The DSK Scandal: Transatlantic Reflections on Sex, Law, and Politics

Thursday & Friday, December 1 & 2

Cardozo School of Law (55 Fifth Avenue)
Institute of French Studies, New York University, at La Maison Française of NYU (16 Washington Mews)

With the co-sponsorship of IRIS (CNRS/EHESS) & Faculty of Law, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, and the support of UMI Transitions (CNRS/NYU)

Co-organized by Éric Fassin, Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, Julie Suk, Frédéric Viguier

From May 14 to August 23, 2011, from Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest to the day the penal charges against him were dropped by the New York City justice system, the sexual assault indictment initiated by Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation provoked extraordinary public attention throughout the world. While the penal case is now over, and regardless of what becomes of the civil one, or the French lawsuits that followed, this will certainly be an affair to remember: it will remain important in the years to come not only because of what happened, but also for what it has revealed about France and the United States, as well as its potential impact on both societies. Not only is the affair a mirror; it may also turn out to be a catalyst. Thus, it would not be a mere scandal, now behind us; the DSK moment could prove momentous.

This two-day academic conference, co-organized by French and American scholars and institutions, aims at interpreting the transatlantic dimensions of this event. On the one hand, the mutual misunderstandings revealed important differences between France and the United States – not only between the legal systems, but also between the media cultures, as well as the political ones. On the other hand, the political dimensions of the story – in terms of gender, class, and race, and even sexuality – did transcend such national differences. Many feminists were quick to point it out: exceptionalism (whether French or American) is irrelevant in matters of power. As a consequence, the necessary cultural approach must eschew culturalism. In particular, attention will be paid not only to the different languages used within each society (in particular in law, media, and politics), but also to the self-examination this confrontation occasioned, and as a consequence the transformations that may result on both sides.

The conference will be organized around three related panels to draw out the legal, political, cultural, and social implications of the DSK case in the United States and France.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

4 to 6:30 pm – Introduction/Welcome and Panel I Sexual Violence in Public Discourse (Moot Court Room, Cardozo School of Law)


Laure Bereni (CNRS)
Kimberlé Crenshaw (Columbia Law School and UCLA School of Law)
Amy Davidson (The New Yorker)
Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre)
Frédérique Matonti (Université Paris I – Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Moderator: Julie Suk (Cardozo School of Law)

This panel will address the media treatment on both sides of the Atlantic, not only of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, but more generally of sexual cases and scandals. It will include questions such as what is considered “fit to print,” how, and when, the revelation of names and pictures and the cultures of privacy, the issue of sources and leaks, the coverage of the United States in France (and vice versa), the investigative traditions and the relations between the media and the political class in both countries. To what extent are media practices with regard to rape victims driven by the law of privacy and/or freedom of the press? How is the legal disposition of a sexual assault case influenced by the media’s representations of it? Whose voice gets to be heard in the public when allegations of sexual violence are made against politicians and public officials?

Friday, December 2, 2011

10 am to 12 pm – Panel II Justice for Whom? Rape and Comparative Criminal Procedure (Moot Court Room, Cardozo School of Law)


Taina Bien-Aimé (Lawyer and Consultant to Equality Now)
Pauline Delage (IRIS)
Emmanuel Saint-Martin (France 24)
Julie Suk (Cardozo School of Law)
James Q. Whitman (Yale Law School)

Moderator: Paris Baldacci (Cardozo School of Law)

This panel will be devoted to comparisons of French and U.S. criminal procedure as they were understood throughout the DSK scandal –and how they are actually used by feminist activists in both countries. Discussions will cover such issues as the (infamous) “perp walk,” understandings of “the presumption of innocence,” and the mechanisms by which a rape victim’s credibility is evaluated. How do the victim’s past sexual and immigration history play out in each justice system? Do American “rape shield” laws (and exceptions to them) have French analogues? How did prosecutorial discretion and adversarial fact investigation affect the DSK case? Might a rape victim fare better with judicial investigation of facts and/or limited prosecutorial discretion? How significant was the American “beyond a reasonable doubt” criminal standard in the prosecutors’ decision to dismiss the DSK case? What are the legal problems raised by the prosecution of Dominique Strauss-Kahn initiated by Tristane Banon’s complaint in France? How do the different relationships between civil and criminal complaints in the two legal systems affect the trajectory of a rape case?

1:30 to 4 pm – Panel III The Politics of Seduction: The Role of Sex in Democracy (La Maison Française of NYU)


Delphine Dulong (Université Paris I – Panthéon-Sorbonne)
Eric Fassin (Ecole normale supérieure and IRIS)
Renée Kaplan (France 24)
Ruth Rubio Marín (European University Institute, Florence)
Joan Scott (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)

Moderator: Frédéric Viguier (NYU)

The DSK scandal is the latest chapter in an ongoing transatlantic debate about the politics of seduction. The French and American political cultures reflect different attitudes about the relevance of a politician’s sexual affairs to their ability to govern. The two legal cultures reflect different understandings of the line between seduction and sexual aggression. The concept of seduction might also inform the different concerns of French and American feminism, which have led to different policies to combat gender inequality. The United States has a robust law of sexual harassment, on the one hand, but France has laws requiring gender parity (known to Americans as “quotas”) in positions of political and social responsibility. Might the DSK moment narrow the gap between French and American understandings of seduction and gender relations in a democracy?