‘Rape is a crime. But a persistent or clumsy come-on is not a crime’

One hundred French writers, performers and academics including Catherine Denueve have written an open letter defending ‘the freedom to seduce’

French newspaper Le Monde ran an open letter signed by the 74-year-old actor Catherine Denueve, along with around 100 other French female writers, performers and academics. Photograph:  Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

French newspaper Le Monde ran an open letter signed by the 74-year-old actor Catherine Denueve, along with around 100 other French female writers, performers and academics. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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“Rape is a crime. But a persistent or clumsy come-on is not a crime, nor is gallantry a form of macho aggression.” So begins an open letter in French newspaper Le Monde, signed by the 74-year-old actor Catherine Denueve, along with around 100 other French female writers, performers and academics.

The letter - whose signatories include Catherine Millet, author of the explicit 2002 bestseller The Sexual Life of Catherine M; the writer Abnousse Shalmani, who has compared feminism to Stalinism; the thirty-something anti-feminist philosopher Peggy Sastre; and Sophie de Menthon, a business leader who has written about how being whistled at in the street is “rather nice” - pits itself against what it sees as a “witch hunt” and a “puritanical…wave of purifaction” threatening sexual freedom in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

You don’t have to have read their resumes to get a whiff of where they might be coming from. “We defend,” it goes on, “the freedom to importune or seduce, indispensable to sexual freedom.”

“Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss.”

Men have been dragged through the mud, the authors allege, for “talking about intimate subjects during professional dinners or for sending sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their attentions.”

“Instead of helping women, this frenzy to send these ‘pigs’ to the abattoir actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty - religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries,” the letter goes on.  

The writers insist that women are “sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive. But we are also clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack.”

There was always going to be a backlash to the Weinstein backlash, but the contrived hand-wringing about the death of flirting - this “feminism is destroying flirting, endangering men’s happiness, and giving the Taliban a boost in the process” shtick - is starting to get a bit jaded.

Here’s the thing. We all know seducing people can be a thorny business. Navigating interpersonal relations in a professional context requires tact and delicacy at the best of times. But, and it’s worth repeating this as often and as loudly as necessary, the #MeToo movement (or the French equivalent #Balancetonporc) is not about seduction. It’s not about poor, hapless men attempting cackhanded come-ons. It’s not about ill-conceived efforts to be gallant. It’s not about over-eager chaps or mocking, dismissive, vindictive women. It’s not about revenge at all.

The #MeToo movement is about sexual aggression. It’s about harassment. If you’re in doubt about what constitutes harassment, here is a handy primer that also bears repeating. It’s about power, persistence or pattern. If there’s an imbalance of power: if there are persistent sexual advances, comments or behaviours which are not reciprocated; or if there is a pattern of incidents that on their own might seem unremarkable but, when taken together, serve to undermine, threaten or harass, then there’s a problem.

There is no doubt that some men (mostly decent ones, probably) are checking their behaviour in the wake of Weinstein, wondering whether something they might have said or done before might now be interpreted as inappropriate. But does anyone honestly regard a little more thoughtfulness, a tad more introspection on this issue, as a bad thing?

It is true that accusations that have fallen under the umbrella of the #MeToo movement have brought an abrupt end to careers globally. Some of those involved may feel that they have been unfairly treated, or not given a proper hearing. But at the same time, it’s hard to argue that the #MeToo has been anything other than a force for good. It has sparked a much-needed global conversation about gender relations, equality and entitlement.

So, Catherine and friends, knowing the difference between “an awkward attempt to pick someone up” and “a sexual attack” is not the preserve of eager-to-please, anti-feminist French actors, academics or performers.

It is not actually rocket science.

If you are decent and respectful and genuinely believe in equality between the sexes, and act in accordance with that belief, you should have nothing to worry about. Go forth and seduce without fear.

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