So, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chief of the International Monetary Fund, is charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid. And, it turns out, he's been aggressively horndogging female underlings for years.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger admits to fathering a child with his family's housekeeper. You may remember that shortly before the 2003 gubernatorial election, 16 women told the Los Angeles Times he'd sexually humiliated or harassed them — for instance, walking up to a crew member on a movie set and pulling her breast out of her shirt.
Are we shocked? Come on. These are powerful men behaving unsurprisingly.
Why is such behavior so unsurprising? Put another way, why can't powerful men keep their hands off powerless women?
One possibility: They're accustomed to screwing the powerless. Professionally, it's what they do.
At the IMF, Strauss-Kahn routinely imposes on debtor nations austerity programs whose measures devastate the poor and, often, fatten the stock portfolios of the wealthy.
In California, also in the name of austerity, the Governator this year presided over the near-elimination of the state's welfare-to-work program and its childcare for the poor. No "economic girly-man," Arnold.
Another explanation: These guys are exhausted by equality. After all, being the male half of a power couple can be taxing. Strauss-Kahn is married to Anne Sinclair, a TV host known as the French Larry King. Schwarzenegger wed American political royalty. The wives of other highly placed men who fancy sleeping down — Silda Spitzer, Hillary Rodham Clinton — are hardly slouches, either.
Here's my theory: In contemporary life, there is no such thing as simply being powerful. That went out with monarchy, when the king or queen personified the state — indeed, was the state's singular person, of which everyone else was a constituent part: the body politic.
Today, power is not something you are. It is something you have, but only if you exercise it. Like a muscle, it atrophies with disuse. Women's bodies are a convenient place to flex.
Power's instability makes it a kind of vulnerability for a person, an institution or a nation. The powerful live in fear of unrest, overthrow or irrelevance. Constant enactments of authority and entitlement — such as pulling a breast out of a blouse, just because you feel like it — are the routine maintenance of power. The powerful individual must demonstrate power even when no one (or, in the case of rape, no one "important") is looking. He has not only to show everyone else how powerful he is but also to remind himself of the fact.
Men and women both manipulate sex to wield power, but men do it in a way that is consonant with worldly power: by taking, not seducing to be taken.
In fact, sexual taking is synonymous with masculine power. In feudal times, the droit du seigneur was the lord's "right" to take the virginity of his serfs' daughters. Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger carry on that tradition in political cultures founded on liberty. The former is an unapologetic libertine, the latter a libertarian. They believe in liberty — taking liberties — for themselves.
These two men present themselves as lovers of women. But they love women as a person loves a car: as an instrument. Indeed, to hold power is to use other people as your instruments. And for powerful men, women are multipurpose instruments — useful for pleasure and social enhancement and as props in the feats of social and political derring- ?do that these men seem compelled to undertake.
To mess with a woman obviously below your station and get away with it is like handling a suicide bomb without letting it explode. It's also a dare to other powerful people to make a big deal over such a trivial thing as sexual harassment. (Schwarzenegger was elected. Strauss-Kahn, in spite of widespread knowledge of his sexual aggression, was on his way to France's presidency. Clarence Thomas was confirmed.) The irony in Strauss-Kahn's case, as Katha Pollitt pointed out in the Nation, is that, while his cronies have stood by him, DSK was brought down by a woman so marginalized she might not even have known who he was.
It would be easy to dismiss these guys as sickos — people with major impulse-control problems. Too easy. Getting things done when you're running a global monetary super-institution or the most populous state in America often requires strategically holding one's tongue, or desires, in check.
When one of the world's most powerful men forces a maid to her knees, it is not because he can't help himself, or even because he desires her. He does it because he can — and that is the alpha and omega of power.
"Poli Psy" is a twice monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.