Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power. We know this already. The #metoo campaign very much had its origins in the criminal mix of these two things: the abuse of power to get sex. By the time the ripples of #metoo had reached European shores, the campaign had transformed from actresses only -club to a global phenomenon that encouraged all women to come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment.
Their experiences is what’s interesting. The first fundraisers for Oprah’s future presidency following her fiercely feminist speech (#metoo *tick*, #timesup *tick*) at the Golden Globes had barely been set up, when 100 French actresses, influencers and writers, fronted by Catherine Deneuve and author Catherine Millet, published a letter in Le Monde. Men should be free to hit on women without them going all witch-hunty and #BalanceTonPorc (French #metoo), they wrote. They argued that they themselves are “clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.” Clumsy, flirty men should not be hated and everybody should stop being so puritanical about sex.
(You bracing yourself for impact yet?)
Because impact there was. French feminists completely slammed Deneuve and her gang the following days. Over in the United Kingdom, the Guardian published an excellent opinion piece declaring that #metoo has absolutely nothing to do with witch-hunt (read it!). (Though I am not sure that the snark about “Deneuve, best known for having played a prostitute in Belle de Jour” was absolutely necessary, because she’s obviously played a host of other famous roles as well and is a formidable figure in the French cultural life. But anything to bring home a point, I guess.)
Then the other day, EU Politico published a study according to which 9 out 10 women in Brussels have experienced sexual harassment. That’s nearly all women, and would imply that a large part of men in Brussels are sexual predators. Can this be? Does Deneuve have a point that we’ve gone too far with declaring just about anything sexual harassment? Who decides what qualifies as sexual harassment? Is it enough if we experience certain behaviour as such – the burden of proof is in any case with women? What exactly are we addressing with #metoo and #BalanceTonPorc: right to sexual liberty or sexism and patriarchy more generally? Can the privileged Deneuve-gang really relate to what is is to be sexually harassed at workplace when you’re not a famous actress but say, a parliamentary assistant on a shitty contract, which very existence quite possibly depends on the goodwill of the predator? Are we risking the current debate slipping to the privileged actresses and influencers (where it admittedly started from) and let them define how we should perceive sexual harassment, or is the experience universal?
Do you have a vagina? If yes, do you want to be in charge of it? If you reply “yes” to both questions, congratulations, you’re a feminist! This is the old Caitlin Moran feminist-test, but I wonder whether we could apply it here, too. I feel weird with the suggestion that women should establish something of a ten-point rating system for acts of sexism and sexual harassment. Why should we come up with definitions for sexual harassment to justify ourselves? Already admitting that women carry a burden of proof shows the bias we’ve assumed: men carry on harassing (rule) and if women are to protest, they need to prove it happened (exception). Instead of wondering why women don’t understand how to react to men’s unwanted advances, people should be asking why men keep harassing. Often, so often, have I heard the “oh but come on, have a sense of humour!” or “If you cannot take this little bit of joking, you should maybe not work here”. For the record, I have a wicked sense of humour. It’s just that – it’s not the point.
The point I want to make is that the more we discuss whether women are allowed to feel offended when cat-called on the street, the more we accept cat-calling as a permanent feature of our society that those in the receiving end just have to adjust to. This obviously cannot be the case. Therefore I am not buying the Deneuve-gang’s argument of women just having to be a bit more “clear-eyed” so as not to “confuse things”. It’s basically the literary alternative to “boys will be boys”.
Speaking of, I discussed all the above three articles with a male colleague today. His verdict? “I know this sounds horrible after what we’ve just discussed, but it’s a man’s world. It’s a man’s world and it’s going to take like, I don’t know, another 2000 years to change because – that’s just how it has always been, since the beginning of humanity.”
I shall finish with this hopeful timing perspective as I am still at loss for words. Am dying to hear your take, though!
Pictured Maria Abramovic, Serbian performance artist, activist and feminist. The portrait was part of “We Have a Dream – About Courage, Compassion and Human Rights” exhibition at the Swedish Fotografiska Museum in early 2017. The portrait is taken by Albert Wiking.
(Caitlin Moran and Catherine Millet both write about women’s sexual liberty. I can recommend Moran’s “How to Be a Woman” and Millet’s “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”, both classics.)