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Lubricious puritanism

The alliance of US feminists and the religious Right in the DSK affair. By Pascal Bruckner

A few years ago we spent our family holiday on a beach in Florida. My daughter, two years old at the time, wanted to remove her swimsuit when she came out of the water, it was bothering her. Very soon a certain agitation started gathering among the other holiday makers who were sending us embarrassed looks. A few minutes later a sturdy sheriff appeared, armed to the teeth with an arsenal big enough to destroy a whole city, and barked at us that we would have to pay a fine if some clothes weren't put on the little girl right away. She however took this for a game and started running. We ran after her and the sheriff after us. We managed to catch her in a fit of laughter but the uniformed colossus was not amused. In the land of Uncle Sam, nudity is prohibited on the beach, even for toddlers.

America obviously has a problem with sex that stems from its protestant heritage, but it also wants to teach the world a lesson. It's not enough, though, to describe the country as puritanical because what governs here is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry. What we have here is lubricious puritanism: what, after all, was the point of the Clinton or Strauss-Kahn affair? To condemn eroticism all the better to talk about it, savouring the saucy details over weeks and months to evoke fellatio, sperm and genitals with false indignation. The obscene jubilation with which Kenneth Thomson called forth the bruised vagina of his client Nafissatou Diallo, speaks volumes. People say that in the case of Bill Clinton he was punished more for his lies than the affair with the White House intern. This is obviously not the case because George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, an infinitely more serious deceit, for which he was never prosecuted. Had he had an affair with his assistant he would have been condemned to the galleys, tied to the wheel and whipped. But blood crimes, it seems, weigh less than adultery. 

The media establishment across the Atlantic, which is so keen to condemn France through one of its representatives, seems to have already forgotten the torture in Abu Ghraib: clusters of naked men piled on top of one another or forced to masturbate on the orders of Sergeant Lynndie England and a string of her subordinates (women in power are no better than men, we know this since the Nazi era). Torture exists everywhere, even in democratic countries, but only a country so afflicted by its own sexuality could dream up such abuse. Astonishing too that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were suspected of corruption and inciting violent interrogation, were never pursued after 2008 by a justice system which is now so eager to punish even the most trifling amorous crimes.

To punish France for Iraq, for Roman Polanski, for the laws against the veil and the niqab, this recalcitrant nation which clings to its dissolute mores, to bring it back into line – this is the real reason behind the DSK affair, at a time when America has hit rock bottom and is looking for scapegoats to blame for its fall. One of a thousand examples? In the reputable magazine Newsweek on 29 July the journalist Joan Buck outlined to her readers the archaic nature of French sexuality: among the barbaric Gauls women journalists sleep with all the politicians, for the fun of it or to keep their sources happy, the droit de cuissage (the right to deflower any maiden) is an institution, offices are service stations where secretaries are expected to cater to their bosses every need if they want to hold onto their jobs, all people of the female sex are "sluts" and the country is permanently oscillating between the Marquis de Sade and Simone de Beauvoir.

We pinch ourselves, are we seeing things? No we're not reading an issue of Pravda from the Cold War. It's distressing that in France so much of the media, so many great minds were paralysed by the circumstances and called upon the nation to repent without first carrying out even a semblance of serious research. The nation has raised monsters at its breast, we must expiate the machismo in our genes.

Indeed the US has given rise to a phenomenon which has no parallel in Europe: a coalition of feminism and the Republican, ultra-conservatism of the Right. These two powers have united in the name of different interests, to put a lid on the freedoms won in the '60s and '70s. This is why so many feminist intellectuals, such as Frenchbashing specialist Joan Scot, have become all-out propaganda organs for the US Department of State, on a mission to promote the American Way of Life urbi et orbi. This explains the atmosphere of McCarthyist moralism surrounding all amorous exchanges and which has been alarming to more lucid Americans for some time.

Back in the early '90s – under the threat of immediate dismissal – strict regulations were issued to foreign male professors at the universities: never receive a female student in a closed room without recording the conversation, never enter an elevator alone with a female student and never enter a relationship with a female faculty member, even if she is a consenting adult. In the commercial workplace, too, working relations were subjected to a number of rules: tight-fitting clothes, suggestive talk and inappropriate remarks should be avoided and there should be no intimate relationships with colleagues unless they end in marriage. You may recall the University of Ohio at the beginning of the '90s where, with the backing of the leading feminist organisation of the time, plans were hatched to introduce a charta for intimate relationship between students. Every step in the process of getting to know one another more closely – touching breasts or not, removing tops and so on – was to be agreed on in writing beforehand and registered with an authority figure. Thankfully the suggestion was abandoned. But this crazed codex is the lot of a panicked society with no culture of love, which wants the desire police to watch over everything.

What's this all about? Redoubling the condemnation of pleasure and criminalising the heterosexual act: every man a potential rapist, every woman a possible victim. The compliment is the first stage of harassment, the flirt a step towards rape, gallantry a euphemism for predatory intent. The flesh is weak, desire dangerous. DSK has been acquitted but he remains guilty, his status is his offence: male, white, rich and European, for which read decadent. He is bound to be a compulsive aggressor. But it is not only the politicians who are persecuted in the US by media indiscretions (the two last victims of this hunt were Democratic congressman Anthony Wiener, found guilty of having posted photos of his manly assets to women online via Twitter, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fathered an illegitimate child with his housekeeper). Every American can be brought before the democratic inquisition. In France an adulterous affair meets with disapproval; in America, with condemnation. It is more than a lapse, it is an offence that merits judicial punishment and psychiatric treatment. Some support groups for men and women who have been cheated on compare the trauma that follows such escapades with 9/11. Marital treason is equated with national treason, it violates the pact that binds the nation. On the East Coast there is a daily morning TV show which reports cases of marital infidelity, combining the exposure of the unfaithful with the humiliation of the betrayed, and brandishing DNA tests of the children as evidence.

Let's be clear about this: rape is a crime on both sides of the Atlantic and the criminalisation of sexual harassment is progress. Tensions between men and women remain both here and over there even after emancipation and they come to a head every now and then. But while the coexistence of the sexes in the USA frequently seems to border on war, with wakeful lawyers hovering on the sidelines to empty the pockets of estranged spouses, Roman Europe seems to better protected from this scourge by an age-old culture of dialogue and tolerance of human weakness. France understands the conflict of the heart, it understands that desire is impure and can be civilised only with this knowledge. In the USA by contrast sexuality is a means by which one citizen can take ownership of another. Private life disappears, the imperative of transparency leads to the triumph of hypocrisy and to the surveillance of all by every individual.

If in the case of Strauss-Kahn it transpires that the plaintiff did not tell the truth, the disastrous consequences will be the that the real victims will be disqualified, under suspicion of lying or venality. Neither the media nor the justice system emerge superior from this affair, even if the District Attorney Cyrus Vance was at least honest enough to admit the evidence was scanty. There is no reason to hope that the big East Coast media companies, who lynched the former IMF director before he had been sentenced, will offer their apologies now that the case is closed. French tourists watch your backs when you fly across the Atlantic: if you should ever be seized by the desire to couple with one or other of the locals, make sure you get official permission first: your partner of choice, male or female, should confirm in writing that you have been allowed to enjoy their body. We can learn much from our American friends, but not when it comes to the art of love.


Pascal Bruckner, born in 1948, is one of the leading French
nouveaux philosophes. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. His works include "The Temptation of Innocence - Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Algora Publishing, 2000), "The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt" (The Free Press, 1986) "The Divine Child: A Novel of Prenatal Rebellion" (Little Brown & Co, 1994) Evil Angels (Grove Press, 1987)

This article originally appeared in Le Monde.

Translation: lp - let's talk european