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Dominique Strauss-Kahn in court in New York City in Monday. (Emmanuel Dunand/AP)
Dominique Strauss-Kahn in court in New York City in Monday. (Emmanuel Dunand/AP)

Russell Smith: On Culture

Philanderer, cad, lecher: Too many words, too much judgment Add to ...

It's actually the acrobatic flexibility of the English language that is undermining the presumption of innocence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In the confetti of news articles and broadcasts about the sexual assault charges against the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, such a colourful variety of synonyms for both womanizer and sexual predator have been used - usually in the same breath - that a visitor from another planet might conclude that all flirts are rapists.

Indeed, a recent article from ABC News ("Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Ladies' Man or Sexual Predator?", by Katie Moisse) baldly asserted this truth. It quoted supposed experts on the new American hysteria, "sex addiction" - honestly, what's next, a breathing addiction? - about DSK's alleged crime and suggested quite unabashedly that a man with a strong libido and a lot of power is quite likely to be a rapist, as "flirtation is on a continuum with these more extreme problems."

The pathologizing of the sex drive is nothing new in Protestant cultures. Let's talk instead about our fantastically varied terminology for sexually active men. Note that the nouns are all - with the possible exception of stud - pejorative. DSK is frequently referred to as a womanizer. Synonyms at the benign end of the list are skirt-chaser, ladies' man, lady-killer, playboy, player, Lothario, Don Juan, Casanova, Romeo, wolf and dog. These are all faintly humorous. To be called one of these is to be called merely embarrassing or ridiculous, not a violent criminal. A little bit further down the list come the implications of infidelity and callousness (philanderer, cad, gigolo, manwhore) and then of dissipation (libertine, rake, roué, reprobate, degenerate, profligate, debaucher) and then of ugliness or ickiness (satyr, lecher, sleazebag).

Age demands a subclass of insults too: A man over 50 with a lot of girlfriends is a dirty old man or a pervert. Hugh Hefner has not been accused of being a `rapist, but the very idea of his indulging his libido can cause revulsion and derision, particularly among women.

Then, at the bottom of the ladder come the implications of coercion or assault: groper, frotteur, predator, rapist. There are some colourful slang terms in Britain: An octopus is a guy whose hands go everywhere on you; he's also known as an MTF (must touch flesh).

Nouns for sexual liaisons also carry differing moral overtones: DSK's extramarital affairs have been described as dalliances (not so bad), indiscretions (cringe-making), philandering (totally bad) or, in the most common media catch-all, inappropriate. Inappropriate is a usefully vague term for all kinds of misdeeds. It suggests wrongdoing without an accusation of a specific illegality, and is often used by politicians in carefully worded apologies ("While my accepting the envelope of cash in an bus-terminal washroom was in no way illegal, it was in hindsight inappropriate"). The hiring of prostitutes by powerful men is usually called inappropriate rather than illegal because the legal status of prostitution varies so widely among regions - the implication is that the act is immoral regardless of whether it is accepted by law.

DSK may have committed sexual assault; we won't know until the case is tried. My point is not about his guilt or innocence, just that using all these words as moral equivalents is to be alarmist and sanctimonious. The moral import of sexual behaviour can be adjusted in the other direction too, by lighter language: Arnold Schwarzenegger, another aggressive guy who is going to have to claim "sex addiction" and do a penitent stint in rehab any day now, famously responded to accusations of assaults by admitting that he had not always "behaved well." That's a careful toning down, a floral euphemism for some nasty actions.

And, yes, of course this moral/linguistic problem applies to women's activities as well: Of all the dozens of words we have to label sexually voracious women, I can't think of a single one that is not pejorative. I remember in junior high, the word "perv" was enthusiastically applied to anyone who expressed sexual thoughts of any kind. I wonder if contemporary views have moved at all from the confines of those overheated classrooms.

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