By now you have probably heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to fathering a child with a household employee while he was married to Maria Shriver. You have also probably heard that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French economist and politician, has been accused of raping a housekeeper at a hotel in New York. At face value, these stories may seem unrelated, but we'd like you to look at them a little closer.
The reason that most companies have strict rules about intra-office dating, especially between a boss and a subordinate, is that, by nature, a power difference exists between a person and the person that he or she works for. The boss has the power to fire, reprimand, promote, give raises or other perks, or to make work life miserable for his or her employees. If an employee fears even for an instant that saying no to an advance made by her or his boss will result in a negative on-the-job consequence, it calls into question whether the act or relationship is truly consensual. The mother of Schwarzenegger's baby was his household employee. Because of the power he held over her merely by virtue of providing her paycheck (especially in a time when employment is harder and harder to come by), not to mention that he is a powerful man politically and because of his celebrity, we will never know if the relationship or the act that produced a child was truly consensual. We do know that Schwarzenegger has a history of being accused of violence and harassment toward women.
The woman accusing Strauss-Kahn of rape is making it clear that she did not consent.
These women are both domestic workers, and domestic workers all over the world are particularly vulnerable to violence. Just like in rapes, just like in domestic violence, assaults on domestic workers come from a place of unequal power and are able to continue because those using violence do not fear punishment. Just as scores of people, including Ben Stein in a truly abysmal article, rush to defend Strauss-Kahn against the accusations leveled by a women who, as Stein says, is "just a maid", most people in a position to stop violence against those who are vulnerable just can't bring themselves to believe "just maids" over the fine upstanding citizens who employ them. Violence against women happens to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels and is perpetrated by people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels. Yet, in both of these cases, the women in question are working class women of color, where the men are wealthy and white. Yet another difference in power as afforded by our society.
We're not the only ones who have noticed that men in power sometimes abuse that power, but instead of painting it as men "behaving badly", we call it what it is - a culture that perpetuates violence against women. If any man, powerful or no, thinks that he can get away with abusing women, he is more likely to consider doing so. That doesn't mean that all men will abuse their partners, but you're more likely to consider doing anything bad if you don't think you'll get punished. If a man also thinks that a woman's purpose is to please a man, or that women aren't as smart are as valuable as men, or that being a man means that you have to be in control at all times, or that being a man means using violence, he especially will take advantage of opportunities to violate women while escaping punishment. We have to challenge those mindsets, but we also have to make sure that men who use violence against women are punished. Otherwise they'll do it again and again and again, just as these men have been accused of doing.