By Amy McTurk & Blanche Plaquevent.
The final session of the day, Love and Sex Across the Channel, brought together experts from history and sociology to discuss how gender and sexuality shape socio-political landscapes on both sides of the Channel. The panel was chaired by LAURA BEERS, Associate Professor of British History at the American University in Washington, D.C., who invited the three speakers to reflect on the deconstruction and the persistence of gender stereotypes in recent decades.
French historian SYLVIE CHAPERON from the Université Toulouse 2 began with an insightful presentation on Simone de Beauvoir and women’s emancipation, on the year of the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Second Sex. She aimed to restate Beauvoir’s visionary positions on women and sexuality in the Second Sex. Indeed, Beauvoir took a stance in favour of contraception and abortion as early as 1949, and then supported the feminists’ campaigns in the seventies. She questioned heteronormativity in a chapter on ‘The Lesbian’. She also opposed the biological destiny of women as mothers-to-be, in a context where French policies remained extremely natalist. Moreover, Chaperon claimed Beauvoir’s political ideas dialogued with her own private experiences. In both her occupation as a writer, and in her love and sex lives, Beauvoir experimented with the female independence she defended: she lived alone, never married her partner Jean-Paul Sartre, explored her bisexuality, and never became a mother as she thought this would impinge on her freedom to write and live independently. Chaperon concluded that Beauvoir should be considered a very inspirational sex reformer, as influential for women’s sexual freedom as Reich and Marcuse were for men.
Following Chaperon’s discussion of what was a fundamental text for modern feminism and gender theory, ZOE STRIMPEL highlighted the phenomenon of intergenerational conflict, as she considered the reaction of an older generation of feminists to the #MeToo movement. Strimpel, a journalist and a historian of gender and relationships in modern Britain, expressed surprise at the relatively negative reaction of feminists who came of age in the 1970s to the #MeToo movement, given their celebrated declaration that ‘the personal is political’. Indeed, #MeToo’s testimonies of sexual violence would seem to be coherent with this stance. Strimpel questioned why, despite this apparent connection, some feminists of the second wave are among the harshest critics of the movement, denouncing it as self-victimisation and deferred complaint. Referencing Germaine Greer’s vocal critique of the movement, Strimpel foregrounded the question of power, especially economic power, in relation to sexual harassment. This observation created an interesting link with Chaperon’s observations of Beauvoir’s romantic relationships with younger female students and provoked the question, ‘is it ever possible to have a fully consensual relationship when there exists such a disparity between partners?’ Still in relation to Greer’s comments, Strimpel examined the claim that the voices of the #MeToo movement are ‘whinging’ and interrogated the place of such ‘whinging’ in political movements. Indeed, the questions she posed regarding these critiques of #MeToo are vital to tackling the patriarchal power structures that dismiss women’s voices by delegitimising their complaints. She also observed a similar reaction in the French context, mentioning ‘Balance ton porc’ and the open letter published in Le Monde that denounced sexual violence while defending the ‘art of seduction’. She concluded by sharing her curiosity as to how future historians will view the impact of #MeToo on gendered and romantic relationships.
Finally, VANESSA JÉRÔME from the Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne presented her sociological research on sexuality in political parties. Beyond the simple study of how sexual issues are discussed in parties, she argued that looking at love and sexuality as a part of everyday political activism sheds light on gender and power dynamics in the political sphere. She demonstrated how parties provide single activists with opportunities to meet partners with similar values and lifestyles. She insisted on the intimacy and the seduction associated with campaigning, with late nights at work and frequent discussions behind closed doors. This provides opportunities for burgeoning relationships. Her research showed that couples were more successful when both partners were activists, and that the best way to reach a powerful position was to be a man in a relationship with a female activist. However, Jérôme also showed this intimacy between activists provided opportunities for patriarchal power to exert itself on female activists, especially through sexual harassment. Indeed, her work focused on the Green Party in France (Europe Ecologie Les Verts), where scandals of sexual harassment were revealed in the wake of #MeToo. She argued that similar patterns and power dynamics around sexuality and politics could also be found in other French and European parties.
As Laura Beers pointed out in her concluding remarks, the three speakers addressed the connection between sexuality and politics. Indeed, Strimpel and Chaperon reminded us of the historical process that saw sexuality become a political issue, with the emergence of the feminist idea that ‘the personal is political’, which Beauvoir epitomised. And Jérôme demonstrated how political activity is inseparable from sexuality. Jérôme’s sociological study on power dynamics and gender pointed to the continued existence of sexual harassment and therefore led to a certain pessimism, as she argued that the political game continues to be designed by and for men, thus offering few possibilities for progress or for the transgression of power dynamics by women. Strimpel wondered if a more emancipatory vision of female sexuality was possible and if there was any potential way for women in politics to escape from gender. She argued convincingly that power was not inherent to people’s functions and that sexuality could also be a way for women to subvert power dynamics. This seems especially relevant in a post-#MeToo era and in a time where female sexual pleasure is increasingly discussed, especially online. However, looking back at Beauvoir’s trajectory, it is striking to see that she was already fighting for this sexual emancipation seventy years ago. Despite the continuous effort of women to live their sexuality on their own terms, the fact that these issues are still discussed today shows how slow societal evolutions are and how fragile they remain in face of backlashes.