WASHINGTON - Sex and power are no strangers. History is littered with tales of the powerful and privileged felled by sex scandals.
But make no mistake. If IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is found guilty as charged of attempting to rape a hotel maid in New York City, he would be in a league virtually of his own.
Few have been accused of a violent crime like Strauss-Kahn. The world financier and French presidential hopeful was charged on Sunday with criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and attempted rape in New York City after a hotel maid said she was assaulted.
"Politics and power and sexual harassment certainly have a long history," said Michele Swers, associate professor of government at Georgetown University. "This being an attempted criminal rape is, I think, of an order of a different magnitude."
There is no shortage of powerful leaders who fell from grace for affairs, prostitutes and groping. Sexual indiscretions have weakened governments and buried political careers on both sides of the Atlantic, today and in ages past.
Among the most famous is the Profumo scandal in 1963 in which a British war secretary was forced to resign because he had an affair with a prostitute linked to a Russian spy.
The Strauss-Kahn case raises some of the same questions that surface in any scandal where politics and sex intersect. Did the accused abuse power to engage in high-risk behavior, and did power make him feel invincible, above the law?
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, former US President Bill Clinton, ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and 2012 presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich are just a few of the powerful who have faced that kind of scrutiny, although none had to answer to charges of violent crime.
"Power is an aphrodisiac, as is well known, and we know as well that power in one sense is often presumed to be power in another sense," said James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome.
"So a person who is head of the IMF might think he can get away with anything. Certainly Berlusconi appears to think that way."
Berlusconi, 74, a towering figure of Italy's center right, is facing four concurrent trials for corruption, tax fraud and, most sensationally, sex with an underage prostitute and then using his office to cover it up. The sex charge followed years of rumors of his sexual misbehavior.
Strauss-Kahn is no stranger to these questions. In 2008, he was investigated by the IMF over possible abuse of power over a brief affair with an economist at the Fund who was his subordinate. The affair was consensual and he was cleared, but he apologized publicly for "a serious error of judgment."
France, like Italy, traditionally is quite tolerant of extra-marital affairs, unlike the United States. The out-of-wedlock daughter of former President Francois Mitterand attended his funeral. This time though, French politicians and the public were shocked. The charges "struck like a thunderbolt," in the words of the leader of the Socialist Party to which Strauss-Kahn belonged.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, is due to appear in court later on Sunday and his wife, a successful French media personality, has said she has "no doubt his innocence will be re-established."