The Plausibility of Strauss-Kahn's Alleged Sex Crime

The hotel's atmosphere and cleaning practices likely would not have prohibited the French politician from entrapping a maid within his room


Rob Young/flickr

I'm not sure whether the coincidence of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape allegations with the tabloid tale of Arnold Schwarzenegger's out-of-wedlock child was good luck or bad for Schwarzenegger. His decade-old escapade could either be eclipsed or exaggerated by the serious criminal charges against another reputed womanizer. But it wouldn't be hard to confuse the harassment allegations leveled against Schwarzenegger in the run up to his 2003 gubernatorial election with the rumors now surfacing about Strauss-Kahn's history with women. I don't take any of the rumors or formal and informal accusations at face value, but the confluence of these stories does indicate the thin line between evading a criminal sexual assault charge and incurring one. It's apt to be crossed when the alleged victim has little or nothing to lose by going public with an accusation.

Oddly enough, this means that a professional woman, embarking on or engaged in a high-status career, may be less likely to report an alleged assault by a powerful male than a woman with few professional opportunities or aspirations. Ambitious women sometimes refrain from reporting harassment by a persistent male superior for the same reasons that they sometimes give in to it. The young journalist who now claims she was assaulted by Strauss-Kahn in 2002 explains that she didn't air her accusation initially partly for fear of being professionally stigmatized by it.

A hotel maid may be more vulnerable to an assault, but she seems less vulnerable to victim blaming when alleging one. It's much harder to label her an ambitious underling who engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with a power broker and much easier to portray her as a helpless victim. You can measure the relative difficulty of discrediting the hotel maid's accusations against Strauss-Kahn by the idiocy of some efforts to do so.

Put aside the conspiracy theories, which seem a bit far-fetched, but what do I know? Bernard-Henri Levy asks "how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a 'cleaning brigade' of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet." Ben Stein can't understand how an unarmed man might "force" a woman to have oral sex, adding that Strauss-Kahn was "in a hotel with people passing by the room constantly."

Well, the Sofitel is a good hotel but not quite a grand one (it's not the Four Seasons or the Mandarin) and, as a regular guest there, I can attest that it is not common practice to send a "cleaning brigade" into the room (although fortunately, I am not among the "most-watched figures on the planet.") Having spent a night in the same suite or a similar one occupied by Strauss-Kahn (it was complimentary, the hotel was overbooked), I can also attest that people are not "passing by constantly." In fact, virtually no one passes by. The suite is at the end of a hall, and it is expansive, with a foyer, large living room, bedroom, and a long hallway between bedroom and master bath. A maid might easily knock loudly without being heard, enter in the belief that no one was home, and find herself trapped.

But whether or not you find the allegations in this case plausible, you might join the French in questioning the way it was publicized and decrying the familiar "perp walk," which is indeed hard to reconcile with a presumption of innocence. It is, in part, an exercise in public shaming, as Rudy Giuliani famously demonstrated as U.S. attorney in the 1980s when he pioneered gratuitously humiliating perp walks in white collar cases. If the charges against Strauss-Kahn stick and he is eventually tried, I wish him luck finding an unbiased jury.