The week's news about the sexual conduct of politically powerful men gives me a queasy feeling of déjà vu.
As the French agonize over whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn's star power quashed past allegations, I can respond cynically: Yes, that probably happened. But we should not automatically assume that timelier reporting about Strauss-Kahn's sexually aggressive behavior (including an alleged violent incident in 2002) would have slowed the 62-year old Socialist's march towards the French presidency.
I speak from experience.
Eight years ago I was dragged scowling and complaining into an investigation of allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger–the leading candidate for governor of California–had sexually harassed and molested women, including those who worked on his movies.
A team of reporters for the Los Angeles Times, where I then worked, had been pursuing the story for weeks and was about to publish a first piece. With the election days away, I was pulled in. At the time I was deep into an investigative project about a troubled Los Angeles hospital that had a history of harming or even killing its patients. Digging into The Terminator's salacious back story seemed a tawdry detour.
But the orders came from on high. They needed someone adept at persuading reluctant sources to share traumatic or humiliating experiences. So out I went crisscrossing Southern California in search of women groped by the Republican candidate for governor. Some declined to speak. Others brusquely said nothing had ever happened.
But several reluctantly began to describe behavior that appeared to cross every imaginable line. As I interviewed these women, I came to believe in the importance of the story. They were strong, professional, independent people, women like me: competent and assertive.
Their experiences with Schwarzenegger were double humiliations. First they suffered through the acts themselves: demeaning–often public–groping, unwanted, invasive kisses, crude, belittling comments.
Far worse, they felt forced by circumstance to let Schwarzenegger behave badly—like an overindulged toddler, as one woman put it. A complaint against the bigger-than-life moneymaker could tank their careers. Not a single woman felt anyone would have taken their side or chastised the star.
The abuse of power—and the judgments underlying it—were relevant facts for Californians preparing to cast a historic vote. (As was Hollywood's repeated willingness to look the other way, but that is another story.)