French feminists debate response to #metoo

Submitted by SJW on 16 January, 2018 - 7:25 Author: Sarah Chiche for initial article. Response from the undersigned

Published by Solidarity for interest and information

It all started with a pretty stunning discussion with a publisher about a text that I had written, which is being published.

During this discussion, she said to me that these days it would be very unfashionable to speak so candidly about sexuality and love. And she followed this up by saying that, what’s more, a novel like The Sexual Life of Catherine M by Catherine Millet would almost certainly never get published.

I came away from this discussion feeling extremely shocked and dismayed... I called Catherine Millet, who called Peggy Sastre, who called Abnousse Shalmani. Catherine Robbe-Grillet quickly got involved. And we decided that we had to do something.

We quite agree that what was happening as a result of the Weinstein case, this heightened awareness of sexual violence against women, was a much-needed and legitimate act of speaking out. The problem is that unleashing all this speech has led to a lot of excesses. We are seeing a sort of series of kangaroo courts in which all sorts of things are amalgamated together.

We quite agree that sexual violence, sexual abuse, is a crime. Rape is a crime. But insistent or awkward flirting is not a crime. And gallantry is not a macho aggression either...

For you, this movement does not help women?
We think that it does not help women develop our autonomy. It helps the enemies of sexual freedom: on the one hand, religious extremists; and on the other, reactionaries who think that women are these separate beings, who, at the end of the day, just have to be protected...
And then, this wave of purges is bringing in its wake a resurgence of puritanism in the world of art. Just recently we heard about a producer who wanted to do a new version of the opera Carmen, at the end of which Carmen is stabbed by one of her lovers. He proposed that in this version, Carmen should stab the man, as a “homage” to the violence inflicted upon women. Is this a matter of a loose adaptation, to keep step with what’s happening around us today? One certainly wonders.

What is more serious is that it has been suggested that a nude by Egon Schiele should be censored on a poster, or that a painting by Balthus should be removed from a museum on the grounds that it is an apologia for paedophilia.

There was all this business at the Cinematheque, where people have called for a Polanski retrospective to be banned, confusing the man and his work... Some people have asked some of the co-authors of this platform to make our male characters less sexist, or to write less freely about sexuality or love.

Why not just write as an individual?
Because in the aftermath of the Weinstein affair, a solidarity has been created, through #metoo. It seemed important to us that another kind of solidarity be created, among women, to give voice, collectively, to a different idea. Without silencing, in a hateful way, the voices of victims. Several of the signatories know very well what sexual violence is...

What about getting men involved?
No. We never gave it a moment’s consideration. It seemed to us important to come together as women. Even though since that morning we have been getting a lot of letters from both men and women, thanking us. Many women also didn’t want to put their names to this statement for fear of being frowned upon by certain people. In particular I mean their colleagues, in light of the witch-hunt that’s going on. But for all that, we know that we have their support and we are grateful to them...
We are very troubled by this return of the moral order. It can also be seen in cultural productions. When you look at the films doing the rounds today, they are nice diversions, which offer a nice cinematic experience, or “feel-good books”. There is something very troubling and worrying lurking behind this desire for sterilised stories with happy endings, where all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

What were the first reactions?
I got a lot of men thanking us. But also a certain number of women who say: “I had no idea you were writing this text, I would have loved to sign it. Why didn’t you ask me?” There is a website where these women can join us.

We have also received a lot of very touching and intimate accounts from women about the violence that they have suffered and that they can’t support our platform for that reason. Once again, we understand these messages and respect these words. Simply, other messages also underline that this text is an invitation to think about ways out other than victimisation.

And then, there will be the normal parade of hateful, vengeful little phrases, of the kind that we are used to on social media. That is just a part of the game and hate is often an ill-formulated way of asking for love. And so one needs to pay careful attention to hateful words.

Are you inventing a new kind of feminism?
[Laughing] I don’t know. Yes. Maybe, maybe...
Simply, when I see women fossilising themselves, mummifying themselves in their victimhood, in that identity, because I write, I think to myself that perhaps my writing could be a way of showing them that another feminism, another way is possible... [Abridged]

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No such thing as a “right to bother” women

On January 9, 2018, while Oprah Winfrey was declaring at the Golden Globes, “We all have lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men… But their time is up. Their time is up!” — at that very moment, an opinion piece published in the French newspaper Le Monde by predominantly white, bourgeois women (who do not use gender-inclusive language) came to the rescue of these powerful men, making a case for their “right to bother” women.

They inform us that anyway, “accidents that can happen to a woman’s body do not necessarily harm her dignity.” And that “rape is a crime. But…” But what? “…hitting on someone insistently or awkwardly is not an offense, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”

Harvey Weinstein is not, that we know of, an awkward and timid man, a bit gauche, incapable of expressing his feelings. He is not a man reduced to a highly vulnerable state when facing women who would then have tried to express his desire in unfortunate attempts. It seems that the power dynamics — as well as the political, historical, and economic contexts that produce them — do not concern the upholders of a “freedom to bother,” who use as their very own personal experience as a sacrosanct excuse.

Yet, under the pretext of warning against a confusion between harassment, rape, and seduction, their text directly produces the said confusion... It works to undermine the word of millions of women from all social backgrounds who chose to speak out after an all too long silence, to share their experiences with the tools they have: social media. Thus, while claiming to be a call for vigilance, and an initiative for moral liberation, this op-ed only contributes to one thing: the reaffirmation of the dominant powers, calling for a return to the conservative order.

Similarly, invoking the threat of censorship at a time when what was silenced is being spoken and explicitly spelled out is a strategy to turn the tables of violence: in the eyes of the 100 signatories, the victims have become the perpetrators.

Did the signatories of Le Monde’s op-ed even read what they classify as a campaign of “denunciation”, or, with no fear of hyperbole, “a wave of purification”? Did they even bother to listen to what these women experienced? All the testimonies shared in the United States, France, and elsewhere since the Weinstein affair have been about violence, fear, dread, and shame. Everywhere, women have made it clear that they do not mistake consensual sexual relationships and seduction for the acts and insults they have been subjected to.
Where does this confusion come from? It certainly exists among those who see harassment as a standardisation of “heavy flirting”...

Here, the French “cultural exception” serves as an opportunity to recycle the accusation of “puritanism”, a French anti-feminist classic, used in this op-ed to reflect its clichés. Allegedly an American invention, feminism would contribute to one of the main wrongs of society: its puritanism and its prudishness... But of which sexual freedom are we talking about exactly? Or more precisely, who benefits from it? Who profits from the imperiousness of male desire? Where are the women’s desire and pleasure expressed and developed? Who gets subjected to the offense? Who is systematically bothered?…

Moreover, the fact that this op-ed is written by women results from a well-known strategy: to counterpose, against feminists, other women who would not yield to victimisation.
We are looking at is a rhetorical gesture that aims to disqualify the claim for equality by implying that those who fight for it are exaggerating, are “going too far”, or are “extremists”. Yet, this classical technique of delegitimisation of minorities (typically encountered when disqualifying the actions of racialised groups) is mainly used to ignore the logics of inequality structuring the society. Rather than admitting that certain groups are subjected to unequal treatment, it puts the blame on those who are suffering. It maligns the people who are pointing out such inequalities, and outlining that the current state of things is the product of history. And it opens the doors to challenging the foundations of our current political and social order.

Yet by testifying on social media, these women have on the contrary made a political choice — precisely the one of breaking free from their status of silent and isolated victims to which they were previously assigned — in order to participate in a collective and international rebellion. There is a deliberate revolutionary act in any criticism of the establishment, and the spontaneous nature of the testimonies published online reveals that this movement is one of self-defence...

We wanted to urgently respond to a reactionary rhetoric that seems all the more dangerous and harmful because it precisely prides itself on a false appeal to liberty. [Abridged]

Hourya Bentouhami, philosopher; Isabelle Cambourakis, publisher; Aurélie Fillod-Chabaud, sociologist; Amandine Gay, director; Mélanie Gourarier, anthropologist; Sarah Mazouz, sociologist; Émilie Notéris, author and queer theorist.

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