Drawing from Mexican author Marta Lamas’ book, attorney Paula Vial reflects on the puritanical, moralistic, and victimizing rhetoric used to discuss women’s issues. She goes on to analyze how this rhetoric negatively impacts the right of the accused to respond to accusations made against them—and even defend their own dignity, the right of due process, and a host of other rights. Finally, she looks at how this worsens, not betters, relations between men and women.
We live in an exceptional era, one in which—finally—the goal of gender equality is within reach. The existence of inequality in the rights and treatment of different groups is widely acknowledged, and there is now a large number of women across the world who have said, “Enough!” Women who are tired of these inequities; of being excluded from every position of power; of not being appreciated, one and all; of being expected to do so much, much more than men; of being undervalued. Women who are tired of the abuse, discrimination (whether explicit or masked), and violence—public and private. And finally, there are now many men who support gender equality, believe that society should make room for women, and who champion women’s rights.
Given this situation, the view some feminists have of women as a class of intrinsically and permanently victimized people must be confronted. The same goes for the attempt to fully sanitize relationships with men. Popular though it may be, the #MeToo movement (and related movements), must be cautioned about how they wield the immense power that comes from public accusations of sexual misconduct on social media. This power must be tempered with a respect for due process and should reject the public shamings often directed at the accused.
But today, it is both difficult and risky to speak these words of caution. It gives one pause to think of the ferocious reactions doing so would likely inspire, of the misunderstandings it would engender, and the loss of prestige it would cause. Dissent is hard when you know it’s synonymous with exile and exclusion.
A feminist activist since the 1960s, Mexican anthropologist Marta Lamas co-founded the Reproductive Choice Information Group. Known in Spanish as Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida, this group advocated for the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico, championing the position that abortion is a personal choice. In 2018, Lamas went on to publish the book Harassment: A Valid Cause for Concern or a Case of Victimization?
In her book, Marta Lamas claims that the tone we use today to talk about sexual assault is shaped by mainstream feminism. This furthers the “Americanization” of modernity, in which American views become “hegemonic talking points” across the world in everything “political, economic, and social”.
“In her book, Marta Lamas claims that the tone we use today to talk about sexual assault is shaped by mainstream feminism. This furthers the “Americanization” of modernity, in which American views become “hegemonic talking points” across the world in everything ‘political, economic, and social.’”
Of all the different feminist perspectives, Lamas’ thesis draws most from the work of Badinter and Halley. In their book, the authors criticize feminism from the perspective of governance, taking aim at three assumptions: “the innocence of women, the abuse they suffer, and the immunity of men.” The book discusses how a radical feminism has colored our understanding of sexual assault, especially in certain spaces, such as universities. This radical perspective is puritanical, moralistic, and victimizing. Furthermore, it threatens not just due process and the presumption of innocence, but a number of other rights as well—and even honor itself. All of this damages male-female relations without proposing any constructive vision for how these relations should, or could, change.
The Right to Solicit
It has become almost impossible to seriously dissent from the perspective that “sexual assault” should be understood in its broadest sense: as anything from unwanted, sloppy, and/or invasive flirtation, to crimes such as molestation and rape.
Attempts to foster new conversations between men and women about these issues are violently rejected out of hand, allowing no room for debate or discussion. The end result is the convenient intimidation and silencing of all who dare break from the now hegemonic politically correct mold.
To demand respect for, and adherence to, rule of law, with due process (without exceptions—regardless of how serious the crimes and/or accusations are) is not somehow an endorsement of sexual abuse or “normalized” violence. Centuries of discrimination and violence cannot be ended with reciprocal violence that doesn’t respect the rights of others; even if their loud jeers, intimidating advances, and vicious crimes might make doing so feel justified.
To confront this attitude, Lamas takes as her point of departure the open letter signed by a group of female French intellectuals that reaffirmed the right to flirt as a fundamental component of sexual liberation. The group of signatories was led by author and art critic Catherine Millet. In January 2018, this group published a manifesto wherein they refused to identify with any kind of feminism that lent itself to the hatred of men and sexuality. Furthermore, they asserted that the right of a woman to say “no” cannot exist without the freedom to solicit, which itself lets us distinguish between awkward flirtation and sexual aggression. Finally, they repudiated the temptation to see women as “prey”. Instead, their stated goal was the education their daughters, so as to raise women who are informed and conscientious, allowing them a life free from both intimidation and guilt.
The dialectic Lamas spells out is between “Americanized” radical feminism, with its American puritanism, and the feminism of this group of French intellectuals, with their recommendation for a different perspective, one that prioritizes womankind and her sexuality. Lamas examines the debate and finds that the fight against sexual assault—a longstanding feminist cause—has created a rift within feminism, and how in some extreme cases, this fight is exploited by a variety of socio-political interest groups.
Compellingly, the author acknowledges the ethical importance of confronting sexual assault, and goes on to give nuanced answers about how to balance concern over that problem and the risks associated with fully adopting radical feminism’s exaggerated puritanism. This is of the utmost importance, as the risk of swinging from one extreme to another is clear. The fury over sexual assault, though understandable and a valuable instigator for social change, has been co-opted and channeled into specious slandering, witch-hunts, and public lynchings that ruin lives and careers. Without limits or counterweights, all of this represents a dangerous overreach.
Without the guarantees of inalienable rights that protect both the accusers and the accused, victims and victimizers, the innocent and the guilty, the good and the bad, yourself and myself, “victimology” can become its own kind of aggression. There are a number of democratic rights that benefit us all and must be preserved. The presumption of innocence, for one, and also the right to defend oneself in court, with the understanding that counter-arguments and context may rebuff an accusation—even an accusation that comes from a woman, and that said rebuff does not somehow constitute “aggression”. Burden of proof must also always be demanded of an accusation, as courts of law (and unlike kangaroo courts) require. How can we have an egalitarian society if justice is administered only to one side—albeit the side that has historically gotten the short end of the stick? How can justice be fostered if the roles of women as victim and men as victimizer are permanent and unchangeable? What kind of freedoms can women today (or of the future) be guaranteed if we assign them the status of eternal victims? Acknowledging the history of discrimination does not mean concluding that women are inherently victims. It means acknowledging a cultural problem we want to overcome.
“How can justice be fostered if the roles of women as victim and men as victimizer are permanent and unchangeable? What kind of freedoms can women today (or of the future) be guaranteed if we assign them the status of eternal victims? Acknowledging the history of discrimination does not mean concluding that women are inherently victims.”
And if today we change the rules of the game in order to benefit victimized women, how long before the pendulum swings back the other way?
Precisely how much power do we want to give women in an attempt to compensate them for the innumerable injuries, deprivations, and indignities they have suffered?
Vigilante justice—without checks and balances—that demands every woman be believed, simply because she is a woman, is the kind of “legal” system most likely to give credence to false accusations. It would become a tool petty people lusting for vengeance, and would dish out out erroneous verdicts to innocent parties who have no hope for redemption or restitution. It is understood that one false or exaggerated accusation, or a single attempt to reinterpret an amicable encounter in bad faith, once found out, can create a deafening backlash that stops an entire movement in its tracks. Nobody wants an imposter like Enric Marco (immortalized by Javier Cercas) in their ranks, who through his selfish lies wounded the credibility and confidence of a just and laudable cause. As such, that the road to success is not one that seeks to silence any and every source of doubt or legitimate concern.
“Vigilante justice—without checks and balances—that demands every woman be believed, simply because she is a woman, is the kind of ‘legal’ system most likely to give credence to false accusations. It would become a tool petty people lusting for vengeance, and would dish out out erroneous verdicts to innocent parties who have no hope for redemption or restitution.”
And if the accused has no right to respond, to defend himself, or to give context, those same rights will be denied to his friends and associates as well. In witch hunts, the wizards, sorcerers, and apprentices closest to the accused are forced to participate in the ordeal. There, they must betray past friendships and loyalties by participating in, and egging on the deliberation. The spectacle must continue, and evolves into a repetitive chorus of condemnation (both in writing and through social media and news organs) directed against the accused. Even if those closest to him do not believe the accusations, they must pretend to in the face of inescapable social pressure. If they do not turn their backs to him, they are considered accomplices.
It seems reasonable to ask what the goal of this movement is, what #MeToo’s final objective is; and to ask the same of any other political campaign that follows the playbook of trying to sidestep our given rights. If the goal is to end sexual misconduct, it’s worth noting that this strategy only delivers consequences to a few powerful (or supposedly powerful) people, and makes no impact on the day-to-day instances of sexual violence. And it if it’s not trying to end or at least diminish bad behavior in society at large, what is it trying to do? If the goal is to bring about new standards of behavior between men and women, Lamas proposes giving concepts such as “sexual misconduct” and “sexual assault” more precise definitions. (This idea is relevant in Chile as well, if you believe that legal rights are, or can be, instruments of social change.) Furthermore, she recommends adding new categories to ensure existing ones stay specific, such as “chauvinistic social harassment”, which would help differentiate between obnoxious and criminal acts. On top of that, she demands that the justice system be more rigorous in ensuring that reporting crimes can always be done safely and efficiently, and that there is no inequality of access to that service.
There is also, of course, the choice to fight for a more egalitarian democracy. One that teaches equality to both men and women. One that works hard to raise women who speak without reservations, who demand respect of men—and one that raises men to respect women, in order to create a world without fear or resentment between the two. Utopian? Ingenuous? I don’t think so. We can start creating this world with the three things I mentioned in the beginning of this essay: 1) Acknowledgement of inequality. 2) Empowered and ambitious women with access to decision-making positions throughout society. 3) Men who support gender equality, and who fight alongside us for change.
Building a world made-up of women who are just as free and strong as men, and have just as many rights as men, is going to be hard if we insist on infantilizing them. Sexuality is an important part of our lives, and education about it needs to be administered with equality and liberty for all.
Make no mistake, I am not advocating some kind of regression. I am not saying change is unnecessary or that past injustices should not be condemned, or that the social contract doesn’t need some revisions.
There is no freedom to abuse and there is freedom to assault. There is reason why the status quo needs improving. But the simplistic strategy of silencing one set of ideas by imposing another set of ideas will not bring about the debates we need to be having.
Using the slandering of people (personally and professionally) as a weapon to silence dissent will not bring about the desired results. What we need are spaces for reflection and dialogue.
There are those who have attempted to impose a rationale that we reject. If we don’t agree with #MeToo, we are accomplices to the aggressors. If we don’t agree with #MeToo and are feminists, we are traitors who don’t deserve the label. Whatever you want to call it, my definition of feminism is interest in establishing equal rights between men and women. And another part of that definition would be the unyielding demand that due process, and the right to respond to allegations, be respected.
 Badinter, E. (2003). Hombres/Mujeres, cómo salir del camino equivocado. Buenos Aires, 2003, (Pausse route, Odile Jacob, Paris) y Halley, J., Kotiswaran, P., Rebouché, R., & Shamir, H. (2018). Governance feminism: An introduction. U of Minnesota Press