When Men’s Sexuality Comes Before Women’s Consent

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Little Brown Feminist

Little brown feminist with a big voice.

2017 was a critical year for feminism, particularly due to the wave of women and men who revealed incidences of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, abuse and rape conducted by many powerful men. After the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, public figures in various industries were exposed for their abusive and predatory behaviour, with many survivors feeling safe enough to share their stories. This became a catalyst for the hashtag #MeToo, which was created originally by Tarana Burke over a decade before and recently popularised by actress Alyssa Milano. It instantly began trending on Twitter due to the scores of people around the globe who shared their experiences.

Tarana Burke, image via: Glamour

However, there has been an inevitable backlash. While many believe that movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have been a positive step toward changing societal mentality about consent and sexual harassment, others have declared it a witch hunt, designed to ‘punish’ men for what many deem as “acceptable behaviour.” One instance of this backlash includes an open letter signed by 100 women which was published in the French daily newspaper, Le Monde. It attacked feminist social media campaigns such as #MeToo and French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc (Call out your pig), claiming:

“Instead of helping women, this frenzy (…) actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty — religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries. As women, we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which, beyond denouncing the abuse of power, takes on a hatred of men and of sexuality.”

The signatories expressed that these campaigns had gone beyond exposing perpetrators and instead become a surge of “hating men and sex”; that “puritanical” attitudes towards men acting flirtatiously or pestering women diminished sexual freedom. The open letter caused a negative reaction globally. Abnousse Shalmani, the initiator of the letter, explaining on a French radio show:

“We do not dismiss the many women who had the courage to speak up against [Harvey] Weinstein. We do not dismiss either the legitimacy of their fight. We do, however, add our voice, a different voice, to the debate.”

Abnousse Shalmani, image via: World Editions

Within France, there is a continuing influence of 1960’s feminism which is based greatly on sexual freedom and the removal of guilt from feminine sexuality. Many of the signatories are figures who follow this brand of feminism, including high profile actress Catherine Devenue who has made controversial comments on the campaigns. Deneuve has also previously expressed her support for Roman Polanksi, finding the word ‘rape’ as “excessive” in relation to him raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. She has since apologised to victims of sexual assault for her part in the letter.

Catherine Deneuve, image via: Euronews

Arguably, the perspective described in the letter features the variance in priorities concerning feminist struggles for different generations of feminists. While many older French feminists agree on fighting rape and harassment, others believe that the initiative against harassment is a threat to the sexual revolution their generation inspired. Alternatively, in the USA, the current generation of feminist activists are committed to battling abuse suffered by women rather than primarily focusing on sexual freedoms. Although the influence of the older generation of feminists in France has endured, there has been backlash from younger French feminists also. The French gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa explained how the letter had “trivialised” violence against women and that the stars who signed the letter needed to move on with the times.

The main issue of the letter is its inability to differentiate between flirting and harassment. Despite the intentions within the letter to disrupt uniform thought and create a conversation about liberation in sexuality for women and men, it has arguably brought into question the importance of consent. Flirting is founded on a consensual basis between people who are attracted to each other; harassment is non-consensual, wherein there is a power play concerning positions (boss/employee, adult/minor) or one person says no or is unenthusiastic about the situation. While the signatories may be concerned about the threat to sexual freedom, it comes across that the “freedom” they extol principally concerns men’s feelings and not women’s safety. It is difficult enough to carve a safe space for women in our current world without having to worry about another person making unwanted advances that intrude upon that space. To describe movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp as “witch hunts” is to associate yourself with men like Woody Allen. It also disregards the scores of people who have had the courage to share their experiences.

The difference in flirting and harassment is agency. Women should have the ability to say yes or no to whomever they choose; their “no” should not act as a challenge to turn it into a “yes” because they have been “pestered” or because they are afraid of what might happen if they say no. Although it is important to question and debate everything, it is also vital to realise the significance in stance and wording. By claiming that men should be able to “steal a kiss” from women they are attracted to is to reduce the consent of the women in question.

#MeToo is about addressing the continuous harassment that individuals face daily, to build awareness of how society and the patriarchy have created a structure to silence victims of sexual harassment and abuse. These campaigns are not out to ruin the lives of innocent men or to restrict sexuality, they exist to advance equality for the sexes; they are about providing individuals with a voice; while counter arguments are useful in academic discourse, within social media platforms such as Twitter it only serves to distract and damage safe spaces.