Just one day after Hollywood offered a show of support for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes, 100 French women published a public letter cautioning the movement, including its French counterpart, #Balancetonporc (“Rat out your swine”), about going too far. The letter was co-written by five French women: Sarah Chiche (writer/psychoanalyst), Catherine Millet (author/art critic), Catherine Robbe-Grillet (actress/writer), Peggy Sastre (author/journalist) and Abnousse Shalmani (writer/journalist). It was signed by some 100 others, including Catherine Deneuve who has become the most visible target.
I have been reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” and the French letter stunned me. While I had been thinking about being treated like property, or like prey, I realize that what works in the boardroom is not the same as what works in the bedroom. Where is there room for flirtation, seduction? What is the difference between seduction and assault? (Answer: salesmanship) But this joke ignores the real power differentials of predators over the naive.
Above all, we are aware that the human being is not a monolith: A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a “whore” or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider that act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.
The French women are afraid this witch hunt will backfire, enslaving us in “a status of eternal victim” and prey. They call us Puritans, unwilling to look at the realities of how men and women really are. These are experienced, professional, women “of a certain age” as the French like to say it. They are trying to show a gray area that has been forgotten in the stampede. They are asking for reason and responsibility from women as a whole. They are asking us to look at the bigger picture.
Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime.
I would argue about “insistent” but I think they are right about “clumsy.” I was most touched as they described how they raise their daughters, and their reference to our Inner Resource where we are already whole, already free. They teach their daughters that trauma is a part of life but it does not have to be a life sentence. Trauma to a woman’s body “does not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as difficult as they can be, necessarily make her a perpetual victim. Because we are not reducible to our bodies. Our inner freedom is inviolable. And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities.”
The message of the French women is important. It has only been 70 years since French women regained the right to vote, something they lost under Napoleon. The role of women in the workplace is still being shaped, and the #MeToo movement is critical to increasing safety in the office. The French are saying, “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Don’t stamp out flirtation, compliments, gallantry. Recognize the inherently-predatory nature of seduction and that it works in both directions. Recognize that we are animals in clothes. Recognize that men are different from women. In this culture, we women must restrict our behavior or face “slut shaming,” a phrase that has no masculine counterpart. At last, men have a chance to pull back from the paternalistic custom of taking whatever they want, no matter how boorishly or violently. We are trying to chip away at entrenched male privilege; unexamined, unearned “confidence.”
It’s Not Just The French
Founder of the clothing brand Esprit, Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent donor to the Democratic Party, is considering withdrawing support for senators like Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who urged their colleague Al Franken to resign after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Ms. Buell told the New York Times, “In my gut, they moved too fast. Mr. Franken was never given a chance to tell his side of the story.”
“For me this is dangerous and wrong,” she added. “I am a big believer in helping more women into the political system but this has given me an opportunity to rethink of how I can best help my party.”
We need to very careful right now. Remember Arab Spring.