Sex, Lies, Arrogance: What Makes Powerful Men Behave So Badly?

From the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Arnold Schwarzenegger's fathering a child out of wedlock, what is it about power that makes men crazy?

  • Left: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters; Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

    Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who formally resigned on May 18, 2011

    When her husband Dominique Strauss-Kahn was preparing to run for President of France five years ago, Anne Sinclair told a Paris newspaper that she was "rather proud" of his reputation as a ladies' man, a chaud lapin (hot rabbit) nicknamed the Great Seducer.

    "It's important," she said, "for a man in politics to be able to seduce."

    Maybe it was pride that inspired French politicians and International Monetary Fund officials to look the other way as the rumors about "DSK" piled up, from the young journalist who says Strauss-Kahn tried to rip off her clothes when she went to interview him, to the female lawmaker who describes being groped and pawed and vowed never to be in a room alone with him again, to the economist who argued in a letter to IMF investigators that "I fear that this man has a problem that, perhaps, made him unfit to lead an institution where women work under his command." Maybe it was the moral laziness and social coziness that impel elites to protect their own. Maybe it was a belief that he alone could save the global economy. Maybe nothing short of jail is disqualifying for certain men in certain circles.

    But in any event, the arrest of Strauss-Kahn in New York City for allegedly trying to rape a hotel maid has ignited a fierce debate over sex, law, power and privilege. And it is only just beginning. The night of Strauss-Kahn's arraignment, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted that the reason his wife Maria Shriver walked out earlier this year was the discovery that he had fathered a child more than a decade ago with a former member of the household staff. The two cases are far apart: only one man was hauled off to jail. But both suggest an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust. And both involve men whose long-standing reputations for behaving badly toward women did not derail their rise to power. Which raises the question: How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age, when men and women live and work as peers and are schooled regularly in what conduct is acceptable and what is actionable, that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?

    Crime and Culture Wars
    Let's note first that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proved guilty and, second, that if he is guilty, he is not a player — he's a predator. This was not just a French version of an American classic, the Family Values Virtuecrat, who preaches by day and trysts by night. Nor was Strauss-Kahn a fallen star like Tiger Woods or Charlie Sheen or one of the libidinous lawmakers and Luv Guvs whose confessions can be as infuriating as their sins. Strauss-Kahn was not accused of seducing his close friend's wife, like former Senator John Ensign, or patronizing prostitutes while prosecuting prostitution rings, like former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, or lying about an affair while impeaching a President for lying about an affair, like Newt Gingrich. On the spectrum that starts at randy, runs through creepy and ends in handcuffs, where DSK belonged became a matter of global dispute even before it became a matter for a grand jury.

    This is what the alleged victim told the police: On May 14, at the Sofitel in midtown Manhattan, the maid, a 32-year-old African immigrant, entered the $3,000-a-night suite around midday to clean, thinking it was empty. When she went into a bedroom, Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from the bathroom; when she apologized and tried to leave, according to a police spokesperson, he chased her down, grabbed her and locked the door. He tried to assault her in the bedroom before dragging her to the bathroom and making her perform oral sex. She eventually fled the suite; hotel staff called the police, who caught up with him sitting in his first-class seat on the Air France flight from JFK to Paris — where he could have been safe from extradition.

    With his arrest, a transatlantic culture war broke out. Strauss-Kahn was the world's wallet, a shrewd and nimble financier who had rescued the IMF from irrelevance in time to save the European economy. He was the favorite to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency next year. He had friends everywhere who called him far too brilliant to do anything so tawdry, as though being smart and being decent were the same thing. Newspapers in Paris couldn't decide on the headline. "Shock. Political Bomb. Thunderclap," blared the left-leaning paper Libération . The New York Daily News went with "Le Perv." The French, who forbid photographing a suspect in handcuffs on the grounds that it violates the presumption of innocence, were aghast at what followed: "Death by media," one former Socialist minister called it. "If you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime," New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg fired back, which only confirmed the French objection.

    Strauss-Kahn was charged with offenses including criminal sex acts, unlawful imprisonment and attempted rape, for which he could face up to 25 years. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment; his lawyers suggested that whatever might have occurred was consensual. His wife had wired $1 million for bail, they said — but concluding that a man pulled off a flight constituted a flight risk, the judge denied it.

    And so he sat in a cell at Rikers Island, a short flight but a long fall from his $4 million Georgetown home and the life he had come to lead. He was on suicide watch; the victim and her teenage daughter were moved to a safe house to protect them from the cameras — but that did not stop the French press from publishing her name and background or the New York Post from reporting that she was a widow who lives in a Bronx apartment set aside for adults with HIV, a claim her lawyer called "outrageous."

    So much for the famous European indifference to the private sex lives of its leaders. DSK's situation is more serious even than that of Italy's embattled Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, 74, who has been on trial for corruption, tax fraud and, most relevant, having sex with an underage prostitute and then using his office to cover it up. These cases are the exception; they will both play out in court, with evidence presented and witnesses called and the conduct of the accused judged by the standards of the law. In many instances of sexual conflict, it never comes to this but unfolds in a murmur of rumors and gossip, even nudges and winks. More often than not, the women involved weigh the stakes and decide to be silent, judging that the burden of proof is high and that they have little to gain and so much to lose. It's no coincidence that when events like this happen, women come out of the shadows to add their testimony; they figure the odds have improved enough that they just might be believed.

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