Sexual manners and the Left

Monday 18 July 2011

The French Socialist Party loves Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Even more people love Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, although only a hundred of his supporters were invited to his 40th birthday bash a few days before his court appearance last week; starry figures on the Left turned up to toast Assange at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, where he’s lived under house arrest since he found himself fighting extradition to Sweden to answer sex allegations. Assange and Strauss-Kahn are now waiting for courts in the UK and US to announce their fate, although in France the PS has at least conceded that the former head of the IMF won’t be its candidate in the next Presidential election.

These two stories, playing out thousands of miles apart, expose a longstanding problem about the Left and its approach to sexual mores. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, accusations of rape/attempted rape. It’s obvious that there are other behaviours towards sexual partners that most observers would find offensive, while stopping short of outright criminality. So why are some well-known people on the Left willing to behave as though neither man has serious questions to answer about his private conduct? I’d like to think that some of the guests at Assange’s birthday party had second thoughts when they heard his own barrister’s summary of the allegations against him last week, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And it took until last weekend for DSK’s hopes of returning to the highest level of French politics to be finally dashed, following new claims in a French magazine. According to an article in Le Point, DSK has told his wife Anne Sinclair that he had sex with three women, including the maid who has accused him of trying to rape her, during his stay at the Sofitel in New York. The magazine attributed a startling quote to a friend of Sinclair: ‘So it wasn’t just one for the road before the Presidential campaign, it was three’.

Previous reports had suggested that DSK propositioned two members of hotel staff, including a receptionist, before his encounter with the maid. He continues to insist he had consensual sex with her but he now faces allegations of attempted rape from a French journalist, Tristane Banon, who claims he tried to force her to have sex when she went to interview him in 2002. (My analysis of Banon’s allegations was published in the Independent on 6 July and can be read on this site, along with other articles about DSK.)

At the same time, more detail has emerged about the allegations against Assange, coinciding with a dramatic change of tactics on the part of his (new) legal team. On the first day of his appeal at the High Court against extradition to Sweden, his counsel Ben Emmerson made a point of not attacking his client’s accusers. He said:

‘Nothing I say should be taken as denigrating the complainants, the genuineness of their feelings of regret, to trivialise their experience or to challenge whether they felt Assange’s conduct was disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing at the boundaries of what they felt comfortable with.’ [My italics]

The next day Clare Montgomery QC, who represented Swedish prosecuting authorities, laid out allegations about Assange’s sexual encounter with a woman known as AA on the night of August 13 last year. The woman was a supporter of WikiLeaks and had agreed to allow Assange to stay at her apartment where, Montgomery told the court, she claimed that ‘the prelude to the offence was Mr Assange ripping her clothes off, breaking her necklace, her trying to get dressed again and then letting him undress her’.

Assange’s own counsel, Emmerson, summarised AA’s allegations on the first day of the hearing:

‘The appellant’s physical advances were initially welcomed but then it felt awkward because he was “rough and impatient”….AA was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her….AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom….she did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together to avoid a penetration….

‘AA tried several times to reach for a condom which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and try[ing] to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly’.

Whatever the outcome of extradition proceedings, these are hugely disturbing allegations. The risks of HIV-transmission are well-known and it’s incontestable that anyone, male or female, is entitled to a change of mind if a sexual partner refuses to use a condom.

Admirers of Julian Assange often describe him as ‘heroic’. There is also a (diminishing) band of supporters who think that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behaviour towards women has no bearing on his fitness for public life. They’re wrong: the political is personal and sexual manners have changed since the 1970s.

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