19 Jan 2018

Italy debates if sexual harassment is a question of morality or power 

The notorious open letter of French women published in Le Monde relaunched the #MeToo debate in Italy. Sadly, we are witnessing an attempt to reduce the discussion on harassment to a moralistic issue.

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
Italy debates if sexual harassment is a question of morality or power  - NewsMavens
MeToo hashtag. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

The letter, signed by Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Millet, Ingrid Caven and many others, has relaunched the debate on sexual harassment inspired by the MeToo movement. The signatories defend the “men’s right to hit on women” as an indispensable element of sexual freedom and warn that we’re about to enter an era of new puritanism.

In Italy, the feminist world is divided on the issue. Some believe the letter does nothing but weaken  women’s cause. Others heaved a sigh of relief, believing that the #MeToo movement has triggered a wave of moralism that is spoiling social life.

Who else was relieved? The most blatant misogynists led by Silvio Berlusconi, who claimed that:

"Catherine Deneuve uttered holy words. It is only natural for a woman to be happy when a man is courting her."

Needless to say, these sorts of statements completely ignore the complexity of the issue. I do not know to what extent the signatories of the letter were aware of this risk, but a few days later Deneuve tried to distance herself from it:

"This is why I want to say to conservatives, racists and reactionaries of any kind who have found it convenient to support me : I am no fool. They will not win my gratitude, nor my friendship; quite the opposite."

It was only predictable that such a letter would only encourage defendants of the patriarchy.

I am personally involved in this public debate, having published the article that I invite you to read. I believe that what we are witnessing is an attempt to reduce the debate on harassment to a moralistic issue. This is an excellent strategy to divert attention from the central problem -- that the relationship between men and women has been asymmetrical for centuries, inevitably leaving a powerful imprint on both sexes.

Firstly, though not primarily, that asymmetry is physiological. On top of that, more importantly, there is the asymmetry of power that amplifies the scale of the problem.

Therefore, while a man (in 99.9 percent of cases) is physically able to avoid any unwelcome behavior on the part of a woman, the woman (most often) is not. And then in so many cases her career, social position or family life depend on him.

This is why the feminist debate should not let itself be exploited by the morality angle.

The discussion on harassment is not so much about moral acceptability but about the relationship of power between men and women. Instead of protecting ambiguity, we should work together to expose it.

women's issues, gender

Details from the story:

  • On January 9, Le Monde published an open letter signed by, among others, Catherine Millet, Joëlle Losfeld, Ingrid Caven and Catherine Deneuve, who, while condemning sexual violence, defended "the freedom to hit on women, indispensable to sexual freedom".
  • Soon after, Deneuve tried to distance herself from the accusations that she is supporting harassment.
  • The letter has triggered a heated debate in Italy between those who argue that it weakens the women’s cause and others who claim that the #MeToo movement may bring about a new way of puritanism.
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