The Former Head of the IMF Is on Trial for 'Aggravated Pimping.' Here's What Aggravated Pimping Really Is

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn goes on trial to face a charge one expert calls 'a little far-fetched'

Strauss-Kahn, former International Monetary Fund chief (center right) arrives at court in New York with his wife Anne Sinclair on Aug. 23, 2011.

Photographer: Jin Lee

Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was in French court on Monday for his involvement in an international prostitution ring. The specific charge he faces is "proxénétisme aggravé"—widely translated into English as "aggravated pimping."

What does that mean?

Strauss-Kahn is accused of participating in orgies and escapades with prostitutes. And while his attorney told Europe1 that Strauss-Kahn wasn’t aware that any of the people he had sex with were prostitutes, that might not matter: Neither orgies nor prostitution are illegal in France.

But pimping is.

"In the U.S., we think of pimping as someone organizing prostitution and then taking a cut from a prostitute's earnings in exchange for protection," says Matthew J. Galluzzo, a French-speaking Manhattan criminal defense attorney who has followed the case against Strauss-Kahn closely. "My understanding is that you don't have to be profiting from the prostitution transaction under French law in order to be charged."

The distinction is notable. Prostitution is legal in France—"tolerated," as Galluzzo puts it. But police tend to frown upon those who attempt to organize prostitutes. That’s when pimping charges occur. Though the Washington Post quibbled with "aggravated pimping" as a direct translation from "proxénétisme aggravé," a Post reporter explained in 2013 that pimping charges can arise in France under three scenarios: when someone assists in prostituting another person, when someone makes a profit from prostituting others, or when someone leads a person into prostitution.

French prosecutors insist that Strauss-Kahn is guilty in the first and third such scenario. But what about the claim from Strauss-Kahn’s attorney that he wasn’t aware he had sex with prostitutes? (The quote: "He could easily not have known, because as you can imagine, at these kinds of parties you're not always dressed, and I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman.")

That may not matter either.

“The accusation is that he’s not just some john; he’s the number one customer,” says Frédéric Mégret, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal who specializes in international criminal law. “The accusation is that he’s responsible for pimping because these parties are organized for his benefit and he’s encouraging them.” In other words: “He’s creating the need for the existence of these orgies, these liaisons.”

And that leads to why the charge against Strauss-Kahn isn’t mere pimping— it’s aggravated pimping.

“What prosecutors allege is that he was participating in a kind of racketeering,” explains Catherine Parker, a French lawyer who now practices law in Los Angeles. “He didn’t just do this one time, with one person.”

So it wouldn't matter whether he knew the people involved with many of his sexual trysts were prostitutes or not; the mere fact that some of them were could make make him responsible for aggravated pimping—a charge of serial prostitution solicitation. 

“Some people say this is a bit of a far-fetched prostituting theory the prosecutors are trying out here,” Mégret says, noting that aggravated pimping of this sort isn’t an everyday charge in France. “It seems a bit weird and a little far-fetched, and it seems as though prosecutors are just trying to get him on something.” At the same time, he continues, “Weird cases push the limits of what is generally understood about criminal law. So if the prosecutor thinks he has a reasonable legal case and he can convince a judge as much, this sort of prosecution might not be so unusual in the future.”

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