Lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French economist and politician who resigned as head of the International Monetary Fund last year after he was charged with sexual assault, are now depicting his involvement in sex scandals on both sides of the Atlantic as the actions of a libertine.
“I long thought that I could lead my life as I wanted,” Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who no longer faces criminal charges in the United States but remains a suspect in an investigation into a sex ring in France, said in an interview.
To the American ear, the word libertine has an archaic ring; it’s not a term we would generally use to describe the dubious behavior of a major public figure. But the libertine has played a powerful if sometimes dark role on the stage of European culture.
Libertinism originated in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, but found its most celebrated and notorious exemplars in the 18th century. Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s invocation of libertinage — a life without moralistic limits — bears some striking similarities to the 18th-century credo of the man whose name became a synonym for libertinism, Giacomo Casanova: “I began to live truly independently of everything that could place limits on my inclinations. As long as I respected the laws it seemed to me that I could despise prejudices. I thought I could live perfectly free.”
Casanova’s notions were notably modern, for the “prejudices” and “limitations” he rejected were those of traditional religion and conventional morality. He believed that anything was acceptable that was not explicitly against the law. Faced with an alleged opportunity for a sexual encounter with a housekeeper in a Manhattan hotel room — as Mr. Strauss-Kahn was in May 2011 — he would not have thought twice about taking advantage of the situation. In the first volume of his memoirs, which enshrined his exploits for posterity, Casanova described meeting a girl who addressed him this way: “I am Lucie, the daughter of the gatekeeper. I have neither brothers nor sisters, and I am 14 years old… I will be your little maid, and I am sure you will be pleased with me.” Of course, he was.
Casanova’s insistence on freedom within the boundaries of the law reminds us that the definition of what is libertine, and what is legal, changes with history. For instance, Casanova’s interest in very young girls (and 14 was by no means the youngest) would be classified as a crime today, even if it was legally ambiguous in 18th-century Europe. Then, there were no elaborately codified statutes for the sexual protection of those who were defenseless, dependent or vulnerable to exploitation because of their youth and social status.
Take the case of one of Casanova’s Venetian contemporaries, who was charged with having sex with an 8-year-old girl. Upon his arrest, the man defiantly insisted on his right to lead his life as he wanted. He said, simply, “I am a free man.”
Furthermore, many of the extreme and brutal sexual behaviors valorized by people like the Marquis de Sade as “libertine” would probably be classified by psychiatrists today under the umbrella of sexual psychopathology. (The marquis himself died in an insane asylum.)
France has historically been more tolerant of sexual license in high places than the United States. But even Mr. Strauss-Kahn acknowledged that his conduct, which included sex parties, was “out of step” with contemporary French society.
In America, libertinism under other names has not always been an absolute obstacle to men in public life. In 1999, an American president who some might have called a libertine survived impeachment with more favorable public approval ratings than those of the current, and by all accounts, more virtuous incumbent. Other American political figures have found that libertinism cut short their political ambitions, as it clearly did in the case of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who might well be president of France today — were he not a libertine.
Casanova took pleasure in the retelling of his libertine adventures and assumed that readers might also enjoy them. Of course, as the narrator of his escapades, he controlled how they were presented. He did not have to worry, as the libertine does today, that the public exposure of his adventures in the modern media might be relished by readers not because they find him gallant and charming, but rather because they find him predatory and even ridiculous.
Larry Wolff, a professor of history at New York University and director of its Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, is the author of Paolina’s Innocence: Child Abuse in Casanova’s Venice.