From Clarence Thomas to Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the stance on sexual harassment has developed alongside the different scandals and resulting judicial responses. Abigail Saguy is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of California (UCLA), and offers her analysis of the new place occupied by sexual harassment in public debate.
France-Amerique: In the United States, American actress Alyssa Milano and New York-based French journalist Sandra Muller launched hashtags on Twitter to encourage women to come forward with their experiences. The #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”) tags were then massively adopted in France. Is it easier to broach these subjects in America?
Abigail Saguy: Victims of sexual harassment who speak out publicly in France run the risk of being accused of “defamation of character” [in line with article 226-10 of the French penal code]. Those who lose their case in court — even if the assault or harassment did take place — can therefore find themselves put on trial faced with accusations of defamation. It is quite possible that victims are scared of condemning inappropriate behavior. Freedom of expression does have its limits in the United States, but the laws that govern defamation of character and slander are not as restrictive. Women risk less if they speak out. Many French women today are using the American-born hashtags #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc as a vehicle for their experiences. The fact that this movement has resonated so much in France means that sexual harassment is a very real problem in both countries.
What are the consequences of this wave of speaking out and condemnation? Is it little more than another social media trend?
For now, it is a moment of freedom. We will see if more men are named directly, and if there are lawsuits filed. What is happening to Harvey Weinstein today is very similar to what we saw with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 [Abigail Saguy studied the media treatment of the scandal in France]. During the Sofitel scandal, everyone saw that DSK was not invincible, despite his influence and his power. We saw it was possible to denounce such a powerful man, and I think that was quite a liberating realization for women. It gave them the strength to name other, less powerful men, in the knowledge they would be heard and believed. Certain French organizations such as the Association Contre les Violences Faites aux Femmes au Travail (a charity supporting women subjected to different forms of violence in the workplace) reported they had begun receiving a far higher number of complaints for harassment after the DSK revelations. We are now seeing the same phenomenon following the Weinstein scandal in America. More than 140 women in California have recently denounced members of the legislature for their inappropriate behavior.
How has sexual harassment become a part of public debate?
The term first appeared in the United States in the late 1970s, and entered the mainstream with the 1992 scandal surrounding Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. At a hearing to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court judge, lawyer Anita Hill revealed he had harassed her for years. She spoke out in front of Congress and in front of the cameras. This moment was an awakening for women, and the nation began seriously talking about sexual harassment.
Did the Clarence Thomas scandal resonate in France?
Anita Hill was vilified in France, including by feminists who saw Americans as too puritanical. It was only after the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn that things began to change. There were two phases in the transformation. Members of the intellectual community were initially outraged that the head of the IMF was being treated like a common criminal, appearing handcuffed before the cameras. They played down the whole thing. Then they realized it was far more than simply “humping the help,” and that it was not normal for powerful men to abuse women under their orders. The Sofitel scandal helped to educate the public and raise awareness, and women who came forward were taken more seriously.
What does the Weinstein scandal reveal about the mechanisms that protect harassers and force victims into silence?
The problem of sexual harassment goes far deeper than Hollywood. Women in business are dominated too; they have less power, and generally occupy lower-ranking jobs. The Weinstein scandal has shown that it is this inequality of power that allowed him to harass actresses with impunity. Sexual harassment is handled exclusively by civil law in the United States. Companies can be obliged to pay victims enormous amounts in compensation, which should theoretically give them a good reason to act against harassment. And yet the late Roger Ailes — the former CEO of Fox News — and Harvey Weinstein were so important that their respective companies didn’t hesitate to pay their legal fees and settlements instead of firing them. The system is governed by economic logic, and victims are forced into silence while harassers are left to continue harassing.
Do the same mechanisms exist in France?
Sexual harassment in France is dealt with by civil and criminal law, but court cases under the latter are incredibly difficult to win. Compensation payments are negligible and companies are not encouraged to act. Talking about harassment is a good start, but it remains to be seen what tangible solutions are going to be made available to victims in both countries. [Update: #MeToo protest marches are currently taking place in France and in the United States.]