently translates as  the preferred euphemism for “serial rapist.” Yet DSK’s “open secret” in Europe includes a history of allegations: sexual assault, molestation, groping, abuse of power, sexual harassment. Names are even named: the economist Piroska Nagy, his IMF subordinate; the journalist Tristane Banon, the Socialist parliamentarian Aurelie Filipetti, and on and on—provoking only the occasional wrist slap from his brothers or, once, his apology—to the IMF, not the women. Now, New York City investigators are being flooded with calls from women saying they too were sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn, and other employees at the same hotel are reporting his advances.

Plus ça change. Here comes the long-suffering political wife (his third), Anne Sinclair,  supporting him. This is now such a cliché that it has its own TV series, The Good Wife. But Sinclair, a former journalist and heiress who’s financed his political career, takes her defense waaaaay out. When, in 2006, L’Express asked if his reputation pained her, she replied “No! I’m even proud of it. It’s important to seduce, for a politician.” (Leaving aside quaint notions of solidarity with other women, Sinclair’s opinion of the electorate is unnerving.) As for French horreur that DSK was subjected by police to a “perp walk,” I haven’t been so proud of the New York City Police Department since 9/11!

Ooops, I take that back.

See, meanwhile, we have the ongoing trial of two policemen for alleged burglary, official misconduct, and oh yes rape.  A woman on the verge of passing out came to them for help, saying she’d drunk too much. The defendants claim the sex was—surprise!—“consensual.” They brought her home, undressed her, claim they left, yet apparently lodged a false call from her asking them to return, and returned while she was still passed out. One, Officer Kenneth Moreno, says  the semi-comatose woman “came onto” him, so he thought she was initiating a “relationship.” I did not make this up. Nor did the New York Times.

But I am still proud of Melissa Jackson, chief judge of Manhattan Criminal Court, who denied Strauss-Kahn bail. Please pay attention because you won’t catch me saying this very often: Hurrah for U.S. justice!

Well, that didn’t last long.

A male judge, Michael J. Obus, reversed Jackson’s decision, so DSK is out on bail, though tenants at the Manhattan luxury building where Mme. Sinclair immediately rented two apartments refused to let him reside there, even temporarily. (But hey, he’s resigned from the IMF, poor baby, having to settle for a separation payment of only $250,000.)

And there’s Ahhhhhnold. The Californicating ex-B-movie star won the governorship in the first place only  because his wife, Maria Shriver, stood by his side (see Good Wife, above) during a campaign rife with “rumors and allegations” about his, yup, “womanizing.” It didn’t hurt that she’s a Kennedy clanmember who put her reputation on the line for him,  sacrificing her journalism career in the process.  Now, safely out of office, Schwarzenegger confesses that he did father a child a decade ago with their housekeeper, Mildred Patricia Baena, who worked for the family for 20 years. She was pregnant by him while Shriver was pregnant with their youngest son. But gee, Schwarzenegger has apologized.

Did I forget to say that the two New York City cops have apologized, too?

Bill Maher (reliably obnoxious about women) and Chris Matthews (who’s already had to apologize publicly for sexist remarks) shared guffaws about how if you “go after” a maid like Strauss-Kahn, it’s best to have her consent first, as Schwarzenegger—they assume--did. But because Mildred Patricia Baena didn’t run screaming from the room as the hotel maid managed to do doesn’t mean she consented. When one party is a rich movie star/famous politician, and the other is a Latina housekeeper in his employ, the sheer imbalance of power precludes the possibility of genuine consent.  This situation, too, is spun as consensual, with added implications smearing Baena as mentally imbalanced. Blaming the Victim remains a popular sport.

Rounding out the week was the Yale fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose alums include both Presidents Bush. DKE’s  activities are now suspended for five years, for marching across campus chanting at women students, “No Means Yes!” and  “Yes Means Anal!”   (So much for our slogan, “What part of No don’t you understand?” Now we have the answer. They don’t understand the “No” part.) The DKE International Fraternity’s statement implied women were humorless, and whined that a six week suspension of pledging activities would be sufficient, since the chanting, while “inappropriate and in poor taste,” didn’t warrant a five year punishment. Still, Mary Miller, dean of Yale College, is enforcing the five years.

“Inappropriate.” “Consensual.” “She came onto him.” “Womanizing.”  “No sense of humor.” “Rumors and allegations.”  “Conspiracy to frame him.” Phrases we all, men as well as women, by now ought to recognize immediately, which would save us from repeatedly falling over platitudes with an air of great discovery. For that matter, the next time WikiLeaks guru Julian Assange claims the rape charges against him are lies, the two women “consented” to sex without condoms, and he’s being framed by the CIA, can we  please think twice about this online “hero” being above criticism?

Californians who voted for Schwarzenegger on the basis of Shriver’s defense now feel conned. Not that she’s to blame; he lied to her, too. In fact, maybe we should try a new approach to the Good Wives: Do them a favor and  just not believe them. Why think their teary testimony could be honest in such circumstances any more than that of the battered woman who calls 911, then changes her story, insisting she broke her own nose—for fear of what her batterer will do to her after the cops leave? We could also commercially terminate The Terminator, who’s returning to movie making: women and men of conscience can boycott his films, past and future.

But here’s the good news.

Ten or 15 years ago, a widowed émigré maid would likely have been too terrified to fight back or report such an ordeal to her employers. The hotel would probably have hushed it up for fear of a powerful guest, but had the police been called, strings would have been pulled in the DA’s office to quash the arrest. Other alleged victims of the same man now are coming forward when, years ago, they dared not. Ten years ago there were fewer women judges on the New York bench, and fewer women deans anywhere, much less at Yale College--and women students might not have lodged a complaint about offensive chants in the first place. And there was a time when Maria Shriver, a lifelong devout Catholic, would not have imagined meeting, as she’s doing, with a divorce lawyer.

But the best news is that the press—traditional and new media alike—covered these stories at all.  That ought to be a given—but it wasn’t until fairly recently. And though  press commentary was sometimes flippant or sensationalistic, news reporting was largely fair and respectful. And that would never have happened without years of women writing outraged letters to networks and newspapers, without pressure from groups like The Women’s Media Center.

So in the teeth of ongoing gross misdoings, all this is, nonetheless, strange good news. Seriously. Until tomorrow’s headlines, at least.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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