The day after celebrities painted the Golden Globes’ red carpet black in support of the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements French actress Catherine Deneuve, along with nearly 100 other women, signed a letter denouncing both movements. #MeToo and #TimesUp are movements known for speaking out against sexual assault.
The letter, written by five influential and affluent French women, backed the unpopular opinion that the plethora of sexual assault and harassment cases and the subsequent sexual freedom movements are hurting the female population more than helping it. Although the authors of the letter do bring up some valid points about the extent to which society should put legal bars on sexual misconduct, it is also evident that these women are speaking from their own personal experience and privilege, rather than accounting for the experiences of other women and men who do not share their view.
Since the letter’s publication, Deneuve made a statement on Monday and apologized to victims of sexual assault. According to NPR, she said “Nothing in the letter claims that harassment is good, otherwise I would not have signed,” and while this is at least an acknowledgment of what victims have been through, our stance remains the same.
The original letter begins by defining the crime and context the writers are addressing. However, the authors use the majority of their manifesto as an attempt to discredit those who have stood up in support of the #MeToo movement, labeling them as witch-hunters, and to share their own personal views on the male role in the workplace and the redefinition of sexual freedom.
In the letter, the writes say, “But what was supposed to liberate voices [the Harvey Weinstein scandal] 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.”
This statement effectively removes any validity for those who, individually or within the greater community of these campaigns, have spoken out with their own sexual harassment experiences and labels them as fanatics trying to force conformity instead of incite a greater change.
The letter continues, inciting even more scandal by stating, “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.”
The people and the press do seem to be more fervently finding cause for accusation than before those 84 women took a stand against Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct. But there is also a clear disparity between the men who have been rightly accused and those whose accusations are more dubious.
While the world recognizes the concept of being innocent until proven guilty, and that due process and a fair trial should be offered to each man accused of sexual misconduct, there should be (and it appears there is) a precedent where we seek to validate the victim’s claims by taking steps to fully remove the accused from the lives of women who have been or may be victimized until the case has been closed. In this way, we ensure that each woman gets a chance to share her side. What this section of the letter boils down to, however, is this major claim:
“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.”
Are these writers seriously implying that a man touching a woman’s knee, trying to steal a kiss, talking about intimate things during a work meal or sending sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest is not a fire-able offense? Do these women not believe that a man stepping out of professional boundaries and imposing themselves on a woman trying to do her job is not a breach of not only legal contract but also a coworker’s respect?
This statement, bold and attention-grabbing though it is, is not groundbreaking by any means, although it is cause for concern. Many women have the opinion that while it is overreaching to hit on a woman during the workday, it should not be labeled as sexual harassment. Many stand by the phrase “boys will be boys” or the idea that it used to happen all the time, so why should it be approached any differently now? However, many male apologists have also not experienced the anxiety, pain and embarrassment of a workplace harassment case.
Most offenders of workplace harassment are not awkward or socially inept, but are instead men in positions of power who take advantage of the privacy of their corner office or of the privileges they enjoy as senior employees to abuse women systemically. According to a study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, men in positions of power are more likely to overestimate the sexual interest of others, and sexualize their work. As a result, we get Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes of Fox News, former New York Nicks coach Isiah Thomas and many more. Many women, contrary to the opinion of the letter, do not believe work should be accented with unwanted touches, kisses or inappropriate language. This does not, as the letter writers suggest, encourage and empower women, for how could something so inherently demeaning as having your skills and attributes overpowered by objectification be in any way sexually freeing?
We don’t believe many women want to display their freedom and prowess in the workplace, but apparently many men have made it their second bedroom. And for the men who haven’t, the men who are sitting in the background wondering if their job is at risk without having made a move on a woman — the answer is no. The authors of this letter seem to underestimate the female rationale, which is ironic because every single signer is herself a female. It is not as if the women placing these workplace harassment claims suddenly lost their ability to determine if the man touching her knee repeatedly or grabbing her behind in a public place is actually attempting to hit on her; if it seems questionable, it is.
The women who support this letter may not be inherently anti-feminist. In fact, there are probably a good number of them who would call themselves, to some extent, a supporter of women’s rights. However, the reason this letter is so harmful to feminist progress is because it falls back on exactly what feminists are trying to avoid: the safety net of “the way things were.” These women are more content to let workplace harassment slide and are hesitant to support outspoken movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp because for centuries, workplace harassment was simply accepted. It was a hazard of being a working woman, and for many women, it was just another obstacle on their way to breaking the glass ceiling. But what we as a society are trying to say, and what those who object to this so-called “radical feminism” don’t seem ready to grasp, is that workplace harassment, rape and sexual assault are not just obstacles. They are not ploys meant to break down the female gender and prevent women from doing great things. There are plenty of sexual assault survivors who are doing incredible, empowering things in the world, and yet sexual assault still happens. It is an epidemic, a sickness in society that has been systemically internalized, accepted and shoved under the rug for generations, and this is simply the first time anyone has stood up and said enough.
In the final part of the letter, the authors imply that not only is it important that women experience harassment in order to maintain their own sexual freedom, but also that feminism is not only malicious to men, but unempowering for women.
Their words do hold some truth, that a woman’s dignity and their inner freedom is not something that can be damaged by the words or actions of a man, and that women are capable of determining what constitutes assault or harassment as opposed to an awkward come-on. However, where they miss the mark is in their belief that this feminism and these movements are focused on hating men or keeping women categorized as victims. On the contrary, most of the female population are working to build intersectionality –– that we not only recognize each human’s struggles as inherently individual, but that we also recognize the flaws in our own way of thinking and move to grow from them. Our desire for a more inclusive and less abusive world does not make us naive, but instead makes us passionate and does not override our desire to be artistically, economically, socially and free people of all races, genders and identities.
The road to accountability is a rocky one, and in order to find the right path, we must first step off the beaten one — the women who wrote this letter are not wrong, but are simply members of an entire group of people who are struggling to find the balance between accountability and censorship. There may be overreaches in the way the justice system and the social system are addressing misogyny and sexual assault, and there will always be dissenters like these women who do not want to see change being taken to such an extreme. But sometimes, the only way to create a moderate definition is to set an extreme precedent.