“Excuse me, but I have a little problem. Can you help me please?” I used my best sing-songy voice, and raised my eyebrows a bit for maximum cuteness paired with my American accent. Four thirty-something women stared back at me, and huddled around me asking me what I needed.
It was my first weekend in France, and though my homestay was only a five-minute walk away from the bar, I had managed to attract two creeps on my way home. At first they found me on the opposite side of the street, but quickly made their way so close I could hear their breathing. There was nothing remotely attractive about me in that moment on the street—covered in my long, gray raincoat with the hood pulled tight over my head. And unless they could smell my growing fear with each step, the sole fact that I was alone must have been what did me in.
Thanks to the women who pointed me in the right direction after I’d lost my way trying to escape these men, I got home just fine. The sole act of speaking to these women seemed to be enough to shake my followers. But the feeling of being watched stuck as old feelings from previous uncomfortable situations resurfaced, despite the safety Rennes provided me.
Fast forward two months. I rested my fingers on the keyboard, and hesitated before hearing them click on the keys. Negotiating with my nerves and sense of empowerment, my fingers seemed to type before my brain registered what they were doing. Six characters later and a “post” later, I had made my mark on a movement that had shaken my native nation. Two small words had taken down TV hosts, actors, and CEO’s, and made a bigger impact than anyone imagined.
Reclaiming my control, it was up to me how I wanted my story to be told. Those six keys on the keyboard allowed me to take back the pen and write my own experience the way it really happened. My experience. My story. My truth.
A few days later, I walked into my weekly oral expression class, greeted by the faces of my Chinese and Colombian classmates. Being the only American in the class, I was usually outnumbered and often overshadowed during debates. After all, the Colombians were quite intimidating with their rolled r’s when describing music, and I was not about to argue with the best-dressed Chinese students about my opinion on sequins.
But this day was different. My professor, who loved making jokes almost as much as he loved his wine, wanted to talk about the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein. He called on me, the token American, to give a quick run-down to the class about what was happening overseas in the United States while we were trying to get by in France. I stumbled my way through the events in an effort to explain what had happened.
“So a powerful man who makes movies has problems in society for… how do you say sexual assault in French?” I asked, switching to English. My professor happened to know English, but he was unable to find a translation for my question.
“Well you see,” he said, “we have words for sexual harassment and sexual aggression. Is that what you mean?” No, it is not what I meant. As someone trained extensively on rape culture and sexual assault, I became frustrated there was no word to describe sexual assault in French. It seemed harassment and rape were the only words available—as if nothing existed in between. I remember wondering how French survivors told their stories, or if they could at all.
This gap in the language proves true under the law as well, deeming anything in between as “sexual aggression” with no definitions. As if groping, an unwanted kiss, or lifting up someone’s skirt are the same thing. And though an aggressor can be fined for five years for an act of sexual aggression, without a definition, it is nearly impossible to convict the aggressor.
My professor took over for me and began to explain that the Harvey Weinstein incident had sparked a French movement. Following the #MeToo movement, three French actresses accused Weinstein of harassment, and the rest of France joined in. Not only were French women sharing their stories, but they created #balancetonporc—‘out your pig’—as their rallying cry. In comparison with the United States, this was a more pointed, accusatory phrase intended to start long-lasting change. This hashtag was less intended to bring survivors together, and instead meant to denounce perpetrators. These women were angry and not backing down.
“Before this movement, no one dared talk about sexual violence,” my French friend Indih told me. As a twenty-four-year-old female student living in Rennes, she appreciates the courage the movement has given to women to share their stories.
This not only stemmed from years of misogyny from men in power, but from court cases deeming eleven year olds are old enough to consent. And in a country with a minister for gender equality, it was surprising to find out France was far behind the United States when it came to sexual assault and harassment legislation.
But my professor seemed to think these women had taken the movement too far.
“So now as a man, I have to be careful. If I touch someone the wrong way, I could go to jail,” he said. It became clear he was less concerned about the accounts of women, and more focused on how he could no longer touch women wherever and whenever he wanted to. “I go outside and I beg to be harassed!” Apparently this was supposed to be a joke, but the humor was lost on me.
Walking through the streets and truly listening to what men had say to me, I understood the root of these women’s fury. Since my arrival in late August, I’d been subjected to constant catcalling and remarks about my body, and I was tired of it. Whether it was the morning commute to my classes, grabbing a drink at the bar with my friends, or strolling through the streets, I could feel the male gaze following me. It may have been a sly look or the tone in a man’s voice, but it was unnerving, and left me unsettled each time I went anywhere alone.
One of my last nights in Rennes, I was walking home with a fellow American and her host brother after hanging out at the bar. We were confronted by two French guys, who stopped us to say hello. One of them knew my friend’s host brother, which quickly started a conversation. Our accents gave us away as usual, and the guys knew we were American.
“Are you drunk?” one of them asked. We were not, and upon hearing this, he seemed a bit disappointed. “But American girls are always drunk and love sex, right?” His words dripped with condescension as his eyes scanned our bodies. He took a step closer, and we took three steps back.
“No, we aren’t like the spring break movies,” I replied. It was the nicest way I could think of to tell him he was wrong, but also get him to leave us alone. My frustration peaked in that moment, knowing I was only being polite out of fear for his retaliation. Thankfully, upon realizing he was not about to get any action, he backed off and left after a few minutes. But even after he was long gone, I could feel his gaze analyzing my body.
I had my fill of this after four months, so I could only imagine how French women felt. Unfortunately, my trip came to an end before I could feel any of the effects of the feminist movement, and left me with a sour taste of my mouth every time I thought of French men.
Being back home, I can see the movement coming to a head. As the number of police reports of rape, sexual assault, and harassment increases in France, so does the country’s motivation to make a change. In the past three months, France has created an age of consent after controversy followed the court decision that sexual assault must be deemed nonconsensual in order to be considered as a criminal charge, regardless of the age of the survivor. The French government has even pushed for a law to fine perpetrators on-the-spot for sexual harassment.
“It is clear the various laws are not enough or explicit enough yet,” said my French friend Chandala—a twenty-six-year-old female student from Rennes. “They are not truly applicable to daily life, but I have hope France will make society safer for women.”
This gives me the hope I so desperately needed when I left Rennes. To see change happening so quickly and effectively has allowed me to let go of some of the frustration I brought back with me. I did not know how else to deal with those feelings, except swallow them for my safety and sanity. Indih told me the women “get used to” these feelings, but “it never gets easier to walk alone at night.” No wonder these women are angry. But it is their determination to make their voices heard that is creating change France has never seen before. I am so glad to know they are not backing down.
Banner image: Jeanne Menjoulet, "Paris under the rain," Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), https://www.flickr.com/photos/96925387@N00/39800506315.