After reading an American man's take on Parisian sexual culture, an anonymous reader living in France offered to share her thoughts on the matter. Here's what she had to say.
Going through the streets or subways of Paris is not the most pleasant experience.
Parisian public spaces are crowded and noisy; you have to beware of pickpockets and navigate through a multitude of people vying for your attention: beggars, lost tourists, people with flyers or petitions. But if you're a woman, you also have to fend off amorous strangers who think you look cute and that you two are meant to be (or maybe they still resent their mothers and they're taking it out on you — who knows what goes on inside their heads).
There are numerous strategies for dealing with these gentlemen: giving them a false name, a false phone number, telling them that your boyfriend is very jealous, or if you've lost your patience, simply insulting them. And you tell yourself that if they pay attention to you, at least it means that you're attractive. You have to have some consolation, right?
Not only do Frenchwomen have to deal with the same problems as American women, but they may even have it slightly worse. Contrary to what Americans think, sex is still taboo in France. Despite all the sex jokes, the flirting and scandalous movies, there is no frank discussion on the subject, and that includes the matter of consent. Sex Ed is little more than a biology lesson with a side-order of PSAs about condoms and AIDS. Teachers rarely intervene in harassment problems among students (some even indulge in a little sexual harassment themselves), and the legal definition of sexual harassment in the workplace is still limited to sexual blackmail. The idea of expanding French laws on the matter is mocked as American-style puritanism.
Unlike Americans, the French don't really discuss their sex lives with their friends (because of this, a friend of mine got rather freaked out when she moved to San Francisco). As a result, French women grow up to be deeply confused about their boundaries. When they playfully fend off overly insistent "suitors" instead of calling the cops on them, they are actually trying to make the best of an unpleasant situation. As they grow older, they lose their naiveté and become more assertive, but it takes time, far more so than if they'd had proper guidance along the way.
Thanks to the American passion for scrutinizing issues from all angles, the debate around sexual assault and consent is much livelier on your side of the Atlantic than on ours. The French are much more apathetic when it comes to discussing the law (which is probably why we don't have Miranda rights yet). Yet these issues are gaining prominence in the public discourse. A few universities are experimenting with gender studies programs, and organizations like Ni Putes Ni Soumises or Chiennes de Garde fight against sexual violence and sexist attitudes. One Parisian woman tells her stories of street harassment on her blog called Dragueurs à la Noix.
I've had the privilege of living both in Paris and the United States for several years. I can't say if street harassment is worse in the U.S. or in France, because I can't compare the American cities (in Connecticut and Florida) where I lived — areas where you had to go everywhere by car and where nobody was on the sidewalk — to Paris. Street harassment is much easier when everyone is actually on the street than when they are inside their cars with the windows rolled up and the A/C cranked on, as was my experience. I haven't seen enough of the biggest American cities to gauge the level of street harassment there, but the comments on this site suggest that the two countries have similar problems with street harassment.
It is admittedly easy to get the wrong idea about France. I have yet to read an American-penned article about my country where I recognize the France of which they speak (to be fair, French journalists writing about the United States are equally clueless). And it can be comforting to cling to preconceived notions when you have to deal with a completely foreign environment. The reality, however, is that the French live in a very conservative, slowly evolving society, with outdated notions about romance that come right out of equally outdated fairytales. Whatever sexist clichés and double standards you have in the U.S., rest assured that we have it here, too.
The Anonymous Frenchwoman was raised in France and lived in Paris for over seven years. She now resides outside of the city, elsewhere in the province.
Image via Evgeny Murtola/Shutterstock.