A Right to Bother
The last few months have seen the emergence of the #MeToo campaign and numerous sexual assault scandals which have ruined reputations and shattered careers. Most importantly, however, it’s started a discussion. People around the world are engaging in issues of feminism en masse (take the Golden Globes for example) in a way that hasn’t been seen for a generation.
However, the narrative has taken an interesting turn with the now notorious Catherine Deneuve letter. For those of you who don’t know, the letter essentially accused the #MeToo campaign of becoming a witch hunt and that men should not be punished for flirtatious behaviour.
They believe that this form of ‘puritanical’ feminism manages to disempower women by restricting their sexual freedom. Their argument is that nowadays women are educated enough to understand what constitutes assault and what is “an awkward attempt to pick someone up”. Therefore, sexual freedom for women cannot come without the freedom for men to bother women. I’ve found this letter both insulting but also a sorely needed breath of fresh air.
To a certain extent, #MeToo has become a witch hunt. I think that it’s amazing that these women are finally opening up about their experiences and that it takes a hell of a lot of bravery. But I’m also a law student and believe in due process and that makes me slightly sceptical. These are merely allegations (most of which I’m sure are true, unfortunately), to which we are attaching very serious repercussions without being able to prove it. This undermines the legal system and the importance we attach to the presumption of innocence. Official investigations and inquiries are needed.
However the focus of this article will be feminism, and its portrayal in this letter. I don’t want to do this in technical terms with deep philosophical or political undertones, but instead pragmatically through the eyes of ordinary 21st century woman.
What is feminism? By its definition feminism is nothing more than a belief in the equality of the sexes. This isn’t just a legal issue in which women are given equal rights – it extends to economic, political and the very nature of our social structure and a woman’s treatment within it.
What I thought was so interesting about the Catherine Deneuve letter is its criticism of what has come to be known as Anglo-American feminism in France. I guess pop culture would call these ‘the Feminazis’ and ‘man haters’ of the world. To a lot of people, especially men, this is the only image they have of feminism. For whatever reason, possibly due to the volume of its members or more likely, that people just hear what they want to hear in order to criticise, this is their understanding of feminism – despite the fact that this group by no means represents the majority.
There are a lot of issues facing women – domestic violence is still rampant, sexual assault, the pay gap, lack of access to sanitary products, contraception or abortions (contraception and abortion represent far more than sexual freedom – it’s a women’s freedom over her own body), maternity leave, underrepresentation in politics and business etc. The list goes on and on. These aren’t problems in far flung countries – these are problems facing us right here. Surely I’m not unreasonable in wanting to address these issues?
I should not feel like I need to explain myself and reassure that feminism isn’t a bad or an unreasonable thing. Somehow the very simple yet fundamentally important message of feminism message seems to have gotten lost.
So now I’ve defined feminism, and pointed out that I’m not a bra-burning zealot (why would I burn them? I’m on a student budget here, let’s be reasonable, but just an average woman giving her take on this situation, let’s continue.
The dirty little secret which puritans don’t want you to know, but French feminists endorse wholeheartedly, is that even feminist women like men, enjoy male attention and cherish their sexual freedom. There is an obviously logical correlation between sexual freedom and equality. BUT the Catherine Deneuve letter overstates the importance of sexual freedom and has warped views of when behaviour and male attention is inappropriate.
The focus of the #MeToo campaign has been about sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s based on the fact that nobody should feel uncomfortable or pressurised due to the inappropriate behaviour of others. Quite simply, there is a time and a place for everything. Sexual advances are totally inappropriate in the workplace, and despite the fact that it seems absurd that I need to explain why, clearly a lot of people still don’t get it so I’m going to have to.
The days when women went to university merely for husband hunting are long gone. And a career is no longer just a filler until we meet a man, give up our jobs and start popping out babies. Nowadays (shock horror) we want careers because we want independence, satisfaction, intellectual stimulation and 20 million other things. We don’t put ourselves through years of education to have some jerk with a large ego make going to work unbearable (there we go, that’s my rant for the day). No woman should have her career or salary dependent on inappropriate requests from male colleagues. No woman should have to avoid certain colleagues because their scared of what that colleague will do or say to them. No woman should have to be careful about what clothing she wears in case it attracts unwanted attention. I write no woman but what this means is no human being. No person deserves to be treated like this.
And this is what astounds me about the Catherine Deneuve letter, that these women think that this sort of behaviour is acceptable, because it really isn’t. Sexual freedom is important for equality but so are equal opportunities, equal pay, maternity leave and a safe working environment – factors I believe are rather more important. The emphasis on sexual freedom has a shallowness and superficiality to it. Feminism is so much more than that. Women are so much more than that.
Feminist is not synonymous for ‘man hater’ nor do all feminists support the right for men to bother women – these are merely poles on the spectrum. So, what does feminism mean to me as a 21st century woman? It means nothing more than I want equal opportunities, I want a professional work environment and I want to feel safe. Now is that really so bad?