Pascal Bruckner on America’s obsession with sex, and what it says about a nation with a Puritan past — and uncertain future.
A few years ago, we were on a family beach vacation in Florida. After a swim, my two-year-old daughter took off her bathing suit. Suddenly, the summer visitors began looking at us sideways. A few minutes later, a sheriff’s deputy equipped with an arsenal that could destroy an entire city, arrived and shouted at us that we had to get our daughter dressed again if we didn’t want to get fined. My daughter, who thought it was a game, started to run. We ran after her…and the sheriff ran after us. Finally, we caught her and laughed out loud, but the big man in uniform didn’t. In Uncle Sam territory, to be naked on the beach is forbidden, even for babies.
North America, obviously, has a problem with sex that comes from its Protestant legacy, which also has it giving the whole world lessons in morality. To describe America as a Puritan country is not enough because it is a double-faced Puritanism, which shifts with change in attitudes, uses the vocabulary of freedom and coexists with a thriving porn industry. More precisely, this is a prurient Puritanism.
What was the real point of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Clinton cases? They were a perfect vehicle to condemn eroticism in order to be able to talk more about sex. For weeks, even months, American people licked their lips over every intimate detail: about felatio, sperm, genital organs — always with a false indignation. The fact that the alleged victim’s lawyer Kenneth Thompson talked about the “assaulted” vagina of his client Nafissatou Diallo with obscene jubilation is a telltale sign of this phenomenon.
In the Bill Clinton case, can we really say that he was sanctioned because he lied more than because he had an affair with a White Houses’ intern? This is wrong of course because George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a far more serious deception, but was not condemned for it. If he had slept with his assistant, he would have been punished. But murders are apparently less important than extra-marital affairs.
It seems like the American media establishement, so swift to condemn France through one of our representatives, has already forgotten the tortures in Abu Ghraib: there were naked men piled on top of one another, or force to masturbate under the orders of Lynndie England, a woman sergeant who was keeping some of them on a leash. (It’s well known since Nazism that women who possess power don’t behave better than men) Torture exists everywhere, even in democratic countries, but only a country which has a problem with its sexuality can dream up such abuse. Besides, one can be surprised that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who are suspected of corruption and allowing violent police questioning, were not sued after 2008 by an American justice system that is always ready to condemn any minor sexual affairs.
To punish France because it didn’t want to get involved in the war in Iraq, for the Roman Polanski case, for the law on Islamic headscarves and the niqab; to punish France as a recalcitrant country that persists in its loose attitudes is the ultimate meaning of the DSK case at a time when America is failing, and looking for easy scapegoats to be blamed for their decline. For instance, in the July 19 issue of Newsweek magazine, the correspondent Joan Buck explains to her readers the archaic sexuality of French people: In barbaric France, female journalists have sex with all politicians, because they want to, but also because they want to be sure to get the right sources. From the gas station to the office, cashiers and secretaries must offer a blow job to their employers to keep their job. To her, all French women are “salopes” (bitches or sluts).
A strange alliance
The US is home to a peculiar phenomenon that never happened in Europe: American feminists have allied with the very conservative American right. These two forces united in the name of different interests to stop what was achieved in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the field of women’s rights. Feminist intellectuals such as Joan Scott, an expert in French-bashing, have become propagandists for the United State State Department. They are in charge of promoting the American way of life. This explains the moral McCarthyism that prevails in American society when it comes to the issue of love, and which has been denounced by the more clear-sighted Americans for a long time.
Since the 1990’s, any foreign male professor who comes to the US to teach at University has to respect strict instructions: He has to keep the door open when he receives a student, unless the conversation is recorded; he can’t take the elevator with a student; and of course, he can’t have a relationship with a student from the University even if she is over 21 and even if it’s consensual — otherwise he would be immediately expelled. Also with colleagues: one can’t have ambiguous conversations, or use inappropriate words, and must commit themselves not to have sexual intercourse with a collegue unless the two get married.
What does that really mean? It is clearly a furious condemnation of sexual pleasures by criminalizing the heterosexual act. Every man is a rapist, every woman may be a victim. The flattering remark is a first step to harassment, seduction is on the road to rape, gallantry is a euphemism to blur the man’s predatory moves. The flesh leads to corruption, desire is dangerous. Even if DSK was acquitted, he would remain guilty: his fault is inferred from his status. He is a rich, white European man. In other words, he is decadent. He is nothing but a compulsive attacker.
American politicians are also targeted by the media’s lack of discretion. The last two victims of this hunt were Anthony Weiner, a Democratic representative who was found guilty of sending pictures of his penis via Twitter to women he met online, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the father of an illegitimate son he had with his maid.
Any American can one day or another be subjected to stringent checks of this democratic inquisition. In France, an extra-marital affair is better understood than in America where it it seen as nothing less than a crime. The marital betrayal is like a national betrayal. It’s a violation of a pact that binds American citizens.
Let’s be clear, on both sides of the Atlantic, a rape is a crime, harassment is an offense. Everywhere, tensions between men and women, resulting from emancipation, prevail and sometimes intensify. But while in the US this coexistence always seems to be on the brink of a war, Europe seems more protected from this scourge thanks to an old tradition of conversation and tolerance of human weaknesses. France’s goal is to compromise with the heart’s ambivalence, “de-civilize” desire and respect people’s intimacy.
In the US, sexuality is the way from which each citizen potentially becomes the property of others. The private sphere disappears, transparency leads to hypocrisy and everybody watches everyone else.
The worst consequence of this DSK case is that, if it is confirmed that the complainant didn’t tell the truth, it would disqualify the real victims of rape who will be suspected of lying. Both the media and justice system will come out of this case with their stature reduced, even if the prosecutor Cyrus Vance honestly recognized from July that there were inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s version of events.
There’s little hope that after the judge dismissed the case, the biggest U.S. press organizations who lynched the former IMF Director before he was judged, would ever apologize.
To my fellow French who are planning to go to the United States: BE CAREFUL. If you ever want to flirt with an American citizen, male or female, you need to get an official document from them stipulating that you can enjoy their body. We have a lot to learn from our Americans friends, but certainly not the art of loving.