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Thanks, Catherine Deneuve, for being brave enough to address the human rights issue of our time: men's right to hit on women

We’re experiencing ‘a puritanical wave of purification’, I read, while sitting opposite a billboard featuring a naked woman orgasmically proclaiming her lust for yoghurt

Holly Baxter
Wednesday 10 January 2018 15:14 GMT
Men should be 'free to hit on' women, 100 prominent female French artists say

When I scan the international news these days, there’s one human rights issue that I believe urgently needs our attention: a man’s right to hit on a woman. Sadly, it seems like we’ve made progress in so many other areas – we made rape within marriage illegal in 1991, remember! – but perhaps we’ve slipped up elsewhere.

What about those other human rights which don’t get so much attention but are equally noble and important? The right to run your hand up your employee’s leg, for instance. Or the right to wolf-whistle at a stranger in the street. Or the right to not live in constant, unrelenting fear of being publicly told – on Twitter that you’re disgusting for sexually harassing your female peers. When you start ignoring these basic fundamental rights just because those people happen to be men, you may as well set the Houses of Parliament alight, chuck in the ashes of some war heroes from the Battle of Britain, and stand atop the pyre proclaiming that anarchy in the name of Karl Marx, Jeremy Corbyn and Isis has finally been achieved in the United Kingdom.

So when I heard that Catherine Deneuve and a group of French entertainers, academics and performers had written to Le Monde this week saying that men’s rights to “seduce” women should be protected, I was cheered. Luckily there are still some upstanding women who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and proclaim their support for men’s rights. Let’s face it, girls – it’s only fair. Basically all men have taken up the cause of feminism in the last few years – through actions as well as words – that it’s only right we pay them back. I personally receive at least five emails a day from men thanking me for my commitment to gender equality and asking if they can deposit some money in my bank account from their own salaries, which, in their own words are “over-inflated” and “mainly down to the fact that structural sexism promoted me above my equally talented female peers”. Amazing!

“Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not,” wrote the authors, warning that we all face a “puritanical wave of purification”. I read about that puritanical wave of purification (a supremely ugly phrase, though perhaps it sounded better in French) on my daily commute while sat opposite a billboard of a naked woman orgasmically proclaiming her lust for yoghurt. BMW’s Ultimate Attraction advert in 2010 featured a man penetrating a woman who had a car magazine for a face, I thought to myself, but sure, compulsory male chastity belts are probably mere months away from becoming Government policy.

It’s a “witch hunt”, this #MeToo stuff, said Deneuve and her co-signatories – and everyone loves a bit of “witch hunt” chat, don’t they? Invoking the Salem witch trials is rapidly becoming the new Godwin’s Law. Luckily there weren’t real witch hunts which led to the burning and drowning of hundreds of women unfairly accused of using black magic because of their feminine wiles, and lucky some women still aren’t murdered or maimed by their families across the world after being accused of witchcraft, otherwise that sort of phraseology could be seen as really insensitive.

So. What does “persistently trying to seduce someone” entail? That’s what I really, genuinely wondered when I read the French women’s letter and indeed when I heard one of them on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning recounting that she had once had her bum grabbed on public transport when she was 13 years old but that she “wasn’t traumatised” and the whole point was that she didn’t want women to be portrayed as wilting wallflowers. Women are resilient, she argued, and we can get over sexism. We don’t need protecting. We’re not going to die if our boss touches our knee or if someone keeps asking us out over and over again or if someone assaults us while we travel around on the bus.

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I was never personally under the impression that I would spontaneously combust if a man sexually harassed me (indeed, if that were true, I would have burst into flames long ago when I was 14 years old and walking home in my school uniform, and continued to do so for the following decade and beyond.) I am quite aware that I can deal with sexism. Every other woman I know can too. Spoiler alert: you don’t get a choice. You don’t get to opt out. You don’t get to throw up your hands and say, “Oh gosh, I’m just too delicate for all of this!” and then sexism never ever happens to you again.

What many don’t seem to understand is that women don’t collapse in the face of one “Nice tits, love!” shouted from a vehicle going past your house when you step out in the morning. Instead, they get worn down by the constant drip-drip-drip of harassment and dismissal. It’s not one hand on your knee – it’s a hand on the knee, then a yell in the street, then an unwanted few tweets about your appearance, then the man who comes and sits right next to you in an empty train carriage, then the group of teenage boys who grab at you outside the station, then the “open secret” about the behaviour of a powerful man towards young women, then your pay packet mysteriously being so much less weighty than your male peers’, then being told that if it was higher men wouldn’t want to date you anyway because they’d be “intimidated” and no one likes a woman who’s too clever.

It’s the disbelief of everyone when you do speak out, the whispers that you’re probably doing it for the money or the attention. It’s the culture which demands you put on make-up and wear high heels and figure-hugging clothing to be “smart” and “professional”, and then blames you for wearing lipstick and a pencil skirt when your boss makes a move on you.

Above all, it’s being asked to take responsibility for the actions of men. Why didn’t you say anything? Why don’t you start a group in your industry or workplace which tackles sexism – populated by yourself and other women, of course? Have you tried being more resilient? Have you tried putting on a black dress at the Golden Globes? Why not just tell men when their behaviour upsets you, because they can’t be expected to modify their behaviour in the first instance? Why not wear something different? Why not socialise less and at different hours and with different people? Why not laugh it off and say you don’t mind?

When I saw Carrie Gracie take a stand for equal pay this week, I thought: thank you. This makes it easier for younger women like me who are coming in your wake. And when I look at the French letter in Le Monde today, I think: what made you decide to actively come out against a movement which privileges women’s voices against powerful men’s? What was the driving force behind your choice to lay the blame at women’s feet, to accuse them of getting carried away, getting a little hysterical, taking everything too far, orchestrating a witch hunt? I find it difficult to understand. Because to me, the saddest thing about this letter is that it reads awfully familiar. It reads like the sexism I’ve been hearing all my life.

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