This week, the famed French actress Catherine Deneuve, along with a hundred other notable French women, penned an open letter defending a man’s “right to pester” in the French newspaper Le Monde.
The letter acknowledged the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo movement as “necessary” forces for good in the fight against sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, but the letter also alleges that the movement has swung too far and too fast, and in such a way that actually curtails female sexual empowerment:
“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… 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!”
The open letter, a full English translation of which can be found here, offers examples of what the authors consider the #MeToo movement’s overreach. It lists male victims of the “witch hunt,” or the men who have lost their jobs 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.” The authors also reference a petition to remove a famous painting of a young girl daydreaming in a “suggestive” position from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as a proposed Swedish law that would make verbal consent compulsory before all sexual relations.
Suffice it so say, the letter printed in Le Monde was met with no shortage of outrage. According to The New Yorker: “One didn’t have to read far to figure out that the statement was just another apologia for sexual assault and harassment.” And the French feminist Caroline De Haas slammed it, telling CNN: “Feminism is not about protecting sexual liberation, but about protecting women.”
To the latter point, however, I’m compelled to ask: Why must it be a choice between one or the other? Why can’t we protect women from sexual abuse while also allowing for traditional methods of seduction?
In my opinion, it’s easy to imagine a world where those two things coexist—where men can freely express their interest in a woman and also respect her when she says no. When I went to Europe last fall, it felt liberating and exciting to be in an environment where a man felt comfortable approaching me on the street. “Hello, Madame,” he’d say. “I was just walking down the street and I saw you and walked a few blocks further before I decided I had to come back and talk to you. You are very beautiful. Would you like to have a cup of coffee?”
More often than not, I said, “Sure, why not?” I usually felt flattered and elated at the unexpected encounter. The times when I smiled and politely said, “No, I’m sorry,” they always responded by lifting up their hands in an “OK, no problem” gesture and continuing on with their day.
I actually felt more comfortable saying “no” to them than I do to American men, because, in Europe, the whole interaction feels so much more casual. If I had to guess, the men who asked me out probably asked out about 37 other women whom they thought were “very beautiful” that day, so turning them down elicits as much of a reaction as turning down a croissant from a local baker. (Now, it should go without saying that I’m talking about interacting in public and not in the workplace, where power dynamics and other factors require an entirely different set of rules.)
I’m clearly not alone in my fear that #MeToo may be getting a bit out of hand. In The New Yorker, writer Masha Gessen warns that punishing men for “expressing interest” will turn a watershed moment into a “sex panic.” In his New York Magazine essay on the “excesses of #metoo,” Andrew Sullivan took aim at the “McCarthyist” journalists on Twitter who are protesting a planned article in Harper’s that would potentially lay blame on Moria Donegan for creating of the now-infamous, and controversial, “Shitty Media Men List:”
“The very people who were up in arms about possible online harassment of the list organizers, went online to call Roiphe ‘pro-rape,’ ‘human scum,’ ‘a ghoul,’ a ‘bitch,’… They now believe in suppressing free speech—even before they know its content! It also strikes me as ominous for journalism as a whole. When journalists themselves wage campaigns to suppress the writing of other journalists, and intend to destroy a magazine for not toeing their ideological line, you can see how free speech truly is on the line.”
We can all agree that every kind of sexual abuse needs to end. We can all agree that its insidiousness in the workplace needs to be addressed and dealt with swiftly and completely. But it gives me pause—and lots of my female friends pause—to think that we’re creating a society in which the only acceptable way for a man to express interest in a woman is on Tinder or Bumble.
There are too many feminists out there—of various colors and creeds—who actually do want a man to make the first move, to have the opportunity to be chivalrous, to deliver welcome compliments, and to give them a free cup of coffee for having a nice smile. Deneuve’s larger gripe is one that I’ve shared for a long time: that when feminists tell women what to want and how to act, they are being just as oppressive as the patriarchy they are trying to overthrow.
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