The casting couch and the governor's office

A litany of women claim they were victims of sexual assault by Arnie 'the octopus' Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger, by all accounts, is vastly enjoying life on the stump. He was bored, apparently, after 25 years on movie sets, and is much stimulated by being the front-runner in California's weird and wacky gubernatorial race. So galvanised is he by his new career that his wife, John F Kennedy's niece Maria Shriver, declared to him: "I haven't seen you this excited in a long time."

Perhaps sadly for Maria though, plenty of other women appear to have had fairly recent glimpses of Mr Schwarzenegger's excitement. An impressive list of lovelies have been cited in the past few days as having enjoyed a plethora of extra-marital thrills with the Austrian Oak. More disturbingly, a longer list of women have now claimed that they have all been the victims of sexual assaults from the man whose Hollywood-insider nickname is allegedly "the octopus".

Six people have been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, all offering a litany of droit-de-seigneur-style gropes and you-know-you- want-it-baby passes. Even though some of the allegations are decades old, the majority of the women wish to remain anonymous, apparently for fear of the damage to their careers an open accusation may invite.

There was a time when the mere whiff of such scandal would have killed all Mr Schwarzenegger's aspirations. But not any more. Mr Schwarzenegger's political supporters say that all this is merely an attempt by the Democrats to sabotage his chances of becoming governor, also pointing out that The LA Times opposes Arnie's candidacy. I'm not even sure, though, that allegations or even clear proof of sexual misbehaviour can derail political careers any more.

It's a long time now - nearly 20 years - since Gary Hart had to withdraw as the Democratic candidate because he had a mistress. We all know now that even a serving President caught with his trousers down need only withdraw as far as a dress from Gap. And though one might console oneself with the thought that Mr Clinton survived the Lewinsky affair because it was at least consensual, the rape allegations against Mr Clinton didn't make too much of a dent in his high standing either.

So maybe this strategy is a high-risk one. If Bill Clinton's exploits are anything to go by, tales of sexual incontinence actually attract democratic beatification. As for the Republicans, in California, such shenanigans may not put them off too much either. In fact, they might even reassure them.

Republicans are suspicious of Arnie, because he's rumoured to be pro-choice and pro-gay, even though his strategy is to keep quiet about any actual political beliefs except the banal ones about not taxing people. The US comedian Bill Maher went so far as to suggest that "if his father wasn't a Nazi he wouldn't have any credibility [with Republicans] at all." So who knows - tales of chauvinism and womanising might even bolster Mr Schwarzenegger with Californian Republicans, by confirmation that this is one area in which the great actor has no truck with political correctness.

Such an argument may seem counter-intuitive. But the people of California appear to believe that the person best qualified to sort out their fiscal crisis is a man whose most testing financial cogitation has been to wonder where the-next-but-seven $20m is coming from. There's nothing at all to suggest that logic, let alone moral probity, will have any impact on this latest great American political bunfight.

Not that Arnie is a real politician, of course. He's just an actor who decided on a chat show that he might as well run for governor. Nobody can imagine that Arnie's vote-catching appeal is rooted in anything other than his celebrity. And from the testimony of the women who spoke to the LA Times, there seems to be consensus that celebrities can and do get any with almost any kind of sexual misbehaviour they care to. Chances are, even celebrity politicians can weather such storms.

The women speaking out against Mr Schwarzenegger say again and again that his entourage ignored his behaviour, or encouraged it. And when they confided in others in the business, they too counselled that it was best to keep quiet.

Total silence hasn't, however, been maintained. Prior to these latest interviews, Mr Schwarzenegger's attitudes to women have been an issue on the campaign trail. Accused of misogyny, he has responded that he respects women and made past remarks in jest or in an attempt to be provocative. Nevertheless, rumours about his behaviour have been in circulation for years, and were published in 2001 in an article in the American film magazine, Premiere, under the title "Arnold the Barbarian".

Finally, a few women have been willing to speak out and be named. E Laine Stockton tells of Mr Schwarzenegger slipping his hand up her T-shirt, and cupping her breast at the gym they both attended. She told her husband, who was sympathetic but advised her to start exercising somewhere else. He didn't want to make a fuss because he felt it could damage his standing in the bodybuilding community.

Anna Richardson, a television presenter, tells a similar story. She looked around the room she was in with the actor, as he began making suggestive remarks, in an appeal for help from others. They turned aside and ignored his behaviour, as he touched and squeezed her breast.

Predictably, Mr Schwarzenegger's publicity manager is now making a counter-accusation, saying that Ms Richardson had instead invited such attention. This is what happens whenever women speak out against sexual misconduct, and it may be the reason why some of the women who claim to have been on the receiving end of unwelcome advances from Mr Schwarzenegger have stayed silent for so many years.

The most ghastly thing about this whole affair is that it feels like window-dressing. Perhaps it will build into a genuine controversy. Perhaps the people of California will change their minds about Arnie now that he has been accused so strongly of being a disrespectful sexual predator. That is what should happen. But there is every chance that the double standard, whereby powerful men are admired and protected for behaving like pigs, will prevail, and Mr Schwarzenegger's perceived glamour and undeniable celebrity will protect him from consequence.

The fact that such accusations can attract media attention can be seen as an indication that people do understand that such behaviour is reprehensible, and should be damaging to the men who consistently undertake it. But it can also be interpreted as a ritual, a little marker which declares that everyone, male and female, knows that such attitudes are wrong, even though there's little practical application any longer for such knowledge.

The vast majority of people, faced with a powerful man using his position to behave in this way, decide to cover it up, rather than expose it. This isn't just because they're frightened or ashamed, but also because they know that society is much tougher on such matters in theory than it is in fact.

The ghastly reason for this is that women are still resented for having achieved a measure of sexual freedom. Somehow, putting up with unwanted attention is the price we are expected to pay for revealing that sex is something that we enjoy too. Mr Schwarzenegger may or may not subscribe to this view. But if uncertainty remains, and he wins his ridiculous election, it will be a victory for people everywhere who hold such views.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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