From the very start of the #MeToo movement, there were men murmuring about flirting. They read the reports of women being raped in the workplace, they heard the stories of brutal sexual violence and abuse, they came across harrowing descriptions of coercion and assault, and they freaked out about whether or not they could no longer sign off their emails with a digital kiss.
It seemed almost deliberately distracting: by conflating their worries about the end of workplace flirting with sexual assault and harassment, they were minimising the whole movement and undermining the seriousness of crimes inflicted upon women. Admittedly, there was a modicum of integrity to their concerns – #MeToo was always about a continuum of abuse of power, and so discussions about the ethics of office flirting were taking place alongside, and within, a discourse on a culture of harassment. But, still, if you read the heartbreaking statements issued by women who said they were raped by Harvey Weinstein and you felt compelled to issue 700 words on your own e-flirting woes, you were being callously solipsistic – at best.
This week, women picked up the what-about-the-flirting baton. One hundred French women, including the Belle De Jour star Catherine Deneuve, published a statement in Le Monde, arguing that the #MeToo movement and its French counterpart – #BalanceTonPorc, “squeal on your pig” – risks going “too far”, resulting in a new kind of “puritanism”. The group of writers, performers, academics and businesswomen defend men’s right to “importuner” – which translates as bother or pester. What Harvey Weinstein did was terrible, these women agree, but “hitting on someone insistently or awkwardly is not an offence”, and the #MeToo movement that has grown over the past five months is not an ideology with which they can get on board. “As women, we don’t recognise ourselves in this feminism that, beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes the face of a hatred of men and sexuality.” They seem concerned that if women are empowered to complain about harassment and men are held accountable for their misdemeanors – by being prosecuted or fired from their jobs, for example – the acts of flirting, kissing and shagging will become endangered. It’s a preposterous argument and speaks of privilege: these women, leaders in their fields with Le Monde editors in their address books, can bat away the advances of a boss; a waitress or a nanny or a young woman at the very beginning of her career may feel altogether more bothered by the pestering, she might feel like she has no choice, no power.
Movies that objectify women, or lionise abusers and predators, may be falling out of fashion, but that isn’t some sort of censorship – it’s a natural progression, some would say a correction
Writing in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins wonders whether the 100 French women are the product of their generation: Catherine Deneuve is 74, and many of the other signatories are a similar age. “What a wondrous event the sexual revolution must continue to seem to those whose lives were opened up by it,” Collins writes. “I wonder if those of us who were born later, who are fighting other battles, often underestimate the primacy of sexual liberation in the world view of previous generations.” It’s an interesting point; it’s impossible to underestimate how constrained women were by a patriarchal, puritanical culture before the 1960s – and its art and music and movies – arrived. And how grateful women were for that change. But it’s worth remembering that amid the sexual revolution were abuses of that new openness.
Helen Mirren remembers it as a “horrible” time, telling The Times in 2015 that the decade after the sexual revolution, but before feminism, was perilous for women: “I happened to hit the culture at a time that was worse than the fucking 1940s or 1950s. It was horrible… Men saw that as a sort of, ‘Oh, fantastic! We can fuck anything, however we like, whenever we like! They’re up for grabs, boys!’ It was that kind of attitude.”
There have always been people who purport to confuse consensual sex with sexual assault or abuse – even now, Harvey Weinstein denies nonconsensual sex – and it’s depressing to see the internalised misogyny that has resulted in Denueve and her co-authors tangling themselves in up that net of disingenuousness.
A fear of a new puritanism is apparently troubling Hollywood executives too; The Hollywood Reporter claims that “sexy films” will struggle in the wake of #MeToo. “The Hugh Hefner biopic that once was set up at Warner Bros is all but dead,” reports the industry magazine, while the future of a “James Franco-produced stripper/prostitute travelogue titled Zola Tells All (complete with a 15-year-old Russian prostitute)” is also uncertain (probably more so since Franco was accused of sexual exploitation this week). The thing is, though, that those films don’t sound so sexy to me. And the ongoing commercial and critical success of Call Me By Your Name – an undeniably sexy film in my book – would seem to put paid to the theory that art examining love and sex and attraction can’t happen in a culture that is reckoning with abuse. Movies that objectify women, or lionise abusers and predators, may be falling out of fashion but that isn’t some sort of censorship – it’s a natural progression, some would say a correction.
Sexy movies, sexy people and sexy times can flourish post-#MeToo, whatever Catherine Deneuve and those other 99 women say. Perhaps the problem is simply that sexiness on women’s terms makes some people uncomfortable.