Thursday, May 19, 2011

L'Affaire DSK

If you haven't been following 'L'affaire DSK', it's the scandal involving the French politician and head of the IMF who has been arrested in New York on attempted rape charges. One thing you'll notice if you follow the story is all the commentary on how this reflects (or doesn't) French mores. I've seen plenty of chat to the effect "well, what do you expect from a French man?" This ranges from the mildly hysterical (people claiming that you basically can't move in France without being groped or worse) to the seemingly credible (people recounting their own experiences of being sexually harassed with no real recourse).

I don't think French men are more likely to assault you than any other nationality. However, the sexual culture is different here in some ways. While I personally haven't experienced anything, I think the bar for what constitutes 'sexual harassment' is probably set higher in France than in most Anglo-Saxon countries. I imagine you could get away with a suggestive remark, for example, more easily here. This is related to the broader context - men, including strangers, are more likely to compliment you here, or to come up and ask you out in, say, the supermarket. As far as I recall, I never had a guy come up to me and ask me out or say I was beautiful outside of a bar-type context in New Zealand.

In a way, I suppose this can be charming. Maybe even refreshing. But it definitely has its dark side. Sometimes I feel like I can't move without being dissected by the male gaze. It feels like public spaces here are controlled by men and women's rights to just exist in them without being bothered are taken away. It's gotten so that I instinctively stiffen a bit when I see a man walking towards me on the street or, worse, coming up to me when I'm sitting in the park or wherever.

Today, while walking home, I noticed a car pull up alongside me in the carpark on the other side of the footpath. I glanced towards the car, saw a guy with his window all the way down, and looked away. I think he tried to talk to me, but I implemented my general policy of totally ignoring the guy and kept walking. He responded by driving on a little bit and pulling into a space and again calling to me as I walked past. I don't know what he said. I always have my ipod on and I don't want to know what's being said to me, 'good' or bad. This time, knowing he was there, I didn't even turn my head but just kept on walking. By this stage, I was pretty sure he'd go past me again. Even worse - when I got to where the carpark crossed the footpath, there he was stopped at the zebra crossing. Again, I avoided looking at him and walked around behind his car while he continued to shout something at me. Just past the intersection, I stopped at the bus stop, having had pretty much enough of walking by this stage. So he goes past me a fourth time, still yelling something. At this stage I gave him the fingers. Juvenile, yes, but I was furious. Okay, it's not the worse thing that's ever happened to someone, but it made me livid that this guy thinks he has some god-given right to stalk me down the street, yell at me, block my path with his car and basically punish me for not talking to him. I assume at least by the third or fourth time whatever he was saying wasn't very complimentary either.

Sure, this isn't something that could or does only happen in France, but, while today was an extreme example, some guy is bound to say something or come up to me probably about once a week. Which just doesn't happen in NZ or the UK, at least not if you're not in front of a bar at 2 am. And it doesn't make me feel good. It makes me angry, and often actually makes me feel worse about myself since I think "oh great, the toothless 60 year-old thinks I'm in his league". It makes me angry as well that many men don't realise, or don't care, that this can be very frightening or intimidating for a woman, particularly if it's late at night or somewhere isolated. It's unfair that, not only do they not themselves feel like frightened potential victims at any given moment, but that they're not even conscious that that's the reality for women. Again, not all men are like this, but at the moment it definitely is making me more hostile towards the literal and metaphorical man on the street...


  1. A few months ago, I was out in Paris with a friend and a bunch of his friends. Late in the night, I was alone with him and his (very very drunk) friend. They started saying "Bonsoir" to some of the girls who were passing us. Now, it was late, and we were in a semi-creepy area by Les Halles. After the 3rd or 4th time of watching the girls give a sideways glance and speed along, I turned to them and was like "Do you want in on a secret? What you're doing, while innocent enough, is creepy. Girls find it creepy." They looked at me very surprised, but they immediately stopped. Now, these are two perfectly nice non threatening guys one of whom is one of my closest friends, but still... Well, if anything, I have reduced the creepiness towards girls by two guys.

  2. Well that's something :)
    I don't think one bonsoir or whatever makes you a jerk (plus I do give a bit of a pass for drunkenness) but it does annoy me that they don't know, or can't imagine, how that might make a girl feel. And in turn it bothers me that I now have this Pavlovian negative response to any guy who might genuinely just want to ask me the time or whatever. That guy today though - that was a jerk!

  3. Get yourself a can of mace or a taser. If you can't afford either of these just vomit on them (you're good at that haha).



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