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Catherine Deneuve, #MeToo and the misuse of the term 'witch-hunt'


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Perhaps the most interesting thing about the backlash to the #MeToo movement is the repeated insistence that men are being subjected to a ‘witch-hunt’ over sexual malpractice.

In the latest addition to the international conversation we are currently having about sexual harassment, assault, and abuse of power, lauded French actor Catherine Deneuve and a number of other high-profile female French stars, academics and writers have produced an open letter claiming that men are being unjustly targeted by a furious wave of ‘puritanism’.

Published in the national newspaper Le Monde, the letter claims that a new kind of feminism, distinguished by its ‘hatred of men’, threatens sexual liberty.

I’m not the first to say this, but the implicit irony in using the term ‘witch-hunt’ to describe the supposed vigilante castigation of male sexual aggressors does seem just a tad naïve. After all, witch-hunts historically were the product of an explicitly misogynistic culture of violence that sought to destroy women who lived somewhat on the boundaries of their communities and cultural practices. Women, in these instances, were literally burned at the stake. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, who are now being treated, according to various spokespeople, to ‘therapy’ in order to remedy their behaviour, seem to have got off relatively lightly in comparison.

So just why is it that the witch-hunt imagery is so very powerful to this legion of support for what the letter calls the right to ‘flirt insistently’?

Well, it seems that Deneuve and her fellow signatories believe that the conflation of rape and sexual harassment will create an environment in which men will not feel free to ‘steal a kiss’ or ‘touch a knee’.

The #MeToo movement is an attack on sexual predators which, they argue, also threatens to undermine the complex language of signals, interactions, and physical prompts that we use to express sexual attraction.

Personally, I’m not convinced. I didn’t live through the sexual revolution, but from my hazy understanding of it, sexual freedom sprung out of greater access to contraception, the legalisation of abortion, and a youth culture looking to defy its staid predecessors in favour of a hypnotic and erotically-charged rock ‘n’ roll scene.

Sexual freedom isn’t the right to touch what you want, when you want, regardless of whether the object of your affections feels the same. Sexual freedom is freedom from harassment and freedom from the threat of physical aggression; it is being sufficiently informed, protected, and thereby empowered to make one’s own sexual decisions in a situation in which enthusiastic consent is paramount.

Deneuve and her fellow petitioners’ foundational argument seems to me to be that all this talk – of consent, of propriety, and of respect – is somewhat dull. Sure, talking about proper workplace etiquette most likely isn’t all that sexy. But that’s because it’s not meant to be. The office water-cooler isn’t the place to steal a kiss. A desk is a place to work, not a handy disguise for an opportunistic below-the-table knee grope.

More importantly, I think that the letter’s stance on men is bewildering, suggesting that dogged attempts at flirting are the natural preserve of male behaviour. The assertion that men should be allowed to act accordingly is an insult to the men I know who do not believe that sexual predation is some formative part of their essential natures. To me, it smacks of an innately belligerent and entitled misapprehension that flirting is merely a process of convincing an initially unwilling person to sleep with you, rather than a mode of interaction between two equally engaged people predicated on a discernible frisson of attraction.

Deneuve and those in agreement with her believe that rape exists in a vacuum, reserved for a special kind of evil. In fact, instances of sexual harassment – an unwanted hand on the knee, an uninvited kiss, or, increasingly in the digital age, an unsolicited dick pic – form a fundamental part of the culture that permits people like Harvey Weinstein to behave as they do, and for so long, cushioned by an unchallenged sense of entitlement and a culture that fails to investigate their actions.

Sexual liberty isn’t under attack from those working to expose this behaviour. It’s under attack from those who perpetrate it, and who in doing so disarm women of their ability to feel safe to make their own sexual choices, free from coercion.  

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