Eva Illouz: Sex, power and the behaviour of men

‘Die Zeit’ newspaper listed her as one of 12 people ‘most likely to shape the thought of tomorrow’

The US-educated, Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz has established a reputation as the sociologist of love, sex and power. Her book, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, showed how love relationships have taken on the characteristics of the market. In Why Love Hurts, Illouz argued that belief in Freudian psychology undermines modern relationships. She examined the significance of pop culture in books on Oprah Winfrey and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Illouz teaches at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has lectured around the world, from Brazil to Zurich, at Oxford, Yale and Princeton, and appears regularly in leading newspapers such as Ha'aretz and Le Monde. In Germany, where Illouz's work is particularly well known, Die Zeit newspaper listed her as one of 12 people "most likely to shape the thought of tomorrow".

Feminism was the most important movement of the 20th century, because it shook the foundations of the basic element of society, the family, Illouz says. “It changed patterns of biological reproduction. It changed the implicit dominance of men over politics and economics.”

Yet a half century of feminism never attained the global reach achieved by #MeToo in just a few weeks. "#MeToo is the reverberating light of a star that exploded in the 1960s," says Illouz. She pays tribute to Catherine MacKinnon, the "extraordinarily prescient" US feminist who was one of the first to use the term sexual harassment. "MacKinnon famously said, 'Sexual harassment is not about sex. It's about power.'"


It is ironic that the female actors who precipitated the #MeToo tsunami by accusing film producer Harvey Weinstein of rape or harassment are participants in the very system denounced by feminists for objectifying women through beauty myths.

Until #MeToo, “It was very difficult to convince men that sexual harassment was not a marginal offence,” Illouz says. “It was often assimilated to white-collar crime. The dominant view was that you cannot create a whole agenda based on 5 per cent of men who are outliers and criminals.”

The women who launched #MeToo found strength in numbers. “In that respect, it has been an incredible success,” Illouz says. “The first day they had 200,000 people using their hashtag. In a week, half a million. Today, millions. That is new.”

#MeToo crossed boundaries of race and class, and confirmed the power of social media to create a leaderless and global grass roots movement. “Women were threatened for posting in Afghanistan and Iran,” Illouz notes. “Sexual assault is very common in those countries, if not in the workplace or street, within the family.”

The achievement of #MeToo has been “to show that simmering beneath the surface of normality, there is a very wide range of behaviours that had been routine and accepted, and that we no longer accept. It is not a political movement but a normative movement, that is to say a movement whose purpose and effect is to change the norms of behaviour.”

That doesn’t mean sexual harassment has disappeared, Illouz warns. “But I am sure that many men are more cautious about it. This cautiousness is a source of great anger for men. You hear very often, ‘Oh my god, spontaneity has gone out the window’. What that means is ‘I could do whatever I wanted without thinking about it. And now I have to think about what I do . . . Men are going to think about the future consequences of their actions, which is something they did not do before.”

Illouz was born in Morocco in 1961 and raised in France. She earned her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and is an astute observer of cultural differences between France and the English-speaking countries collectively known as les Anglo-Saxons.

Libertinage or the practice of sex with multiple partners, unconnected from moral consideration, originated with aristocrats in England and France starting in the 17th century. The US has no such historical tradition, mainly because it had no aristocracy.

The possibility of divorce in Protestant countries also fostered different attitudes towards sex. “Catholic aristocrats married to merge their fortunes. They had an understanding that the husband and wife could each lead their own life,” Illouz says. “In aristocratic French marriage, sexuality was outsourced. Not so in Protestant countries. Luther promoted a model of marriage based on human, affectionate companionship.”

Yet France shaped the world's concept of love, through courtly love in the Middle Ages, and later through the code of manners deemed necessary to seduction, known as la galanterie.

When a man opens a door, pays for dinner or helps a woman put on her coat, he is following the tradition of la galanterie. Catherine Deneuve and 100 other women attacked the #MeToo movement in January. The second sentence of their open letter in Le Monde said that gallantry was "not macho aggression".

Simone de Beauvoir started modern-day feminism with the publication of The Second Sex in 1949. Yet French women, to this day, appear more inclined to use sex to obtain their goals than women in English-speaking countries. Illouz again finds the explanation in history.

In the 17th century, Madeleine de Scudéry wrote a book called La Carte du tendre which mapped the different stages of love. "This is what aristocrats did with their time," Illouz laughs. "It was a cultural obsession. England was becoming a world economic power while French aristocrats were agonising and obsessing about shepherds and shepherdesses, the indifferent heart, the burning heart . . ."

Sex was a legitimate way to have access to power. French society is still shaped by those courtly institutions. Sociologists know that most behaviours trickle down.

Across Europe, gentlemen adopted the French model of gallantry in the hope of appearing well-bred and seducing women. Most of the rules of gallantry were invented by women, Illouz notes. "They told men, 'If you want to court us, these are the rules that you must follow. If French women feel empowered in sexuality, and are oblivious to the big picture, it's because through gallantry and sexuality, they felt they could dictate the behaviour of men."

In the court of Louis XIV, women competed for access to the king’s bed. “Some of them were married, and he was married, but since he was king, he had the right to use sexually any women he wanted,” says Illouz. “Sex was a legitimate way to have access to power. French society is still shaped by those courtly institutions. Sociologists know that most behaviours trickle down.”

In recent decades, presidential mistresses are widely believed to have been appointed as cabinet ministers and, in one case, as prime minister.

For centuries, sex has been disconnected from religion in France, Illouz notes. “Sex was used for power in French history, and therefore it was not immediately connected to marriage. Marriage was not viewed as a pre-condition to having sexual relations.”

Illouz says Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is essential to understanding French attitudes towards sex. "Madame de Merteuil [the main female character] is no less scheming than Valmont [the main male character]. Madame de Merteuil uses sexuality as a way to gain power. That is a fundamental sociological motif of the place of women in French society.

"Liaisons is about intrigues, lies, cheating, seducing a woman and then laughing at the way she believed you and your words of love. It's about gaining power and it says that sincerity is for silly gooses," says Illouz.

By contrast, the main character in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published 29 years after Liaisons, is subjected to moral condemnation simply because he calls on a young woman repeatedly without asking to marry her. "Gallantry is superficial, a social aesthetic," Illouz concludes. "The Anglo-Saxon way of conceiving sentiments is far more authentic and sincere."

So is US President Donald Trump acting like a French aristocrat? Certainly not, says Illouz. "Trump is not about cultivating an aesthetics of the self. When you look at the women he has been with, including a porn star, it is really about the crude exchange of money for sex and beauty. The price differs; marriage for Melania; $130,000 to silence the porn star Stormy Daniels."

At least 19 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, but it seems to have zero impact on his political base. “Don’t forget that 57 per cent of white American women voted for him,” says Illouz. “That’s an amazing number. I cannot imagine that 57 per cent of Jews or African-Americans would vote for a candidate who was blatantly anti-Semitic or racist. But women did it.”