The argument began, troublingly, “Rape is a crime. But…”
An open letter signed by 100 influential French women questioning #MeToo, the solidarity movement for those who’ve experienced rape, sexual harassment and intimidation, has emphasised that this is a subject on which even those with apparently as opposite ethics as Margaret Atwood and Silvio Berlusconi can find points of agreement.
The 100 defend (some) men’s unwanted approaches (“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”) and suggest that all women should tolerate such “sexual impulses [which] are, by nature, offensive and primitive”.
There’s no particular reason why the debate should be so explicitly gendered – male victims have used #MeToo – but in doing so the letter lets us all down: men are uncontrollable, primal sexual deviants and women should put up with it in the name of sexual freedom.
The moral outrage that a hot-blooded man isn’t able to “rub himself against her in the subway” reaches its peak as the 100 muse: “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.”
Now, I can’t think of any relationships that have started with persistent, unwanted letching or one of the couple having whopped out their genitalia in the middle of a business meeting. It’s not that hard to interact with people and not be a sex pest. If someone is worried that they will have to change the way they try to find a partner because their current technique might be deemed sexual harassment, then they are probably right to be worried and should take a look at themselves.
But it’s not the people whose behaviour is questionable who are expected to change. The 100 talk about bringing up their daughters to be strong and reject victimhood. At a time when voices like Grayson Perry and Robert Webb make laudable moves against the toxic expectations of masculinity imposed on men, we risk shifting this straight on to women: don’t cry, woman up! Don’t be a victim, even when you are a victim. The 100 might do better to teach both their daughters and sons about gender equality and sexual consent.
Perhaps we should take gender and sex out of the discussion altogether. Sexual harassment is harassment, just as domestic abuse is abuse. It doesn’t need to be qualified. “Sexual” implies an act that could be pleasant, as if on another day a victim might be flattered or quite enjoy it.
Ultimately we need to see #MeToo and the openness it has inspired as progress rather than a battleground. One of the most ludicrous arguments against it, also levelled at the Everyday Sexism movement before, has been that speaking out about mildly offensive behaviour takes away from the more serious assaults. But no one suggests a victim of burglary should not report the crime because at least the burglar wasn’t armed. A victim of GBH would not be publicly shamed for speaking out and reminded that some people are murdered so perhaps they should crack on and stop stealing thunder from more deserving victims.
It is this unequal patriarchal power play that has created a silence that damages us all – and means influential women speak of sexual freedom when what they describe is nothing of the sort.