Transatlantic Feminism
Post–DSK Affair

Emily Apter

Autumn 2012 in Paris, la rentrée, and a host of new books dealing with the aftershocks of summer 2011’s biggest political scandal are piled up on bookstore tables. A novel by Stéphane Zagdanski, Chaos brûlant (Burning Chaos), is particularly sensational, featuring the spectacular demise of former International Monetary Fund (IMF) director Dominique Strauss-Kahn as seen through the eyes of a group of inmates in a New York psychiatric ward. A seasoned politician and favored Socialist candidate for the French presidential elections of 2012, DSK was taken into custody at Kennedy Airport in May 2011 on charges that he violently raped Nafissatou Diallo, a Guinean employee of the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan. For Zagdanski, the affair yielded a “providential” narrative not just of one powerful man’s downfall and sexual addiction, but of global financial crisis, late capitalist decadence, and an impending planetary combustion.

Other books and blogs, while less reliant on catastrophism, exploit the conspiracy theories that surfaced in abundance, some suggesting that insiders at the IMF framed DSK for his support of a Greek bailout and mildly redistributive economic policies, others that he was entrapped by the Sarkozy secret service as part of a plot to eliminate him from the ranks of presidential challengers. Another new book, Linda Fairstein’s Nightwatch, turns the affair into fodder for a political thriller, while Raphaëlle Bacqué and Ariane Chemin mine its plotlines for the celebrity romance in Les Strauss-Kahn. Each version of the story, regardless of genre, draws fully on the particularly incestuous microculture of media stars and politicians in France. DSK’s ex-wife Anne Sinclair—a kind of French Barbara Walters currently in charge of the Paris bureau of the Huffington Post—moves in the same circles as Paris Match journalist and First Lady Valérie Trierweiler, who became embroiled in a political-romantic scandal of her own after she publicly endorsed a candidate running against her rival Ségolène Royal, the former partner of President Hollande. Things come full circle when we hear that Trierweiler was herself once a target of DSK’s unwanted advances.

Gossipy factoids afford a titillating glimpse into the fishbowl of an insular political scene, but the real political traction of the DSK affair arguably derives from its service as a flashpoint for a renewed gender politics.

Gossipy factoids afford a titillating glimpse into the fishbowl of an insular political scene, but the real political traction of the DSK affair arguably derives from its service as a flashpoint for a renewed gender politics. The relationship between sexuality and citizenship, the vulnerability of immigrants and hotel employees to assault, the ongoing crisis of violence against women, and feminist culture wars galvanized along transatlantic fault lines—these are among the salient problems brought to the fore and polemically arraigned in the context of a volatile political climate.

Not long after the affair exploded, a “War on Women” would rage stateside as part of the protracted ritual of the Republican presidential nomination. Bans on non-procreative sex appeared alongside those against same-sex marriage as “plank” issues guaranteed to rally “the conservative base.” The rights of the unborn were pitted against those of women. As “personhood bills” gained traction in “red states,” zygotes increasingly held sway in the competition for electoral votes. “Transvaginal ultrasound”—the hallucinatory term for an invasive prenatal screening procedure—tripped off the tongues of senators and congressmen. The public was introduced to mystifying notions of “forcible” and “legitimate” rape in bills designed to deny access to abortion to victims of statutory rape (including in cases of incest). Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, in retribution for her congressional testimony in favor of requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception, was vilified by radio talk show bully Rush Limbaugh. Labeling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he suggested that every time she took a birth control pill she should produce sex tapes for mass delectation. All this was a sideshow, of course, to the systematic rollback of funds for Planned Parenthood, women’s health services in public and private sectors, and reproductive choice.

In France, where social policies protective of reproductive rights remain less under threat than in the US, there was, notwithstanding, a conservative resurgence culminating in the constitutional repeal of sexual harassment laws on May 4, 2012, over the vociferous objections of multiple women’s groups and human rights organizations. As the extent of DSK’s sexual-services-on-demand modus vivendi came increasingly to light, more women came forward with allegations of harassment, and more women active in the Socialist Party (who had been strong supporters of a DSK candidacy) expressed outrage at the complicity and political obtuseness of their masculine counterparts. This so-called “feminist” reaction was in many ways a delayed response to pervasive misogyny and homophobia in political life, particularly evident in the differential treatment of women candidates running for French political office. Marine Le Pen, the 2012 National Front presidential candidate, activated an old French nationalist (and Catholic) ideology of natalism, trumpeting economic benefits for stay-at-home mothers and a defunding of abortion coverage except in cases of rape. Even when commentators disputed her positions, Le Pen was often commended for her attractive looks, rhetorical skills, and legal acumen. By contrast, Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, mayor of Lille, champion of the thirty-five-hour workweek, and unsuccessful presidential contender in 2012, was pilloried in caricatures portraying her as an elephant, a turkey, and a headscarf-sporting Islamist. When Ségolène Royal was the Socialist candidate for president in 2007, she was photo-shopped as a body double for Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She was cast as a blushing political protégé by Bernard-Henry Lévy, France’s intellectuel de service (go-to intellectual), who would defend his dear friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn as “un séducteur, un charmeur, pas un ‘violeur’” (a seducer, a charmer, not a rapist) before Nafissatou Diallo’s accusations had even been investigated.

 

DSK Today


The American prosecution’s case against DSK was dismissed in August 2011, but Diallo’s civil suit is still pending. More recently, Strauss-Kahn was cleared of viol en réunion (gang rape) in a Washington hotel, as well as of rape charges brought by a Belgian escort after she abandoned her allegations of rough sex and repeated penetrations against her will. The case against him for “aggravated pimping” in connection with a prostitution ring run out of luxury hotels in Northern France remains active, but so far he has escaped legal retribution and continues to mount aggressive counter-suits to clear his name. DSK will probably win his legal battles, but not the public relations battle that would enable him to revive his political career. What, then, is the fallout of this affair, beyond its ability to revive conspiracy theory, sound the tocsin of European decadence (compounded by Berlusconi’s braggadocio in the face of charges of orchestrated orgies and sex with under-age women), and re-energize a subgenre of political fiction capitalizing on politicians’ illusory sense of immunity from public scrutiny?

Certainly one of the affair’s more significant effects was to reopen the dossier of the future of feminism. Protests by feminist groups in the Place des Vosges, right under the windows of DSK and Anne Sinclair’s residence, spotlighted the issues of violence against women and the paucity of legal redress for immigrants. Feminist debate was ignited not just by the “stand by your man” defense of Anne Sinclair (to the effect that “politicians make good seducers”), but also by positions like those of Kathy Davis, a commentator based in the Netherlands, who claimed that feminism itself was framed by the DSK affair. Davis pondered whether and why the affair was deemed a feminist issue:


Why is it so much more difficult to raise the issue of the circumstances under which chamber maids work, the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, or the precarious social position of immigrants and/or women of colour? … Why do we find ourselves without a leg to stand on … when a rape case is thrown out for lack of evidence, as if gender and power are no longer relevant? … [W]hy is it that suddenly it is “feminist” to be worried about Strauss-Kahn’s career or the feelings of his long-suffering wife?

In an edited collection entitled Un Troussage de domestique (2011), Christine Delphy used the affair as a pretext to discredit the cordon sanitaire thrown down around “private life” in an effort to keep sexual liberty apart from sexual violation. Delphy also sought to challenge complicity towards one of the oldest conventions of the droit de seigneur—the right of the aristocratic master to take his pleasure with servants. The phrase “troussage de domestique,” meaning literally “lifting the skirts of a servant,” was uttered by DSK defender Jean-François Kahn to make light of his friend’s infraction, as if to say, What’s all the fuss about? It’s just another dalliance with the help. The outrage provoked by this expression served to refocus attention on the continuing exercise of class entitlement and the assertion of male sovereignty (in the full political sense) over women’s bodies. There was also a reinvigoration of what might be characterized as contrarian, libertarian feminism. This stance was typified by Marcela Iacub, a lawyer specializing in family law who, despite a record of defending the right to prostitution, pornography, gay marriage, gay parenting, and surrogate motherhood, cast “radical feminism” as her bête noire. Arguing that strong harassment legislation risks contracting the parameters of consensual sex in favor of widened parameters of rape, leaving women reliant on the state rather than on their own developed sense of agency, she maintained in Une société de violeurs? (A Society of Rapists?) (2012) that DSK was the victim of a “punitive feminism.”

What crystallizes in these controversies is how the affair brought gender politics back to “man” versus “woman” as the binary terms of sexual difference, brushing aside, as it were, a variegated vocabulary in common use for decades now: queer, trans, neutral, intersexed, intersectional, and so on.

What crystallizes in these controversies is how the affair brought gender politics back to “man” versus “woman” as the binary terms of sexual difference, brushing aside, as it were, a variegated vocabulary in common use for decades now: queer, trans, neutral, intersexed, intersectional, and so on. Feminism was reminded anew that its future is precarious in a society bent on safeguarding masculine prerogative and on shoring up the right to privatized sex in the face of harassment suits. Most pointedly perhaps, the scandal brought into focus the problem of what is sometimes called sexual citizenship—the sexual contract in the social contract—that underwrites legal notions of rape as a violation of individual autonomy and free will.

The sexual contract defines rape as forced entry across the boundaries of personhood, a theft of critical self-properties, dignity, and respect. Rape trumps the values of non-coercive relationality, consensuality, conviviality, parity, and equal rights. The DSK affair precipitated a referendum on the role of law and the state in defending the right to non-violation that in turn revealed a stark cultural double standard: male prerogative would be safeguarded at home, while Islam would be criticized for sexism. As Nacira Guénif-Souilamas argued in Mediapart (September 24, 2011), it was no small irony that as the French watched Arab men and women joining in acts of civil disobedience during the Arab spring, they were treated at home to a battle of interpretation over what really happened in that New York hotel room, something resembling “the exegesis of a sexual religion.” What became increasingly clear was that endemic sexism, homosociality, and homonationalism continued to thrive in French society despite an “enlightened” rhetoric. Certain strains of French feminism were by no means exempt of responsibility on this front. In addition to highlighting transatlantic antagonisms (and surprising convergences) in attitudes towards political equality, sexual difference, sexism, seduction, and the treatment of suspected criminal perpetrators, immigrants, and political elites, the DSK affair pointed up the precarity of feminism in French political and cultural life sixty-three years after Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark polemic The Second Sex and forty-four years after the foundation of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF).

 

French Feminism Then and Now


Prior to the postfeminist backlash, a trend as strong in France as it has been in the US over the past twenty years, second-wave French feminism was recognized as a major intellectual and political groundswell distinguished by critical intervention into phallocentric disciplines and modes of writing. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerillères (1969), a radical reworking of the Amazon legend; Hélène Cixous’ experiments in écriture féminine (writing in the feminine) and anti-patriarchal broadsides in “The Laugh of the Medusa” and The Newly Born Woman; Julia Kristeva’s formulations of pre-oedipal and maternal symbolic orders; Luce Irigaray’s vivid descriptions of a feminocentric sexuality “which is not one”; and Michèle LeDoeuff’s projection of feminine philosophical imaginaries were major signposts. They helped usher in a heyday of “theory” (a catchall term far more common in English than in French) inflected by Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, and semiotics. By the late 1990s, however, many would no longer self-identify as feminist or use the word as an adjective to define their intellectual projects. Some, like Hélène Cixous, turned to literature, producing a genre that Judith Ryan recently characterized as “the novel after theory.” Others, like Christine Delphy and Danièle Kergoat, remained committed to feminism, but hostile to the essentialist, non-materialist versions of it that had gained visibility and prominence.

Mitterand’s Socialist government (1981–1995) provided the political backdrop to these variegated tendencies in French feminism. In retooling an old French model of universalism as the linchpin of the citizen-subject, it encouraged rank hostility to so-called “American-style” identity politics—multiculturalism, queer theory, and postcolonial critique (with its supposed negative side effects: communitarianism, transnational feminism of racial difference, and Islamofascism)—thus contributing to the dismissal of feminism as obsolescent, unsexy, and hobbled by political correctness. Against the backdrop of the PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarité, or Civil Solidarity Pact) legislation of 1999, which promoted legal protection for same-sex and heterosexual unmarried couples, new forms of homophobia grew up in the name of reaffirming “natural” sexual differences and their gender-normative cultural forms. Camille Robcis, an American historian of French family law, notes that the PACS initiative prompted stiff opposition on the part of the distinguished anthropologist Françoise Héritier on grounds that “not only was sexual difference foundational to society, but gay parenting was ‘unthinkable.’” In a complementary vein, the French sociologist Irène Théry argued for culture over nature. She insisted that while the “distinction” between the sexes could be reproduced in same-sex couples, gay parenting would confuse the categories of paternity and procreation, thereby undermining the cultural institution of marriage. Théry’s case for a hard-line distinction between the sexes in the context of the PACS debates would resonate in her positions on the DSK affair, which evolved into a defense of the French “exceptionalist” traditions of seduction, civility, and courtship.

 

Translation Wars


As the DSK scandal gained traction in the media on both sides of the Atlantic, a fascinating face-off occurred between Théry and Joan Wallach Scott, an American historian of French feminism and minority politics. Their altercation played out in Libération and Le Monde and was fanned by the international blogosphere. In The Fantasy of Feminist History (2011), which came out just as the DSK affair was unfolding, Scott took issue with French exceptionalism in matters of sexual politics. Exceptionalism, she alleged, had been bolstered by a wave of historical scholarship dedicated to the reclamation of courtly values. In aligning aristocratic concepts of civility with those of revolutionary passion, she claimed, philosophers and historians like Philippe Raynaud, Mona Ozouf, and Claude Habib fomented an “ideology of aristocratic republicanism.” In their work, Scott argued, “Seduction offers not equality but a naturalized, ahistorical version of inequality,” a transcendent singularité française (French exceptionalism) that (and here she quotes Éric Fassin) placed “the sacralization of sexual difference … at the heart of the national project.” Ozouf’s and Raynaud’s caricatures of American feminism as “a kind of sexual Stalinism” would also inform her contribution to a May 20, 2011, New York Times sample of American feminist opinion during the initial flare-up of the DSK affair. Scott emphasized that not all French feminists were happy about defending seduction as a national way of life, and criticized Ozouf and Habib for a “passionate economy” that civilized “male brutality.” This is where Irène Théry stepped in. She riposted with an editorial in Le Monde eight days later titled “Un féminisme à la française,” asserting that American feminists, bent on a reductive understanding of egalitarianism, could never understand how “equality” between the sexes could be reconciled with “the asymmetrical pleasures of seduction.”

Can the consensual model of the sexual contract ever become a viable model for the social contract?

The wave of reactions that followed raised questions about the nature of sexual citizenship and whether there could be such a thing. Éric Fassin questioned why one couldn’t imagine a feminist erotics that was more democratic but no less desirable. For the philosopher and activist Elsa Dorlin, the fixation on feminism “à la française,” itself defined by seduction and an ironic légèreté (lightness, often attributed to a woman of easy virtue) of the spirit, had the negative effect of blunting sensitivity to the realities of sexual violence and sexism. From her perspective, what really mattered in the DSK case was that it made it harder to pass off male aggression as seduction and shifted the stereotype of the male predator from poor, non-white, and disenfranchised, to wealthy, white, and elite.

Joan Scott elaborated points similar to Dorlin’s in an article translated into French by Claude Servan-Schreiber in Libération a month later. Scott alleged that Théry and her cohort of historians were more intent on protecting DSK’s right to seduction than on listening to an accusation of violence by an immigrant woman of color. She noted that Habib, in her work on gallantry, had had recourse to Honoré d’Urfé’s classic seventeenth-century pastoral novel Astrée about a shepherd and shepherdess living in the fifth century. It contained the line: “Non seulement la soumission totale est un bien, mais c’est presque une condition de l’amour féminin” (Not only is total submission a good in itself, but it is practically a condition of feminine love). Scott read this as an expression of the shepherdess’s subordination to her lover, causing Théry, Habib, Raynaud, and Ozouf to cry foul. She had committed “un grossier contresens” (a gross misreading, an error of interpretation), for the line referred in fact to masculine obeisance to the laws of feminine love. Scott had reversed the genders because she was incapable of imagining the prospect of masculine subordination. She had, they argued, in a highly symptomatic way, mistaken differences in kind (sex, color, health, knowledge, beauty, wealth) for differentials of equality. “Who will explain to Joan Scott that differences are opposed to sameness, but not to equality, which is something else entirely?” Scott held her ground, insisting that her criticism stood neither on a mistaken reading nor on a distortion of their writings, but on a profound philosophical disagreement. She refused to allow her opponents to speak on behalf of a unified French feminism since, in her words, “there is no one feminism, feminism à la française doesn’t exist.”

In challenging the premise that there could be a “singular” French feminism reconciled to a universal French citizenship, itself based on a vision of society that negotiates away gender inequities through the seductive pleasures afforded by sexual difference, Scott refocused attention on the problem of sexual citizenship. Questions, many of them familiar, are thus relaunched with pronounced urgency in the wake of the Théry response to the DSK affair: Can the consensual model of the sexual contract (which may authorize bondage and power games) ever become a viable model for the social contract? What are a citizen’s rights in matters of sex, and what are the terms of redress in cases of coercion? How do unequal power relations between the sexes in patriarchal societies affect the negotiation of consensus and coercion in the sexual relation? How might one rethink sexual freedom as a problem of citizenship defined by singular community and the common good rather than by the private-interest-driven, heteronormative couple?

 

Changing Sexual Difference


The Théry/Scott altercation led to an enhanced appreciation of the impact of translation on transatlantic feminism and on mistranslations of sexual politics, especially where concepts of sexual difference or notions of gender are concerned. The French word “genre”—generally used to translate the English “gender”—has as its correlative the German Geschlecht, meaning kind, species, or the type to which things belong. It does not necessarily refer to sexual difference. For the French theorist Geneviève Fraisse (in her entry for a “dictionary of philosophical untranslatables” published in France under the direction of Barbara Cassin in 2004, the Anglophone sense of “gender” is a cover-up for the lack of a proper theory of sexual difference. As Stella Sandford puts it in an essay in Radical Philosophy, Fraisse considers gender a cache-sexe—meaning that sex is not thought, and that “gender” produces a philosophical deficit. Whether or not we go along with Fraisse in subscribing to the cliché that Anglophones are somehow incapable of “thinking sex,” it is certainly true that gender is hard to think across languages. The French translation of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as Trouble dans le genre suggests a kind of “trouble in the house of genre,” with genre understood to include yet exceed the English “gender.” It is a naming trouble that signals more than a debate over the sex/gender conceptual divide. The question “What genre are you?” or (in paraphrase of another Butler title) the prospect of “undoing genre” may seem like absurd over-translations, but they point up the extent to which “genre” encompasses sex and gender, the grammatical sexing of nouns and pronouns, and the fusion of corporeality and ontology in acts of agency. Gendered agency—coming out of a long history in the western philosophical tradition devoted to voluntarism and the will—emerges as one of the most compelling problems for future feminisms. It was already framed as such by wildly disparate feminist thinkers, from Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir to Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, Carole Pateman, and Judith Butler (among others), but the DSK affair endowed this issue with renewed theoretical urgency and immediate political relevance, especially pertaining to the determination of violence and violation within the sexual social contract.

Interestingly, it is the theme of violence that serves as the crucible for one of the more important works of French feminist philosophy on sexual difference to emerge in recent years: Catherine Malabou’s Changer de différence (Changing Difference) (2011). A dense work of theory, the book nonetheless touches on timely actualities. The last chapter, “Woman’s possibility, philosophy’s impossibility,” opens with citations pulled from French press articles and television programs: on the murder and disfiguration of women in Ciudad Juárez; on President Zapatero’s failure to exercise laws against domestic violence in Spain; on the twenty-seven percent wage disadvantage for women in France. “Even as we question the identity ‘woman,’” Malabou writes, “it is inconceivable that the tenacity of ‘feminist’ demands be forgotten for a moment. The deconstruction of sexual identities does not imply letting go of the fight for women’s liberation.”

Malabou underscores a key political point: that the bare essence of “woman,” after the deconstruction of “the feminine,” redounds to “a subject overexposed to a specific type of violence … the pressure of work in society and at home.” She reiterates in even stronger terms a primal ontological claim: “Violence alone confers her being,” and then presses on categorically, “Woman is nothing any more, except this violence through which her ‘being nothing’ continues to exist.” Conflating the “theoretical violence of the de-ontologizing of woman” with “domestic/social violence as an individual and as a working woman,” Malabou gets personal, outlining the injuries inflicted on a woman philosopher who dares to take feminism into the precinct of continental and analytic philosophy. Her way through? Put a spoke in the wheels of philosophy by insisting on the sexed and gendered condition of its basic terms; show how the impossibility of being a woman becomes the impossibility of philosophy, affirm over and over the feminine singularity within philosophical meaning as a “matter of matter.”

The insistence on violence in a work of philosophy devoted to ontological theories of feminine plasticity brings Changing Difference into colloquy with struggles on the street. Malabou’s formulations, though abstract, allow the problem of gendered agency to resonate with the slogans—“Say it once, say it again, no excuse for violent men,” “We are all Chambermaids,” and “Rape Survivors Don’t Get This Platform”—which gave substance to a demonstration organized in March 2012 by local residents and members of the Cambridge University Student Union’s Women’s Campaign. They had initially rallied behind a “Disinvite DSK” initiative that included a petition protesting the Cambridge Union Society’s invitation to DSK to speak on the global financial crisis. It would seem that feminism lives, and that the politics of sexual difference continues to make a difference.