Actor Catherine Deneuve and feminist Germaine Greer denounce the #MeToo campaign

There would be no need for a #MeToo campaign if the justice system was adequately equipped to handle sexual crimes without victim blaming, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

LAST WEEK, French actor Catherine Deneuve was one of around 100 French women who signed an open letter denouncing the #MeToo campaign — a social media initiative that sprang to life as a consequence of Hollywood actors revealing their experiences of sexual harassment by producer Harvey Weinstein.

The goal of the campaign was to encourage women on Twitter to use the "Me Too" hashtag to indicate that they, too, had been sexually harassed and/or assaulted, in the hope that the enormity of the problems we face would become evident.

Deneuve and her colleagues claim in their open letter that things have “gone too far” with #MeToo, threatening a man’s right to “hit on a woman” (please note the terminology) and heralding a new “puritanism” that imperils flirtation.

Their concerns were echoed by feminist, Germaine Greer, who lamented:

“If you’re in a position of power or influence, you can’t make a pass at somebody because it will be considered to be inappropriate use of influence, force and so on.”

Greer went on to despair

“How do you express desire without putting pressure on people?”

At which point, a potential book title occurred to me: "Desire for Dummies: How to recognise the difference between expressions of interest and sexual assault before you cross the line".  

Greer also voiced her concern for actor Craig McLachlan, currently besieged by numerous accusations of sexual impropriety by women and men who’ve encountered him in their professional lives. He has been punished enough, Greer claims, because he’s lost his job.

It’s necessary to point out here that McLachlan and others in his situation lost their jobs because their employers chose to fire them and it is not the responsibility of their alleged victims that they are unemployed. I’m pointing this out because of the plethora of protests claiming that accusing a man of sexual impropriety destroys his career — it likely might, but that decision is not made by victims, it is always made by employers.

Should victims keep their mouths shut to prevent employers firing an alleged perpetrator? I don’t think so. If you’re angry at the job losses or think it is unfair to fire a man before he’s found guilty, tell the employers. They obviously consider it in their best interests to rid themselves of and distance themselves from the problem.

If the media conducts a “witch hunt” against an alleged perpetrator, that is likewise not the victim’s responsibility. Victims should not be expected to keep silent because of a media outlet’s decision to pursue an alleged perpetrator.

And let’s not forget a journalist’s job is to investigate and report. Are we expecting journalists to refrain from reporting allegations of sexual assault until the matter has been heard by the courts?

I’d like to suggest that the astounding success of #MeToo – if learning of the global magnitude of sexual harassment and assault can be called a success – is directly related to the astounding failure of legal systems to adequately and humanely deal with sexual crimes.

Does anyone seriously believe that victims of such crimes would choose to disclose this abuse on social media if there was a viable option? An option that wouldn’t result in either being ignored and humiliated by police or in an adversarial legal debacle almost guaranteed to end with the perpetrator walking away and the victim traumatised, re-traumatised and publicly flayed by the defence? Because this is what the majority of victims of sexual crimes must face when they enter the criminal justice system.

It is entirely unreasonable to demand that victims enter into an adversarial legal system that is appallingly ill-equipped to deal humanely with sexual crimes. Change the system. Who does it currently benefit? Certainly not victims. Change the system or get used to victims going public because, as things stand, going public is a better option than going to the police. If #MeToo has done nothing else (though I believe it has, not least giving a platform to victims who have never had a public voice), it has glaringly foregrounded the inadequacies of our criminal justice system in dealing with allegations of sexual assault.

The law – any law – is not exempt from interrogation simply because it is a law. It would be most useful if we were willing to abandon the crypto-theocratic reverence many among us seem to hold for the law — the naïve belief that because it is a law it is unquestionably right, fair and just, and so is the implementation of its processes. From this notion comes the demand that victims of sexual assault must turn to the law for justice, must go through the processes it demands, no matter what the toll, because the sanctity of the rule of law must be upheld.

It is true that a nation is better governed by the rule of law principles, one of which is that the law should be such that people will be able (and, one should add, willing) to be guided by it. When a law and the processes of its implementation are so contrary to the wellbeing of the victims it is designed to protect, that system ought not to be respected — and alternatives must be sought.

#MeToo is such an alternative — one that seeks to avoid the injustices sexual assault victims endure under the current system. Crude in its infancy, but an alternative nonetheless. The movement is regarded by Deneuve, Greer and many others as a type of vigilante action that subverts the belief that a man is innocent until proven guilty, as well as interfering with flirtation and inhibiting the expression of desire.

However, there is such an abyss between flirtation and the expression of desire, and sexual harassment and assault, that their argument is either tragically ignorant, deliberately disingenuous, or they have a high tolerance for abuse. I have not heard any accounts from women who’ve spoken of their experiences with Weinstein or McLachlan that could be remotely described as consensual or flirtatious — though certainly, neither man has held back from expressing his desires. Every account I’ve heard sounds like an account of harassment and/or assault.

The right to the presumption of innocence also applies to complainants, who are all too often held responsible for the attacks on them. She shouldn’t have been out at night, drinking, dressed like that; women always lie about rape, she must have led him on. The victim blaming is infinite, there is no presumption of innocence and there are no laws that uphold complainants’ rights to be regarded as innocent of any kind of complicity. There is, however, a presumption that the victim will prove herself virtuous and undeserving of attack. I cannot think of any other crime in which a victim is expected to prove her or himself virtuous. If your home is burgled while you’re out, does anyone tell you it was wrong of you to go out?

I suggest that embedded in the legal system’s current approach to dealing with sexual assault is the unacknowledged impulse to shame the victim and that this impulse is rampant in a culture that asks: What were you wearing?

Lastly, you may have noticed that I’ve used the word “victim” throughout this piece. Deneuve and others who’ve criticised #MeToo claim that publicly acknowledging harassment and assault encourages women to see ourselves as “victims”. They strongly disapprove of this. To them, “victim” is a derogatory and debasing term, describing a shameful vulnerability that any self-respecting woman should avoid. It is a term they use with contempt.

This is elitist codswallop. There is no shame in being a victim of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. The shame lies entirely with the perpetrator. The fault lies entirely with the perpetrator.

The experience of being a victim is powerful and authentic. We should never, ever, be ashamed of having been a victim. I can’t be a survivor if I haven’t acknowledged I was a victim. Many women move out of the experience of being a victim into the experience of being a survivor and nobody does it without a struggle. It is an achievement of which to be proud.

Why – we must ask – is the legal process around sexual assault so intimidating that many victims simply cannot report it? Most importantly, who benefits most from this state of affairs? Why is there no political will to address the injustices and inadequacies? And why is anyone surprised that women are, at last, taking matters into our own hands and bypassing the legal system that continues to so catastrophically fail us?

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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