We do, inadvertently, have Harvey to thank.
Enfin, the journalist who published the story.
Because with the tongues of some of the world’s most famous actresses finally freed comes a freedom and release for every other ordinary woman. The freedom to speak up, to bear witness, in what has become a collective confession ever since the Weinstein story broke.
Here in France there have been two responses.
The first was the rapid adoption on social media of French versions of the Harvey hashtags, in the form of #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc (#NameYourPig, a Francophone #MyHarveyWeinstein).
The second Harvey happening, mostly as a consequence of the first, was from the French government. Faced with an unprecedented wave of women claiming they had been victims (a 19 October survey found over half (53%) of women have faced sexual harassment at some stage in their lives) ministers moved quickly to promise a new law to broaden the definition and prosecution of sexual harassment.
More on that later.
First, the hashtags. And some old-fashioned question marks: name and shame, or shame when name?
The social media outpour which has followed the Weinstein stories is to be welcomed. As French sociologist Irène Théry put it in Le Monde last week, “shame has swapped sides.” Both #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc provide that outlet. Both help signal the scale and frequency of the problem. Both have helped female (and male) victims to finally come forward. Both have galvanized governments into action.
But if both hashtags spring from the same source, why do we need two? The answer is that they are not quite the same. While #MoiAussi offers the space to say, this happened to me too, and it is time to stop it; #BalanceTonPorc is about, this happened to me too, and here’s the guy who did it.
Useful, perhaps, for big fish who might otherwise be protected by their name, and those prepared to go after them. Ariane Fornia, daughter of former French Budget minister Eric Besson, asserted last week that she was molested during an opera performance in 2010 by another former minister, Pierre Joxe. When told on national radio that Joxe was going to press charges for defamation, Fornia replied, “Very good. Let him.”
#BalanceTonPorc is robustly defended. To those who fear the legal implications of identifying an alleged attacker on social media, the answer is that very few women have actually gone so far as naming names. To those who find the French coarse or violent, the retort is that sexual harassment is coarse, and violent. And to those who worry that a quick Tweet will discourage women from using the proper channels of pressing charges, the response is that women are already discouraged from doing so: Osez le Féminisme says 90% of women do not press charges (other estimates are even lower) and of those who do press charges, only a small minority end in prosecution (for example: 5% for sexual harassment cases at work).
And yet. In our instant-everything world, where is the fair trial (we have fought so hard for ourselves as feminists), where is the reflection, in 140 (and even 280) characters?
What is the difference between #NameYourPig and, say, #NameYourNazi, or maybe, #NameYourNeighbour the next time their hedge overgrows, or, allez, #NameAnyoneWhoDoesAnythingWrong? By directing this movement toward a pitch-fork manhunt, we not only weaken the basic tenant of feminism – equal assumptions, equal rights – but slide dangerously into populism and the righteous mass.
It is extraordinarily depressing that so few women (and men) suffering sexual attacks report them to the police. According to Odoxa, a polling institute, #BalanceTonPorc led to 335,000 tweets in the space of six days. 17,000 of these tweets contained a direct allegation of assault or harassment.
17,000 women who had not wanted or been able to bring that testimony to a police station, or court of law. Common justice, at last, you might say?
Perhaps. Especially considering the humiliation, time and energy of pressing charges, and unlikelihood of prosecution. But in providing a quick-and-easy alternative to denounce, do we not in fact run the risk of the opposite: making it easier to commit sexual harassment and get away with it?
Which brings me to the last problem: the void, after the rush. This is common to both hashtags and pretty much anything on Twitter. Yes, it is good to speak out. Yes, the shame-swapping is essential, moving, and to be cheered. Yes, it has resulted in governments finally thinking about how to better capture and punish offenders.
But what about the why?
The why of your attacker, of everyone else’s attacker, of all current or future unnamed attackers: why harassment exists in the first place, and why it is permitted to continue, on 21st century planet Earth.
The first is answered easily enough. Harassment occurs because it can:
- physical strength (I can’t say no: I can’t fight back)
- hierarchy (I can’t say no: I will lose my job)
- community pressure (I can’t say no: my reputation or my family’s is at stake),
- isolation (I can’t say no: no-one will believe/help me),
- anonymity (I can’t say no: it was in a dark cinema),
- dependency (I can’t say no: who will look after me)
- or *just* from fear (I can’t say no: I can’t)….
In other words, because of power. The answer therefore is the same, whatever the situation: empowerment.
Posting to hashtags is a form of that empowerment – a shaking-free from some of the binds above. But for all that those statements are brave, honest, and wield their own force, they are also fleeting, temporary, and personal. Empowerment can be instantly triggered: but it cannot be maintained without permanent effort and enforcement.
So yes. Changes to laws are necessary. Especially better and agreed recognitions, since part of the dismissal of the issue is in the rejection of subjectivity (or tutting about political correctness). Have a listen to the Radio 4 programme Any Answers from 28 October: the flood of calls received by the host Anita Anand covered the usual range of irritation over ‘feminist hijacking’. One father complained that his sons were now
too scared to ask a girl out these days: the power ratio has been reversed, because girls have the power, the power of rejection
So with clearer definition of what harassment is (and is not) stricter punishment will protect women’s integrity, lessen the fight, and make idiots or misogynists think twice (maybe) before they follow you down the street.
Good, good. But, as always, not good enough. Where is the beyond-a-plaster reflection? Tweets aren’t enough. Laws in themselves aren’t enough. We need to go much further, and build on this remarkable, courageous movement to investigate – and invest- into that why.
For me, it is about the education you receive. At school, at home. The images and roles you see as you grow up, and then imitate, expect or attribute. Your own self-worth. Your definition of femininity and masculinity, and your community’s definition of those.
Complicated. But there are simple changes we can make. Like:
- reading books, films, stories without damsels in distress or girls valued only by their beauty and/or feminine qualities
- encouraging young women to explore studies or careers traditionally dominated by men, and vice versa
- promoting women’s sport (my daughter, aged five, coming home from school: “the boys wouldn’t let me play football today, maman, I’m a girl”)
- providing sexual education which is not just about biology, but equal respect, responsibility and pleasure
- doing something about women and women’s bodies as portrayed in the media or advertising.
Yes: though I’d like to think that we are finally turning a page on harassment equalling a male-pigeon-in-the-park, healthy, harmless urge, when I see responses like the pleasant one below, I know that isn’t the case.
Lovely. In the meantime, a little light relief. The next time, ladies, you are being hassled for your number and he literally won’t take no for an answer, give him this:
Oh, and for the record?