The DSK “Medical” Defense

The DSK 'mental problems' defense doesn’t fly, argues Leslie Bennetts.

Xinhua / Landov (left); Richard Drew-Pool / Getty Images

Ever since the beginning of recorded time, cultures all over the planet have argued about the ever-fraught relationship between male lust and female consent. This week the former prime minister of France, Michel Rocard, added a new dimension to the age-old debate with a fresh take on Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged attack on Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault last May. It wasn’t the devil that made him do it, according to DSK’s fellow Frenchman; it’s just that he’s nuts.

In a live television interview on Monday night, the 81-year-old elder statesman of the French Socialist party declared that it was “clearly medical problems” which provoked DSK’s behavior. “This man quite obviously has a mental illness that makes it difficult for him to control his urges,” Rocard said. Oh, really? Now, there’s an interesting thesis—one with all kinds of far-reaching implications.

After the alleged rape was reported, the DSK case became mired in such a confusing tangle of developments that prosecutors in the New York District Attorney’s office finally decided to drop the case, citing the maid’s contradictory testimony and previous history of deception—even though a close reading of the recommendation for dismissal reveals no indication that prosecutors believed the maid was lying about having been assaulted by DSK.

DSK’s history is also problematic, judging by the accounts of other women who came forward to accuse him of additional incidents involving sexual harassment, sexual aggression, and forcible assault. Chief among them is Tristane Banon, a journalist who charged that DSK attempted to rape her during an interview in 2002, when she was 21 years old. Banon described DSK as having assaulted her “violently” and of behaving “like a rutting chimpanzee” despite her strenuous physical resistance.

Although she said, “We ended up fighting,” her mother, Socialist Party politician Anne Mansour, convinced Banon not to press charges at the time. Nearly a decade later, when DSK was arrested for the Diallo incident, Banon filed a complaint, and last month the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into the case. DSK’s attorneys promptly filed a countersuit for slander.

Even DSK’s admirers have long viewed him as sexually voracious; his wife said she’s proud of his reputation as a seducer, and DSK reportedly had or tried to arrange several other assignations with different women in the hours leading up the alleged attack on Diallo.

But when a horny guy keeps trying to bed one woman after another, is that the result of mental illness? Or is Rocard’s “diagnosis” merely a cop-out that excuses misogyny as a medical affliction while minimizing the role of personal responsibility, not to mention choice? Seduction isn’t rape, and rape isn’t seduction; rape is a crime as well as a violation of women’s autonomous right to choose when, how, and with whom to have sex.

Rocard’s explanation for DSK’s behavior may well find favor with those who believe in the existence of sex addiction, a diagnosis that remains highly controversial even within the medical community. Some experts believe that hypersexuality—a condition characterized by sexual urges, behaviors, or thoughts that appear extreme in frequency or that feel out of control—is a genuine addiction comparable to those involving drug or alcohol abuse. In men, hypersexuality was traditionally called satyriasis, while similar behavior in women was described as nymphomania. Symptoms of sex addiction are said to include a recurrent failure to control such acting-out and continuing to engage in it despite harmful consequences.

Inevitably, in a world of innumerable 12-step programs, the sexual addiction paradigm has spawned an array of support groups that range from Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, and Sexual Recovery Anonymous to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. When celebrities who can’t keep their pants zipped get caught out, treatment for sex addiction has become the automatic PR strategy for image rehab, with patients reportedly ranging from Anthony Weiner to Michael Douglas and David Duchovny.

But sex addiction is not included in the current version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, and sex experts disagree about whether such behavior constitutes an actual addiction. Nor is there any consensus on what causes it, although many therapists view hypersexuality as an element or symptom of such other psychiatric conditions as obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and manic-depressive illness or bipolar disorder.

Any analysis of sexual behavior is subjective, however, which makes sex addiction a difficult hypothesis to measure or test. It’s also impossible to divorce such behavior from its cultural context. Women have been considered property for much of human history, available to be bought and sold and appropriated by men as the spoils of war, in which rape remains a pervasive tactic. In their book Half The Sky, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, estimated that at least three million people are held in sexual slavery today, the overwhelming majority of whom are women.

Even in America, justifying a disease or disorder model for sexual hyperactivity presents a formidable challenge, given our culture’s tendency to view so-called testosterone poisoning as a punchline rather than a suitable entry in the DSM. When it comes to the male drive to have sex with as many females as possible, as often as possible, the majority of men throughout the history of the world might be considered to have suffered from sex addiction.

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In contemporary society, however, the paramount question is how men go about trying to achieve this goal. The ancient image of cavemen dragging women by the hair to have their way with them may seem like a cartoon to modern observers, but you don’t have to look farther than New Haven for present-day manifestations of the same attitude.

Last October, members of George W. Bush’s old fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, gathered pledges near the women’s freshman dorms at Yale University to chant: “No means yes! Yes means anal!” When it comes to recognizing a hostile sexual environment, the new crop of female coeds doubtless got the point even before the frat boys moved on to a rousing chorus of: “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen!”

Yale eventually responded by banning the fraternity in question for five years. It’s tempting to view such incidents as aberrations that receive appropriate punishment, but any serious consideration of male sexual behavior would suggest otherwise. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in six American women have experienced attempted or completed rape—a startling figure even if you overlook the fact that the actual frequency of sexual assault is undoubtedly far greater.

The American Medical Association has described sexual violence, particularly rape, as the most under-reported violent crime, and some studies estimate that up to 95 percent of rape crimes are never reported to police. The most common reasons cited by victims include the fear of reprisal from their assailants—including the kind of character assassination unleashed by DSK’s high-powered lawyers, friends, supporters, and consultants on his accusers. That explanation would surely resonate with Nafissatou Diallo, who was branded a “hooker” by The New York Post, and with Tristane Banon as she deals with the slander suit DSK filed against her for having the temerity to report that he assaulted her.

Although she was less than half his age, Banon was not a minor at the time. But many victims of sexual assault are children; according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, more than 60 percent of American rape victims are raped before the age of 18, and 29 percent of all forcible rapes occurred when the victim was less than 11 years old. The NCVC also reported that nearly half of children who are raped are victims of family members; incest is the most common form of child abuse, and estimates suggest that more than 10 million Americans have been victims of incest.

But whether the perpetrators are fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, dates, or strangers, research shows that up to 99 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by males. So if millions of women and heartbreaking numbers of children have been raped, are all the men who committed those acts crazy? When a man slips a date-rape drug into a young woman’s drink and violates her after rendering her comatose, is he mentally ill? Can the same be said about the two New York City cops who returned three times to the apartment of an inebriated woman but were ultimately acquitted of raping her while she was unconscious, even though one was subsequently recorded assuring her that he had used a condom?

Whatever a man’s mental state, such acts are also the product of an entirely different problem. The real issue with DSK and so many other men is not the desire for sex, no matter how urgent, but the way they get it.

A man who feels compelled to have sex multiple times a day is indulging in a habit that affects only himself (and his partner, if he’s concealing such behavior), as long as the sexual events are consensual acts between sentient adults. Even if a man purchases sex with extreme frequency, as long as he’s not using underage prostitutes, he is confining his gratification to agreed-upon acts with other grown-ups. If his behavior is self-destructive, that’s his problem.

But if a man forces women to engage in sex acts and resorts to aggressive or violent behavior when they resist, he is a sexual predator who is guilty of a criminal offense. And the commission of such crimes is fundamentally rooted in social attitudes that assume men’s right to get sex from women whether or not the women want it.

In an essay called “Supremacy Crimes,” Gloria Steinem noted that “hate crimes, violent and otherwise, are overwhelmingly committed by white men who are apparently straight. ... White males—usually intelligent, middle class, and heterosexual or trying desperately to appear so—also account for virtually all the serial, sexually motivated, sadistic killings, those characterized by stalking, imprisoning, torturing, and ‘owning’ victims in death.”

In trying to understand such depredations, Steinem added, “Our national self-examination is ignoring something fundamental, precisely because it’s like the air we breathe: the white male factor, the middle-class and heterosexual one, and the promise of superiority it carries...We will never reduce the number of violent Americans, from bullies to killers, without challenging the assumptions on which masculinity is based: that males are superior to females, that they must find a place in a male hierarchy, and that the ability to dominate someone is so important that even a mere insult can justify lethal revenge.”

When a man assumes he has the right to obtain sexual gratification from an unwilling woman who doesn’t want him, that’s not a medical problem—it’s a cultural problem. When a man drugs a woman or overpowers her or threatens her with bodily harm or the loss of her job if she doesn’t cooperate in satisfying him, he is acting out of a powerful sense that he’s justified in behaving that way.

The ultimate reason for the astounding pervasiveness of sex crimes is a culture that creates, encourages, perpetuates, and excuses male entitlement, no matter what the cost to other human beings.

And so far no psychopharmacologist or 12-step program has figured out a cure for that profoundly destructive social disease.