When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, “the problem that has no name” was the problem of college-educated housewives sitting at home being bored to death. Today, the “problem that has no name” is more widespread, more alluring and more aggressive. Its most insidious aspect is how close it comes to the licit ways in which women are used to lure, seduce, persuade and sweetly tease those who see them. To buy more. And more. Promising to make us sexy and our eyes glaze in pleasure. In the commercials saturating our public spaces. The bestselling novel now rising high on sadomasochistic frisson. The film crossing and uncrossing its legs.
We like to think that these are metaphors. That the impossibly beautiful things calling out to us, seductively and low-voiced – to be them, to desire them, to touch and possess that thing they have, their hot sexiness on the edge or pure life itself – don’t literally mean it. Or do mean it, but then only in order to sell us sandwiches and Victoria’s secrets. Or as a bit of diversion from boredom. And yet, the constant presence of their siren-calls wherever we look, day in and day out doing their best to arouse in us some amalgam of desire to be, to possess, to have what they have, is striking.
Of course there is a steady stream of documentaries, manifestos and little squeaks of protest against this state of affairs. They include everyone from Christian grandparents to radical feminists to immigrant imams affronted in their moral sensibilities. But we studiously ignore them. They come and go without changing a thing. Rather like the tide.
But now something has happened that for a moment has made our societies’ traffic in women’s sexual assets a possible problem. A young woman filmed some men who acted as if women on the street are the women in our commercials.
Poster for Sofie Peeters' documentary Femme de la rue
Sophie Peeters is walking down the street in a recent documentary, her final thesis project at the Brussels Film Academy. Sometimes she is filmed from behind and sometimes she herself films through a pen camera tucked into her shirt or dress. There is a microphone nestled in her bag. As she walks, anonymous men speak to her. One after another after another. A man tells her that she arouses him. Another man calls her a whore. Groups of men laugh. Someone shouts out that she has a sexy butt. Men’s eyes track her. What’s her price?, they ask. Does she want a drink? Does she want lunch? If not, attraction and negotiation turn to anger: sharp, rough, snapping – bitch! whore!
We almost never see the men’s faces directly: when they face the camera, Sophie has blurred their features. What is not hidden is their skin, the colour of cafe-au-lait, their black hair, their North African accents. They contrast with Sophie’s white skin, honey brown hair, Flemish-accented French.
When Sophie reaches her front door, enters it and locks out the street, it is a relief. But of course, she will have to go back out sometime. And then the gauntlet will start all over again. Oh, la, la! I want to put my prick in your cunt! Bitch! Whore!
These scenes deeply affront our sense of what is decent. Particularly vicious are the pitiless laughter that reduces Sophie into nothing more than her legs, vagina, and ass and the refusal to believe Sophie does not want these men’s attention, them clinging to her like a dirty tissue. The fury when she continues to reject them. The constancy of the humiliation. Until finally it is clear that here, in this street, Sophie is little more than a walking blow-up doll: a receptacle for any and all libidinous effusions the men launch at her.
The effect of the film has been electric. Overnight our politicians in Belgium and the Netherlands have become fervent feminists: speaking up, vilifying this behavior, proposing laws left and right to make public sexual harassment a crime. This may not be tolerated! Women are men’s equals! Women must be treated with respect!
Who could disagree? Must not this despicable behaviour be brought to an end? And yet, if there’s one thing more despicable than someone calling a woman a whore in public, it is a politician pimping off the occasion for his (or her) own benefit. The politicians could not care less about women’s equality as such. If they did, they would have acted much earlier.
Just a little over a month ago, for example, Gallup released the results of interviews with more than 181,000 people in 143 countries, polling men’s and women’s feelings of safety when walking alone at night where they live. The striking outcome of this poll has been to reveal that the biggest gap between men’s and women’s feeling of safety is in the richer countries of the west. The gap between men and women in countries like France, America, Sweden and Belgium comes in at between 24 and 27%. In the Netherlands (from where I write) the gap is 22% and in the UK it is 20%. By contrast, the countries where women feel most safe in the world are far outside the rich, democratic west: including Ghana, Georgia, Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, Niger, and Indonesia, with gender differences from only 1 to 8%. In a few countries, women even feel safer than men: Syria (+4% in 2011, before the war), Sri Lanka, Burundi and Angola.
Where were our heroic politicians when these figures came out? Why were they not calling these conditions in the west a travesty of justice? Why did they not feel deep shame that countries poorer, many much more religious, some even totalitarian, offer women so much more safety and comfort in public spaces? Is it not the overwhelming mantra of so many of our politicians these days that western democracy offers women the most advanced equality in the world and that immigrants from the Third World must learn to treat women as we do? How many would dare to say, as they ought to, that when it comes to public space, we must create environments as safe for women as they are in Ghana, in Bangladesh, in China?
The silence of our politicians on western women’s security in general stands in shrill contrast to their tremendous responsiveness at the sight of brown men insulting white women. Here they see a chance to “do something.” The problem is that what they propose “doing” – passing laws to prohibit sexual innuendo, proposals and insults in public spaces – has no possibility of succeeding. Such laws have little chance of being more than publicity stunts because public sexual talk is a symptom and not the problem. The real problem is not rude brown men but that our societies both love and abhor sexual women.
One of the great ironies of our age is that women’s formal legal equality has arrived to coincide with women’s public pornographization. Becoming full legal subjects has not meant an erosion of women’s objectification, but an explosion of it. Women’s public sexiness is said to demonstrate their emancipation from repression and inequality. Even as sexy women are the oil that lubricates planetary consumption. Capital without women has no legs to stand on. Or to open. Yet no woman wants to be a whore.
One of the reasons that women in western public space feel so much less safe than men is, quite simply, because they are less safe. From childhood onward, they are subject to a flow of harassment, so regular that it comes to seem not even remarkable. After the release of Sofie Peeters’ documentary, a Dutch newspaper, wanting to get an idea of how common her experience was, called for women to send in accounts of unwanted public sexual attention in public spaces. Within two days, the paper received more than 500 stories, with a constant stream of stories continuing for days after. In France, an (apparent) man’s assertion on Twitter that this experience of Sophie’s was exceptional, sparked an outraged flood of accounts. In America, a photographer’s description of how a man came up behind her as she stood on the street and in a split-second slipped his finger under her skirt and into her vagina, went viral within days.
I myself could tell of the man who chased me in a car when I was twelve, after asking if I wanted to watch him pee; or the high school teacher who hugged me too tight while telling me he had a girl “just like me” waiting for him at home; or the man who approached me on the street as I was painting a building and started asking about my panties, their colour, their tightness, before stroking himself under my ladder, right there for everyone to see, while I tried to gage if he would go on to attack me. Almost all of us have dozens of these stories, so many that what makes them remarkable is not their uniqueness, but rather our ongoing shame, acceptance of their inevitability and disinclination to make these part of our discussions with each other. Much less to consider what we might do.
This is precisely the achievement of Peeters’ film. The documentation of her harassment in her neighborhood, while gripping and unsettling, is in fact less than a quarter of her film. The rest is all conversation: with other women – British, Flemish, Amazigh, Middle Eastern – who share the same experiences; with young immigrant guys hanging out; with older immigrant men sitting on a terrace; and finally, with a young man – Mourade – who used to be just like the guys who harass Sofie. In sharp contrast to the politicians who respond to her film by proposing instant laws, Peeters is interested in finding out why these men do this. The reasons themselves are not remarkable: boredom, entertainment, desire for easy sex, assertions of masculinity and so forth. The most confronting element of her conversations with these men is the realization that they have little if any interest in whether or not she wants their attention. It’s not about her. It’s about the men’s desires and their relation with each other: showing off, passing the time, playing, or – if the woman is accompanied by a man – showing respect. Peeters is shocked by their easy sexism.
The turning point in the film, however, only comes two-thirds of the way through, with Sophie’s conversation with Mourade. Then, quite suddenly, she sees her own society in a different light. As Mourade sees it, the harassment happens through the (literally) unspeakable frustrations created by the intense sexual repression in the homes of young immigrant men while living in a hyper-sexualized society. While at home there is no way to talk about their emerging sexuality – its flows, intensities, meanings; even as in the spaces all around them they are bombarded with intensely arousing images of near-naked women. Their comments to women are a reflection of their response to the sexual images all around them.
Now Sofie begins to look around her and the camera sees what before it missed: the oversized posters of women pouting their lips, spreading their legs, luring passers-by with their sex here and there and there. For the first time, she sees the sexism of her own culture, as it aids and abets the sexism of other cultures: “Macho culture. It was a word which I actually had never applied to my own culture.”
Crucially, as Sofie shifts perspective here to take in what she sees more critically all around her, there are two things that are missing. In contrast to the scenes inside Sophie’s living room where she talks with other women, she never enter the homes of immigrant men. (Not necessarily because Sofie does not know such young men: two years ago Sofie made another documentary about a young black rapper, “Jeffrey”, who is part of a larger rap scene that includes many young brown men.) We never come to know what these men’s homes look like, and how women and men relate inside them. At the same time, the film is very much about Sophie’s experience and, most of all, her attempt to come to a decision about how to respond. The film gives Sofie the space to speak as herself that she lacks when she is on the street, being harassed, turned into walking sexual parts and silenced. In this way, the film is - albeit from a distance - in dialogue with the men who harass her, despite their own uninterest in dialogue, and even as it bypasses their response.
At the same time and secondly, even as the film in the final section shows the images of women that saturate our public spaces, what it neglects to show are the images of young brown men that just as profusely pepper our public domain. Images of politicians shouting with fury that they are street-terrorists who must be ruthlessly hunted down, punished or ejected from society. The litany of public insults to which they treated on a daily basis. The mass media fascination with immigrant criminality and disinterest in immigrant success. And so on.
Here in the Netherlands, one of most popular neologisms of the last decade has been “cunt-Moroccan” [kutmarokkaan], which shot into the public domain after a politician from the Labour Party was accidentally filmed using it. “Cunt” in general is one of the most common Dutch insults, especially when combined in highly flexible ways with whatever it being insulted, from the weather (kutweer) to female superficiality (huppelkut = skipping cunt) to life in general (het leven is kut). So here the incorporation of Moroccans into Dutch society is proceeding not only by way of higher education (which those of Moroccan descent are getting in increasing numbers) but also by way of insult. This is not just any insult, but a very particular one, that puts Moroccans in the same category (dirty cunt) as whores. Every European country is of course sprouting different insults for their immigrants, but the underlying tone of aversion and disgust - often tied to histories of disgust with women’s sexuality - is consistent. Much like the vicious tone of the men who spit out “whore” and “bitch” at Sophie when she rejects them. They spit on her as they are spat upon.
When we consider the responses of journalists and politicians to Sofie’s film, it is striking how few if any comment on these elements of the film. The vast majority home in on the very first section and its images of brown men harassing a white woman. The much more radical elements of the film – its conscious emphasis on dialogue across lines of difference and its implication of western culture in the sexism Sofie experiences – these are neglected. In this way, the media and political response essentially repeats the patriarchal standpoint of the young men interviewed in the film: Sofie’s own explicit concerns are once again irrelevant.
The implication of this is clear: as societies, we are much more concerned with disciplining brown men in the name of women than we are in actually listening to what women have to say.