News & Politics

Libertines v. Libertarians: Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Rejection of Sexual Restraints

The Frenchman's fantasy of freedom misses le point.

A little over a year ago, 63-year old Dominique Strauss-Kahn was riding high. He was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. A favored candidate for the French presidency. A progressive step forward from neoliberal economics. There were always rumblings of a “zipper problem”, but the sweet music of success always seemed to drown them out.

Then came a horrible screech on the record. The economist was charged with raping a maid at a NYC hotel – charges that were later dropped, but not before his political career went up in smoke. (Another assault charge by a Belgian prostitute was also dropped).

Today, DSK is trying to face down criminal charges in an inquiry into ties to a prostitution ring in France with the legal argument that the authorities are attempting to “criminalize lust.”

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

This is not the first time we have heard interesting defenses of DSK’s behavior. In response to questions from a French radio station about whether he knew that women at Parisian and Washington, D.C. sex-athons were prostitutes, and whether he paid for their services, his lawyer memorably replied. “People are not always clothed at these parties. I challenge you to tell the difference between a nude prostitute and a classy lady in the nude.” 

Um, right. But there’s one thing that seems decidedly notclassy: an aging, Viagra-pumped satyr with an ego large enough to assert that young women are there for the fun of watching him flop around in the altogether.

Admittedly, sex norms are different in America. But there’s something that remains a problem whether you are a statesman from France or a senator from Lousiana. If you are wont to do things in private that you don’t wish to be known, then you are vulnerable to blackmail. Set-ups. Distractions from the work of governing. If the incident at New York’s Sofitel was indeed a set-up, as DSK claims, then it illustrates the danger.

Then there is the question of  how continual hypocrisy – i.e. presenting yourself as a traditionally married man – denotes a certain comfort level with lying that might ill serve the public in other matters. And the bigger problem of engaging in behavior that may be criminally culpable. In France, having sex with prostitutes is not illegal. But soliciting and procuring are.

According to the New York Times, a lawyer for the host of the international sex party circuit that set up the orgies said that it was necessary to procure prostitutes because DSK sometimes desired to have sex with three or four women of an evening.  Karl Vandamme, a lawyer for one of the party organizers, likens orgy-going to other kinds of adult lifestyle choices, like S&M. “Libertines are people like you and me: people who have a normal life.”

The word “libertine” has been thrown around quite a bit in the DSK discussions. In France, the word has a particular lineage -- an association with men like the Marquis de Sade, who championed physical pleasure and cast aside moral restraints. Some of that undoubtedly represented a healthy antidote to the Calvinist nofuniks of the period whose philosophy found a firm foothold in early America. But other parts are potentailly problematic. Like the temptation to violate the rights of others as you enjoy your “freedom.”

In France, unlike America, the word “libertine” carries the import of philosophical seriousness. Much as our libertarians desire freedom from government intrusion, and look rather like silly adolescents to Europeans who understand social bonds, the desire for sexual abandon without consequences sounds a little bit like selfish teenage fantasy over here across the pond.

It also sounds rather sexist. Not sexy. While the radical pornographic stance of the Marquis de Sade has had its female champions, DSK’s position seems more regressive than revolutionary. The economist, who was born wealthy, seems to be throwing around a kind of ancient male privilege that has long been argued to be the just spoils of power. Why, defenders say, would a person endure the slings and arrows of public life if he did not get to enjoy unrestricted access to the trophies—i.e. nubile young women? That worked out very well for men for a long time. But things are a-changing. Women are beginning to enter the highest circles of power, and it is hard to imagine them accepting a playing field on which young women are presented as disposable sex toys.

In the French magazine Le Point, DSK defends his decision to indulge in free consensual behavior between adults, but then admits that “I was too out of step with French society.”

For Mr. Strauss-Kahn, that is ultimately le point. Even if he is not guilty of assault or soliciting prostitutes, his behavior is out of step not just with French society, but with the modern world itself.

What libertines and libertarians alike fail to recognize is that freedom has both negative and positive aspects. You may wish to be free from religious, legal, or moral restraints to your behavior, but that does not mean that you can simply brush aside the impact such behavior has on other human beings. In an organized society, we’re all in it together. Not just a few of us in the nude.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.