The #MeToo movement, first sparked by allegations against Hollywood heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein, has shown Americans just how many of us are survivors of sexual violence. Not only did #MeToo empower women to talk about our experiences with abuse and harassment, but it also inspired many employers to work toward creating a safer, more equitable workplace.
Most Americans appeared to be receptive to this revelation, but apparently the same can't be said for the French. At least that's how it seemed after a group of 100 prominent French women signed an open letter in the French newspaper Le Monde in January of this year, calling the movement a "hatred of men and sexuality."
French actress Catherine DeneuveThe Guardian
On top of their claims that it's anti-men, these women noted that #MeToo attempts to make seduction shameful and frames women as "eternal victims." Among the co-signers were actress Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Millet, who authored a best-selling novel about sex, and conservative women like Elisabeth Lévy, editor of Causeur magazine.
Part of the letter reads: "As women, we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which goes beyond denouncing abuse of power and has turned into a hatred of men and of sexuality … Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even awkwardly, is not. Nor is being gallant a macho aggression ...
"It is the nature of puritanism to borrow, in the name of the supposed collective good, the arguments of the protection of women and of their emancipation to better chain them to their status as eternal victims; poor little things under the control of demonic phallocrats, like in the good old days of witchcraft."
It is here that I, as an American feminist, take issue with their fundamental misunderstanding of #MeToo — and survivorship.
For most of us in the United States, it's hard to find fault in something that feels so pure. Women live their lives with the awareness that there are men who want to hurt us. They're in our families, our friend groups, workplaces, and even among strangers. For many of us, it feels good to talk about our experiences and fears out loud.
The idea that asking to be treated better, to be seen as more than sexual objects for men to attempt to "conquer," turns us into perennial victims is absurd. The only thing that turns a woman into a victim is an abuser making the choice to harm her. In that vein, the only thing that makes women seem like we are always victims is the astounding prevalence of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment put upon us by abusers and a culture that excuses them.
This thinking also proposes that a fundamental aspect of femininity is being desired, while masculinity is inextricably tied to pursuit. This is a dangerous binary for women, and a limiting one for men.
When we expect that seduction is a natural part of how men interact with women, we place a massive burden upon women. Implying that men have some fundamental right to try to seduce us asks us to endure unwanted, inappropriate, and sometimes illegal sexual interaction. It places no responsibility upon men to control themselves or to even have empathy for the women they're trying to seduce. This type of thinking places more value upon men's right to seduce us than our right to feel safe and be treated as equals.
See, my husband has never had to worry about sexual harassment in the workplace. He's been working different jobs for 35 years, but he's never once considered how an outfit he is about to put on might cause his colleagues to sexually harass him. He's never worried that he might have to endure uncomfortable, inappropriate come-ons in order to keep his job.
In contrast, I've worried about these things in every male-dominated job I've ever had. In fact, my first experience with sexual harassment in the workplace happened when I was only 17 years-old. My boss was in his forties. I didn't report it or even tell my parents, because I believed it was normal for men to behave that way.
I'm far from alone. While there is a glaring need for more research in this area, one study determined that 81% of women have been sexually harassed. For generations, we have been taught — either overtly by our parents and teachers or implicitly through our own experiences — that being harassed is the price we pay for being in the workplace, school, or out in the world.
Teenage girls in school are groped, catcalled, and harassed by boys in classrooms and hallways. Sexist dress code policies imply that their bodies tempt boys into distraction, suggesting that boys simply cannot control themselves. Most women and girls have dealt with stalking, harassment, and sometimes even outright violence from strangers attempting to "seduce" them on the street.
The French women who wrote the open letter against #MeToo mention that many of the stories in this movement haven't featured an imbalance of power, as was the case with Harvey Weinstein. These French women make clear that they are against rape or men who abuse their power. But if you ask me, unwanted sexual attention from any man — whether he's your boss, classmate, or just a guy on the street — can feel like an abuse of power.
In our society, men, particularly white men, naturally hold positions of power over women. This begins with the fact that men are often physically larger and stronger; but, additionally, men are also more likely to be police officers, security guards, judges, and even legislators. So while the man or boy who harasses you may not necessarily hold formal power of you, he will likely evade prosecution due to the fact that he's part of a system designed to protect men.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of power when it comes to intersecting privileges. For instance, a white woman accusing a Black man of rape or violence holds an extraordinary amount of power. Despite the fact that 90% of rapes happen intra-racially (wherein the victim and perpetrator are of the same race), the disparaging stereotype that Black men are sexually violent toward white women has proven to be deadly for Black men and boys, resulting in staggering rates of wrongful convictions and vigilante violence.
Such was the case for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was accused of making sexual advances towards a white woman in 1955 and subsequently lynched. According to one historian, the white woman in question admitted in 2008 that she had lied about the boy touching her or talking suggestively. Of course, by then, it was decades too late.
Still, considering that the majority of sexual violence occurs between individuals of the same racial group, the men who choose to harm women generally hold more societal power than women do. This creates a scary world for women who wish to report their abusers or harassers.
Considering how likely men are to protect one another, asking the world to become a safer place for women doesn't present us as "eternal victims," as the French dissenters propose. It simply demands that women be treated as equal members of society, with the same freedoms to move through the world safely and free of harassment that men possess. And despite what the French #MeToo dissenters may have expected, the movement seems to have helped French women.
Protest in France The Atlantic
According to a report by France24, "Reports of sexual violence surged between 23 and 30 percent in October 2017 from the year before...The increased number of complaints has been widely attributed to the movement for encouraging victims to speak out." France has also enacted a new law that makes street harassment illegal, which has led to the successful prosecution of a man who called a woman a "whore" on the street and groped her buttocks. The man was fined and was sentenced to time in jail, becoming the first person convicted for "sexist insults" in France.
None of this is to say that #MeToo is the end of romance, either. Rather, it proposes that men can do better than seducing women in a way that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable. After all, most men don't want to make women feel unsafe, and plenty understand that it's not "seduction" when you have to convince someone to want you — it's coercion.
Asking for equal access to work, schooling, and public spaces does not make us weak. In fact, standing up against the notion that men have the right to harass, assault, or even try to seduce us — awkwardly or not — is the epitome of strength, and it's sad that the French women who signed the letter don't understand that.