Can Feminists Speak?

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translated by Mona Bismuth, Julie Kleinfinger, Sara Doke, Melissa Thackway, Valerie M. & Victoire Lester (special thanks to Alexandra Poreda)

In response to Le Monde’s op-ed on the “freedom to bother,” more than 200 feminists express their concern about the delegitimization of the fight against harassment. “At a time when American women of power in creative industries, research, and technology are using their privilege to help the most vulnerable women…100 of their French counterparts are choosing to stand against social justice.”

On January 9, 2018, while Oprah Winfrey was declaring at the Golden Globes, “We all have lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men…But their time is up. Their time is up!”—at that very moment, an opinion piece published in the French newspaper Le Monde by predominantly white, bourgeois women (who do not use gender-inclusive language) came to the rescue of these powerful men, making a case for their “right to bother” women.

They inform us that anyway, “accidents that can happen to a woman’s body do not necessarily harm her dignity.” And that “rape is a crime. But…” But what? “…hitting on someone insistently or awkwardly is not an offense, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”
Harvey Weinstein is not, that we know of, an awkward and timid man, a bit gauche, incapable of expressing his feelings. He is not a man reduced to a highly vulnerable state when facing women who would then in unfortunate attempts have tried to express his desire. It seems that the power dynamics—as well as the political, historical, and economic contexts that produce them—do not concern the upholders of a “freedom to bother,” who use as their very own personal experience as a sacrosanct excuse.

Yet, under the pretext of warning against a confusion between harassment, rape, and seduction, their text directly produces said confusion. This process had already been used during the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Case to denounce the effects of a creeping puritanism that would abolish what was considered a “sweet exchange between the sexes.” Such a concern was already alarming, at the very least, when it comes to an accusation of sexual violence. It is all the more worrying now that it works to undermine the word of millions of women from all social backgrounds who chose to speak out after an all too long silence, to share their experiences with the tools they have: social media. Thus, while claiming to be a call for vigilance, and an initiative for moral liberation, this op-ed only contributes to one thing: the reaffirmation of the dominant powers, calling for a return to the conservative order.

Similarly, invoking the threat of censorship at a time when what was silenced is being spoken and explicitly spelled out is a strategy to turn the tables of violence: in the eyes of the 100 signatories, the victims have become the perpetrators.

Did the signatories of Le Monde’s op-ed even read what they classify as a campaign of « denunciation,” or, with no fear of hyperbole, « a wave of purification »? Did they even bother to listen to what these women experienced? All the testimonies shared in the United States, France, and elsewhere since the Weinstein affair have been about violence, fear, dread, and shame. Everywhere, women have made it clear that they do not mistake consensual sexual relationships and seduction for the acts and insults they have been subjected to.

Where does this confusion come from? It certainly exists among those who see harassment as a standardization of “heavy flirting.” And we shouldn’t take such a misinterpretation as ignorance, or even as a simple misunderstanding of these situations. There is a deliberate political agenda behind those positions: to deny the consistency of sexual and sexist violence, even more so when it comes from powerful men, is thereby perpetuated in the most privileged environments.

Attacking the legitimacy of the struggle against sexual harassment under the guise of wanting to preserve the pleasure of a certain French arrangement between sexes is actually saving a comfortable system that protects the power dynamics between sexes—where these women have a socially acceptable voice and a media-friendly presence. At a time when American women of power in creative industries, research, and technology are using their privilege to help the most vulnerable women (working-class women, racialized women, disabled women) in launching the “Time’s up” campaign, a hundred of their French counterparts chose to stand against social justice.

Here, the French “cultural exception” serves as an opportunity to recycle the accusation of “puritanism”, a French anti-feminism classic, used in this op-ed to reflect its clichés. Allegedly an American invention, feminism would contribute to one of the main wrongs of society: its puritanism and its prudishness. As would the mothers of virtue, feminists would antagonize men, and oppose themselves to sexual freedom. But of which sexual freedom are we talking about exactly? Or more precisely, who benefits from it? Who profits from the imperiousness of male desire? Where are the women’s desire and pleasure expressed and developed? Who gets subjected to the offense? Who is systematically bothered?

These questions are left unanswered by the authors—unless within a heteronormative and highly codified frame, which leaves little room for invention and reversal—although they complain about being obliged to a “proper” language. Puritanism does not necessarily reside where one would think it does…

Moreover, the fact that this op-ed is written by women results from a well-known strategy: opposing feminists to other women who, on the other hand, would not yield to victimization.

We are looking at is a rhetorical gesture that aims to disqualify the claim for equality by implying that those who fight for it are exaggerating, are “going too far”, or are “extremists”. Yet, this classical technique of delegitimization of minorities (typically encountered when disqualifying the actions of racialized groups) is mainly used to ignore the logics of inequality structuring the society. Rather than admitting that certain groups are subjected to unequal treatment, it puts the blame on those who are suffering. It maligns the people who are pointing out such inequalities, and outlining that the current state of things is the product of History. And it opens the doors to challenging the foundations of our current political and social order.

Yet by testifying on social media, these women have on the contrary made a political choice—precisely the one of breaking free from their status of silent and isolated victims to which they were previously assigned—in order to participate in a collective and international rebellion. There is a deliberate revolutionary act in any criticism of the establishment, and the spontaneous nature of the testimonies published online reveals that this movement is one of self-defense.

From then on, we understand that this union of women appears to be so dangerous that it needs to be destroyed—in particular by denigrating it as either apolitical (they are hysterical and whiny women), or as too political (they are fighting a war on men). This radical misconstruction of the feminist project specifically reveals itself here. The signatories of Le Monde’s op-ed write: “As women, we don’t recognize ourselves in this feminism, which beyond denouncing abuse of power, takes on a hatred of men and of sexuality”. Yet, as the feminist bell hooks reminded us in Feminism is or Everybody in 2000: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. (…) This definition (…) clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism.”

The constant appreciation of women’s bodies—as well as its mobility in public space and its institutional control—have been for centuries the keystone of conservative movements. Still today, the so-called “original” and “biological” binary of male and female sexes is forcefully reaffirmed in order to maintain an order of genders that is meant to preserve the achievements of patriarchy. Our answer opens the doors to all the voices that could not be summarized, and to the opinions that we wished not to be diminished or uniformized. We wanted to urgently respond to a reactionary rhetoric that seems all the more dangerous and harmful because it precisely prides itself on a false appeal to liberty.

Open the floor!


Hourya Bentouhami, philosopher ;

Isabelle Cambourakis, publisher ;

Aurélie Fillod-Chabaud, sociologist ;

Amandine Gay, director ;

Mélanie Gourarier, anthropologist ;

Sarah Mazouz, sociologist ;

Émilie Notéris, author et queer theorist.