Lost in translation: Was Strauss-Kahn really charged with ‘aggravated pimping’?

July 26, 2013

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been charged by a French court for his alleged role in a 2012 prostitution ring in the French city of Lille. Prosecutors say that Strauss-Kahn held parties in hotel rooms where women were paid to sleep with the party-goers, thus making him complicit in prostitution.

But the name of the charge against him may have gotten slightly garbled in translation from French to English, giving an impression of the state's case and the alleged crime that might not quite match up with what's actually happening in France. It's not clear where the phrase originated, but many English-language outlets are describing the charge against him as "aggravated pimping." A quick look at the actual French law, though, shows that a better description might be "abetting sex trafficking" or, more precisely still, "an aggravated charge of abetting sex trafficking."

The original, French name for the formal charge against Strauss-Kahn is "proxénétisme aggravé." That translates most literally as "aggravated procuring," although, in the legal context, the word proxénétisme is implied to be procurement related to sex trafficking.

There are two French laws to understand here. The first, article 225-5 of the French penal code, defines proxénétisme as one of three crimes: (1) to aid or assist in the prostitution of others; (2) to procure some financial gain from the prostitution of others, or; (3) to lead or hire someone into prostitution. In other words, it generally describes crimes for abetting an act of prostitution. It is not quite best described, as the word "pimping" might imply, as the direct selling of human beings for sex.

The second law is the aggravated charge of proxénétisme, which is what Strauss-Kahn was charged with, defined under article 225-7 of the French penal code. A charge of proxénétisme can be bumped up to aggravated proxénétisme under several conditions: if the people trafficked for sex are minors, for example, if they're members of a vulnerable population such as the mentally disabled or if they were trafficked under the threat of force.

In Strauss-Kahn's case, the charge was elevated because it allegedly met two separate conditions for being aggravated: one, many people were sold into sex, and; two, their prostitution was organized by a group of accomplices. (Strauss-Kahn's lawyers argue that he was unaware that the women had been paid or had previously done sex work, which would obviate the charges if true as paying for sex is not a crime in France.)

So, when French prosecutors say Strauss-Kahn is being charged with "proxénétisme aggravé," they mean something a bit closer to "aggravated charge of abetting in sex trafficking." Pimping, after all, means to sell people for sex. The word "pimping" is also, and this is important as well, not a legal charge but a colloquialism typically used to glorify the practice of selling human beings for sex. The French legal code describes the selling of human beings for sex using a legalistic word that does not glorify the practice. That's an important point, one that is unfortunately lost in the now-common English-language translation of Strauss-Kahn's charges.

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Max Fisher · July 26, 2013