Let Us Now Excuse Famous Men: Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn and Male Entitlement
We recently learned that former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently separated from his wife Maria Shriver, fathered a son thirteen years ago with another woman. Worse, the mother of this child was the family’s trusted housekeeper for 20 years, and Schwarzenegger did not tell Shriver about the infidelity or the child until earlier this year. We also saw the initiation of sexual assault charges this week against French politician, economist and International Monetary Fund (IMF) director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. According to police reports, Strauss-Kahn came out of the bathroom of a New York hotel room naked while a female housekeeper was cleaning the room, chased her through the hotel room, cornered her, and forced her to perform oral sex on him before she finally escaped his attack. These are two sets of revelations about two powerful men, yet they have much in common. Both are only the latest and most publicized events in lives characterized by rampant contempt for and abuse of women. And, neither man’s lifelong misogyny would have been possible in the absence of a culture that continues to abet and excuse it.
Schwarzenegger’s entire political career would have been unthinkable without a concerted effort to sanitize reports of his treatment of women. And while he’s never been charged with sexual assault as Strauss-Kahn currently is, that may be just a matter of luck. Numerous women complained of enduring sexist remarks from Schwarzenegger, and a total of 16 women stated that they had been groped and physically humiliated by him. Schwarzenegger also once told the porn magazine Oui that he’d participated in the “gangbang” of a “black girl” at a Gold’s Gym, and we should note that the term “gangbang” is ambiguous regarding the issue of consent (1). Yet, thanks to a camera-mugging appearance on “Oprah” and a general chorus of shoulder-shrugging from the media, Schwarzenegger’s past was carefully edited to downplay or dismiss his misogyny. The women who claimed to have been groped were just exaggerating of course, since how could we expect women to be the final authority on what happened to their bodies? The interview with Oui was written off as youthful boasting – although even if that were true, a good follow-up question would’ve been to ask what kind of man thinks that telling stories about such despicable treatment of women improves his likability. Not only was there little real investigation into his past behaviors toward women, but when there was an attempt to engage discussions about it, many in the public reacted with outrage. When the L.A. Times ran a story about Schwarzenegger’s groping in 2003, just prior to the gubernatorial election, at least 10,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions and many alleged that the story was a politically motivated smear job (2). Schwarzenegger, of course, went on to win the election handily.
The allegations against Strauss-Kahn are also the latest in a personal pattern that’s managed to escape serious detection before now. The French journalist Tristane Banon claims that Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape her in 2002. She did not press charges initially, but media reports during the last week suggest she may be preparing to file legal charges related to the alleged attack (3). In 2008, the IMF formally investigated charges that Strauss-Kahn had an affair with a married subordinate, and that he used his position of power and authority to coerce her participation in the relationship. The board declined to take action against Strauss-Kahn, who patched over the incident by issuing an apology for the affair (4). Of course, neither this history nor the details of the current assault allegations has deterred Strauss-Kahn supporters from contributing elaborate defenses that often read like the output of a brainstorming session at a creative writing workshop. Strauss-Kahn is just a horny guy, we’re told, and possibly a sex addict who simply can’t help himself. Besides, you know how French culture is, right – grabbing a breast is their way of shaking hands. Many other people have added that surely, rich and powerful men like Strauss-Kahn don’t need to rape people, especially when they have his reputation as a “Great Seducer.” (Some of those “seductions,” as we’ve already seen, allegedly involved nonconsensual physical contact, but surely it’s just tedious to point that out). We’ve also had numerous examples of old-fashioned “boys will be boys” rationalizations and victim blaming, which amount to saying that the housekeeper simply didn’t try hard enough not to get raped. And not to be outdone by such trite pseudo-explanations, former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein adds that overweight old men like Strauss-Kahn couldn’t possibly commit rape, and who ever heard of an economist raping someone (5)? Assault charges refuted, Q.E.D. (One of many problems with Stein’s explanation, for those interested, is that in fact, there have been some prominent cases of economists convicted of rape, and that in general, real-life rapists don’t conform to the popular stereotype of a deranged man lying in wait for his victim in a bush outside a bedroom window).
Sadly, both Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn have benefited from the long running trend of excusing bad behavior by men on the grounds that it’s simply what men do, and can’t be expected to change. This trend is helped along by a stiff undercurrent of largely unquestioned and unexamined misogyny in our culture, which makes offenses committed against women seem unworthy of serious outrage. Some of the inability to understand the treatment of women may also be attributable to what scholar Russell K. Robinson calls “perceptual segregation” : members of a relatively privileged group (e.g., men) interpret acts of discrimination toward a less privileged group (e.g., women) as being less serious than members of the disadvantaged group do (6). Put together, these factors create a culture that either actively, or through unawareness, sustains attitudes of male entitlement and misogyny, which in turn sustain the assumptions of the culture that created them. We get the both the belief that everything men do is by definition what they had to do, and that if they do it to women, it really doesn’t matter much anyway.
This culture, our culture, is one in which misogynistic language and comments rarely attract much attention – where in fact, the abuse of women by some famous men is seen as a sign of virile righteousness. In this culture, somewhere between ¼ and 1/5 of women consistently report that men have raped them, and yet it is women who are lectured to about the need to prevent rape – usually by restructuring their entire lives so as not to attract those uncontrollable male urges we’re always told about. It’s a culture where it’s common for male sales persons to entertain clients by taking them to strip clubs, giving their female counterparts the choice of either coming along despite possible objections, or not going and thus being disadvantaged in the quest for clients and for the all important perception of being a “team player.” In fact, recent reports indicate that a German insurance firm rewarded top male salesmen by giving them access to prostitutes at a corporate-sponsored orgy (7). Ours is a culture where women still are not paid equally to men for equal work, are still disproportionately saddled with childcare duties, and still lack autonomy in reproductive health and choice. It’s a culture where male elected representatives can vote to redefine rape in order to deny abortions to rape survivors – one legislator even proposed to eliminate all abortion coverage on standard insurance plans, even for female rape survivors, and then went on to suggest that women should “plan ahead” by buying supplemental coverage just in case someone rapes them one day. Finally, it’s a culture in which the continuing existence of sexism is enabled by the fact that so many men dismiss suggestions that it still exists, and that something they have just said or did may perpetuate it, with reactions ranging from defensiveness to condescension. In a moving and excellent post at the feminist site Shakesville, writer Melissa McEwan describes her own experiences in dealing with men who refuse to acknowledge their sexist behavior:
My mistrust is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language (“humankind”).
There are the insidious assumptions guiding our interactions—the supposition that I will regard being exceptionalized as a compliment (“you’re not like those other women”), and the presumption that I am an ally against certain kinds of women. Surely, we’re all in agreement that Britney Spears is a dirty slut who deserves nothing but a steady stream of misogynist vitriol whenever her name is mentioned, right? Always the subtle pressure to abandon my principles to trash this woman or that woman, as if I’ll never twig to the reality that there’s always a justification for unleashing the misogyny, for hating a woman in ways reserved only for women. I am exhorted to join in the cruel revelry, and when I refuse, suddenly the target is on my back. And so it goes.
There are the jokes about women, about wives, about mothers, about raising daughters, about female bosses. They are told in my presence by men who are meant to care about me, just to get a rise out of me, as though I am meant to find funny a reminder of my second-class status. I am meant to ignore that this is a bullying tactic, that the men telling these jokes derive their amusement specifically from knowing they upset me, piss me off, hurt me. They tell them and I can laugh, and they can thus feel superior, or I can not laugh, and they can thus feel superior. Heads they win, tails I lose (8).
There’s a standard narrative about the way feminism has affected relationships between men and women – especially in heterosexual relationships. It goes something like this: A long time ago, men and women fell in love. Their relationships weren’t perfect (what in life ever is?), but they worked, because men and women each had distinct, well-defined roles. But women’s liberation changed everything, and made women aware of desires and needs they never knew they had, and bewildered men didn’t know how to respond. This narrative is broadly accepted, even across the political spectrum, but there are elements missing from it. It either directly or implicitly blames a movement to end inequality for problems that were caused by inequality, for starters. But it also ignores the fact that the happy days of male and female relationships weren’t equally happy for women, as well as the sense of male entitlement that frequently has caused the unhappiness. This is the attitude that unquestioningly assumed that women existed to be helpmates and sources of spousal and maternal wisdom, rather than to live for their own purposes. It’s also an attitude that rationalizes different, unequal roles for women and men based on assumed essential differences, including differences in sexuality, and uses these assumed differences to gloss over disrespectful or even violent behavior. Men who are unfaithful to their wives couldn’t help it, based on this model, because they simply have a greater need for sex than women do. The time-honored tradition of bachelor parties also is based on this idea – it frames the man’s commitment to one woman as a supreme sacrifice because of the man’s presumably greater sexual appetite, and such a noble sacrifice surely entitles him to an evening of doing whatever he wishes to women’s bodies. In a heartbreaking essay entitled “How My Fiancé Ruined Our Marriage Before it Even Began,” writer Gayle Cole relates the permanent damage done to her relationship with her ex-husband because of the bachelor party that he and his male friends believed he was entitled to have:
In the 48 hours remaining before our wedding, Larry desperately lobbied to maintain his good-guy status.”It wasn’t cheating!” he told me, channeling Bill Clinton. He did not have intercourse, therefore it wasn’t sex. He even thought that I might be reassured by the fact that the strippers brought bouncers along to make sure “nothing got out of hand” and that he didn’t even get an erection during the whole three-hour show. He genuinely believed the party-line he force-fed me: “My bachelor party was normal and acceptable, it’s your reaction to it that is screwed up.” All his compatriots eagerly provided the back-up he needed. They patted him on the back and said that what he’d done, within the sacred confines of a bachelor party, didn’t mean a thing.
To me, the bachelor party felt like a betrayal perpetrated not just by Larry, but by my male friends in attendance. Their party games intended not just to entertain the groom, but to humiliate me. The message was that the poor bastard marrying me was going to be stuck with this one, insufficient girl the rest of his life, so he needed to get a long last taste of the goodies he’d be missing.
Hours before the ceremony, I told Larry that if he could promise he had confessed every single awful detail and he would agree to go to couples counseling, I would go through with our plans. Tearfully, holding my hand, he promised. I sobbed my way up the aisle, through the vows, and back down the aisle. The only thing I remember is a sermon about truth, and trying not to look at the best man.
On our honeymoon, on the private island off the coast of New England, I jolted awake one night realizing I had failed to ask Larry about the threat of sexually transmitted diseases. Hesitantly, he admitted that he needed a few follow-up HIV tests performed as a result of having bled from a bite he sustained on his penis while the wrist-bound strippers used their mouths to collect dollar bills from his lap. He’d had a baseline test already. “The doctor advised me not to tell you,” he said. “He told me that you have a better chance of dying in a plane crash than contracting AIDS from a human bite.” That was not the only new detail to emerge. I also learned that Larry wasn’t ambushed into the kind of party he didn’t want, as I’d been led to believe. Peer pressure didn’t make him do it; he booked the hotel room on his own credit card, and called around for strippers (9).
Yes, it’s true that there are differences between some of the behaviors discussed here. The use of sexist language is, of course, not the same thing as rape. But both behaviors are made possible by the culture of entitlement, and the way it shapes and then excuses the masculinity of many men. A culture in which many men see nothing wrong with making misogynistic remarks, with subsuming the rights and feelings of women to their own, or excusing the sexist behavior of other men is exactly the kind of culture where high frequencies of sexual violence will occur. The behaviors lie on a continuum that is more fluid than most people may want to acknowledge. Many rapists have previous histories of other sexual offenses including groping and street harassment, and studies have shown that men who profess belief in various “rape myths” (such as that women dressed a certain way are “asking for it”) are more likely to commit rape themselves.
Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn are not aberrations, but recognizable products of this culture, distinguishable mostly by their fame and power. Of course their power, is a large part of the problem. Those who argue that men of influence such as Strauss-Kahn wouldn’t need to rape completely miss the point, because it’s that power that has enabled him to discourage previous legal actions and survive past investigations of his behavior with his privileges and sense of entitlement intact. It’s Schwarzenegger’s power that helped him to expunge his record of contempt for women, and to be rewarded with even greater status. Power is both a stereotypical feature of traditional masculinity and one of its sustaining forces. As the examples of these two men show, this power is often a power to control women, and to defuse criticisms of that control. The cycle can only be broken by admitting that the problem goes deeper than a handful of famous men, by holding the hidden misogyny of our culture up to scrutiny, and by demanding real changes in the attitudes that enable it.
Ironically, Maria Shriver recently wrote a blog post titled “Is the Model of Masculinity Changing in America,” in which she wondered if new models of masculinity would replace the swaggering bravado of much traditional masculinity. Let’s hope so, Maria. The kind of masculinity that defines itself by subordinating women is full of shit, and it’s time to stop making excuses for it.
1). Pollitt, Katha. 2006. Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. New York: Random House.
2). Harding, Kate. “Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, and the Media’s Groping Problem.” Posted May 18, 2011 at the RH Reality Check website, at http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2011/05/18/schwarzenegger-strausskahn-medias-groping-problem.
3) Willsher, Kim. “Dominique Strauss-Kahn faces further claim of sexual assault.” The Guardian. May 16, 2011.
4) Thomas, Jr., Landon. “Woman in 2008 Affair is Said to Have Accused I.M.F. Director of Coercing Her.” The New York Times. May 16, 2011.
5). North, Anna. “Ben Stein Offers Worst Possible Reaction to IMF Chief Accusations.” Posted May 17, 2011 at the Jezebel website at http://jezebel.com/5802816/ben-stein-offers-worst-possible-reaction-to-imf-chief-accusations.
6). Robinson, Russell K. “Perceptual Segregation.” Columbia Law Review, Volume 108:1093-1180.
7) Evans, Stephen. “German Insurer Munich Re held orgy for salesmen.” Posted May 20, 2011 at the BBC News website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13454160.
8). McEwan, Melissa. “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck.” Posted August 14, 2009 at the Shakesville website at http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/08/terrible-bargain-we-have-regretfully.html.
9. Cole, Gayle. “How My Fiancé Ruined Our Marriage before It Even Began.” Posted in “Fall 2002” at http://www.indiebride.com/essays/cole/index.html.
About the Author
Phil Molé is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago, Illinois, and often writes about science, skepticism, and society.