The letter begins: “Rape is a crime. But a persistent or clumsy come-on is not a crime, nor is gallantry a form of macho aggression.”
In an open letter published on Tuesday in French newspaper Le Monde, around 100 French female writers, performers and academics have defended the "freedom to seduce", reacting to Oprah Winfrey's "Time's Up" speech at the Golden Globes, as well as the #metoo campaign and what they see as society's "new puritanism".
The signatories of the letter include author Catherine Millet, who published her explicit sexual memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M in 2002; writer Abnousse Shalmani, who previously compared feminism to Stalinism; anti-feminist philosopher Peggy Sastre, and many others cultural figures from France.
The letter has sparked a renewed discussion about the nature of sexual harassment since publication. It was roundly condemned by figures from the French feminist community. A group of 30 prominent activists, led by Caroline De Haas, responding with a critique of the letter on Wednesday. Deconstructing the major assertions of the letter, Caroline De Haas' response rebukes some of the misconceptions of the letter, as well as some its deliberately misleading arguments. Read it in full here.
Read the full letter here:
"Rape is a crime. But trying to pick up someone, however persistently or clumsily, is not — nor is gallantry an attack of machismo.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal sparked a legitimate awakening about the sexual violence that women are subjected to, particularly in their professional lives, where some men abuse their power. This was necessary. But what was supposed to liberate voices has now been turned on its head: We are being told what is proper to say and what we must stay silent about — and the women who refuse to fall into line are considered traitors, accomplices!
Just like in the good old witch-hunt days, what we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenseless preys of male chauvinist demons.
Ratting out and calling out
In fact, #MeToo has led to a campaign, in the press and on social media, of public accusations and indictments against individuals who, without being given a chance to respond or defend themselves, are put in the exact same category as sex offenders. This summary justice has already had its victims: men who’ve been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign, and so on., when their only crime was to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about "intimate" things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest.
This frenzy for sending the "pigs" to the slaughterhouse, far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected.
Men, for their part, are called on to embrace their guilt and rack their brains for "inappropriate behavior" that they engaged in 10, 20 or 30 years earlier, and for which they must now repent. These public confessions, and the foray into the private sphere or self-proclaimed prosecutors, have led to a climate of totalitarian society.
The purging wave seems to know no bounds. The poster of an Egon Schiele nude is censored; calls are made for the removal of a Balthus painting from a museum on grounds that it’s an apology for pedophilia; unable to distinguish between the man and his work, Cinémathèque Française is told not to hold a Roman Polanski retrospective and another for Jean-Claude Brisseau is blocked. A university judges the film Blow-Up, by Michelangelo Antonioni, to be "misogynist" and "unacceptable." In light of this revisionism, even John Ford (The Searchers) and Nicolas Poussin (The Abduction of the Sabine Women) are at risk.
Already, editors are asking some of us to make our masculine characters less "sexist" and more restrained in how they talk about sexuality and love, or to make it so that the "traumas experienced by female characters" be more evident! Bordering on ridiculous, in Sweden a bill was presented that calls for explicit consent before any sexual relations! Next we’ll have a smartphone app that adults who want to sleep together will have to use to check precisely which sex acts the other does or does not accept.
The essential freedom to offend
Philosopher Ruwen Ogien defended the freedom to offend as essential to artistic creation. In the same way, we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.
Today we are educated enough to understand that sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive — but we are also able to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault.
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 this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.
As women, we don’t recognize ourselves in this feminism that, beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes the face of a hatred of men and sexuality. We believe that the freedom to say "no" to a sexual proposition cannot exist without the freedom to bother. And we consider that one must know how to respond to this freedom to bother in ways other than by closing ourselves off in the role of the prey.
For those of us who decided to have children, we think that it is wiser to raise our daughters in a way that they may be sufficiently informed and aware to fully live their lives without being intimidated or blamed."
Incidents that can affect a woman’s body do 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.
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