Monday, February 19, 2018

Consent and Refusal of Consent: The Century of the Body

By Caitlin Brooks

The reprint of Geneviève Fraisse’s book “Du consentement” was supposed to be a quiet event. Fraisse assumed that no one would notice, she would stay at home and work quietly and the book, first published in 1989, would appear in updated form in academic circles and on the shelves of book sellers in France. Then in October 2017, the same month as the book’s reprint, the #metoo social media hashtag took off and, according to Fraisse, the conversation changed. “I have no choice, I have to follow the story…. Suddenly there really was a lot of demand about my work, so I stopped to write what I was writing and took up the question of consent.”

Originally used in 2006 by social activitist Tarana Burke to help survivors of sexual assault realize they are no alone, it was popularized last year by actress Alyssa Milano who encouraged women to tweet it to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The #MeToo hashtag spread virally across social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) during October 2017 on social media posts in which women self-identified as experiencing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Thousands of specific stories were told along with the hashtag and millions more women simply posted “#MeToo” in solidarity with the movement.

In the United States, the movement became so wide sweeping that Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers” the Person of the Year for 2017. “The hashtag #MeToo (swiftly adapted into #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien, #Ana_kaman and many others), which to date has provided an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward with their stories, is part of the picture, but not all of it.”

Fraisse, the Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS, France), had been writing about consent and sexual violence for decades before the #MeToo campaign took off. According to Fraisse, “Our [French] political geography is a little moved by this story. It had unexpected geopolitical consequences.”

Talking in the Foreign Languages Building on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, Fraisse explored the history of feminism in France is one of the individual body. “It's the bodies and the many bodies of women just came up in the public space and said ‘it's enough,’” Fraisse said. “It's interesting for me because it means that these bodies are at the disposal of men, and that's not safe. The bodies after all this gain of rights and also for the bodies when divorce, contraception, abortion. But it's just rights for individual people, it's not the change of society.”

But with the #metoo campaign and the recent public outcry over sexual assault in Hollywood and Olympic gymnastics, “This time it is a collective with the body who said that it’s enough, it's enough and we go outside and we took the floor.”

“What was happening was that there was a sexual contract and no one was talking about it. The notion that female bodies are not for themselves but are also at the disposal of men,” she said.

“Is consent a political question? It’s very important for me: the definition of individual consent is not the political question. The question is: how do you intervene in society? If it's a political argument, then it means that you propose your consent as argument for the world of tomorrow. But consent, as a word, is problematic. It is not possible because it’s too ambiguous a word and it's too complicated.”

Instead, she proposes, what we are talking about is not refusal of consent on an individual basis, as the stories in the #metoo campaign illustrate, but a collective refusal, as the campaign as a whole represents. “It's saying ‘No.’ facing this social contract where women are not exactly members as men,” Fraisse said.

The end of Fraisse’s talk and book explore the real discussion on consent that began two centuries ago. “Behind this screen, you have the real discussion [about freedom, equality and relationship to the state] and it began two centuries ago. I think that what is going on today is, even if you don't know the foreign story, it's really very interesting. It’s at the core of the evolution of this question. The 21st century will be the century of the body, sexual identities, reproduction, and violence against women's bodies. Probably the century of ‘what is a body in a society’.”

Fraisse’s visit to campus was co-sponsored by the European Union Center and the Department of French and Italian.


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