The Sunday Times

May 22nd, 2011

Last gasp of the seigneurs who trample on women’s feelings

At first blush there might seem to be little if any resemblance between Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the disgraced French politician, late of Rikers Island jail, and Ken Clarke, Britain’s beleaguered justice minister. Superficially at least, they are very different, and while both have risked the annihilation of their political careers because of questions to do with rape, only one is facing criminal charges of sexual assault.

It is quite impossible to imagine cuddly Ken Clarke in the dock for sex crimes, while with the priapic DSK it was an accident waiting to happen, according both to his enemies and to his friends.

But last week, as I wondered what could possibly explain the wildly irrational fury here over Clarke’s remarks about rape, it struck me that there is indeed a curious resemblance between the two men, and that this resemblance might partly explain the violent uproar at what Clarke said. I think that from a woman’s point of view, particularly that of a younger woman, KC and DSK may be birds of a feather, even though their plumage looks so different.

In the past I’ve always found Clarke easy to like. Blokeish, approachable and self-indulgently podgy, clever and fluent, but also an easygoing man of the people, he could hardly in some ways be further from the Olympian DSK.

A suave and exquisitely dressed, much-married Frenchman of great wealth and hyper-sophisticated tastes, reeking of the extraordinary sense of entitlement that exudes from the lords of the European universe, Strauss-Kahn has an image far removed from Clarke’s battered Hush Puppies, beer and blameless domestic life. One could hardly call Clarke a “chaud lapin”.

But I suspect both men owe their present, different, predicaments largely to the same thing — an indifference, real or apparent, to women’s feelings. Clarke’s real crime last week was to appear, if only to appear, not to take women’s feelings seriously. This was an impression he gave again and again and it was disastrous politically. Clarke’s language, his body language and the self-satisfied cadences of his voice were all somehow dismissive on various questions of rape, until a day later when he began doing contrition.

Perhaps he was unaware, at first, how passionately most women feel about rape and the way rape is so often condoned, or half-condoned; if so, he should not have been. That in itself shows a surprising ignorance of women’s feelings, or an indifference to them. He seemed irritated in interviews — brusque, faintly contemptuous at moments and unable to disguise his sense of superiority to the women interviewing him and his impatience with the fuss they were making. He was unfeelingly glib, in interview after interview.

Indifference to women’s feelings, of an infinitely more serious degree and perhaps to a pathological degree, is both the crime and the Achilles heel of DSK as well.

Whether or not he sexually assaulted the Sofitel chambermaid in New York, there are plenty of other stories and allegations about him, some of which suggest that, when possessed by the spirit of the hot rabbit, DSK is wholly uninterested in a woman’s feelings. He simply ignores them and arrogantly imposes himself on her, groping and grabbing in a seigneurial way, like a latter-day Don Juan who sees nothing wrong in “taking” a woman, whether she likes it or not; perhaps he cannot even understand whether she likes it or not. In any case, it doesn’t matter. It’s not serious. It’s an alpha male game, the spoils of success.

One ought not to assume that DSK is guilty of any of the allegations against him. But in his case it is difficult to cling with much conviction to the great principle of the presumption of innocence.

Perhaps one ought not to believe the allegations of the young French journalist Tristane Banon, goddaughter of DSK’s second wife, who now says publicly that she was jumped on and assaulted by DSK not in hot rabbit but in “rutting chimpanzee” mode. But it is difficult to disbelieve her: her own mother, part of the French elite herself, now says she advised her daughter at the time to say nothing, for fear of DSK’s enormous power.

In any case DSK is notorious for his aggressive pursuit of women, for not even being safe in lifts. A New York prostitute allegedly complained to her madam about his roughness and aggression, and he is famous for being a “seducer”. His third and current wife even said once that she was proud of it.

This is what most women hate and fear so much, even if they haven’t directly experienced it — a seigneurial, bullying, bulldozing over women’s feelings and bodies, for whatever purpose or pleasure, which until recently was common in western cultures, and which still goes on in large parts of the world.

Think of the European proverb, of not so long ago: “A woman, a donkey and a walnut tree, the more they’re beaten, the better they be.” Think of the punishment gang-rape of the Indian girl whose relations had offended another family, which took vengeance in this time-honoured way.

The extreme obsession with rape that now characterises the women’s movement, and often blights it with absurdities such as last week’s vilification of Clarke, has its roots in something real — a long folk memory of the way men have systematically abused women, not least physically and sexually and psychically, until recently. Any woman over 60 can remember truly horrifying attitudes and behaviour, even among educated men in this country.

These are the subliminal anxieties and resentments that men as different as Clarke and the vulpine DSK stoke up in women and that arouse such a passionately irrational response. Both men share to some degree an old-fashioned attitude towards women that most of us in this culture hoped had been consigned to the past.

It’s a generational thing — Clarke is 70 and DSK looks it, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, in similar trouble, is 63 — a combination of arrogance, a patronising attitude and unthinking self-regard.

Above all it is a lack of feeling, wilful or otherwise, about women’s feelings and an unrecognised assumption that they don’t matter. The sleep of reason may breed monsters, but so too does a lack of feeling.

Enough of the hysteria, girls — Ken is trying to help us, India Knight, page 22