Shortly before her death, Françoise Héritier questioned the historical moment that the western world had been facing in the wake of the Weinstein case. This moment seems to be marking a departure from the way in which sexual harassment has hitherto been perceived while granting women the freedom to speak about the violence they experience.
To establish the historical singularity of the post-Weinstein era, it is however necessary to consider sexual harassment as an historical phenomenon which can be traced backed to the Middle Ages. That epistemological stance was adopted as early as 1994 by Carol Bacchi and Jim Jose who cautioned against the tendency to represent sexual harassment as a “discovery” of contemporary feminist movements (Bacchi & Jose 263). Bacchi and Jose considered that this approach was potentially a “teleological trap” that could lead to both the denial and dismissal of the experiences of women from earlier centuries. This tendency has not entirely disappeared as evinced by historian Alain Corbin’s unsusbstantiated statement in the daily French newspaper La Croix in 2017: “the word “harcèlement” is very recent. For a long time, the issue was not raised since men and women scarcely pass each other, at least in cities. For instance, until the first part of the 19th century, honest women did not go out in the street on their own and, besides, streets did not have sidewalks then”.
The AVISA project aims therefore at identifying other periods in the past during which behaviours that can be classified as sexual harassment were experienced or exposed by women and men who, in some instances, combatted them either in court or through creative modes of expression. The rich scholarship in the history of sexual violence has taught us that we cannot pretend to historicise sexual harassment in the western world in a linear way firstly because of the scarcity of the sources and their varying nature in different places and centuries (D’Cruze 378-379). This does not mean that sexual harassment has not been a prevalent and pervasive social danger (Bularzik 119) but that its history can only be written in a fragmented manner and that embarking on that historical endeavour requires to be ready to break the scientific taboo of the “dark figure” (off-the-record figure). The impossibility to chart the whole historical reality of sexual harassment does not justify keeping on overlooking it. And this is why our project is a crucial contribution to the history of representations and will enable us to start historicising sexual harassment throughout the ages by turning first to literature, history, the visual and performative arts as well as the cinema.
As we are collectively working over a long period of time and several geographical areas, sexual harassment is understood here outside a precise legal framework and within a conceptual framework that encompasses its French, European and Anglophone versions. It therefore includes acts of unwelcome social behaviour, such as
- repeatedly making comments or gestures of a sexual nature (eye contact, whistling, shouting, etc...)
- imposing unwanted physical contact (kissing, touching, pinching, etc.)
- making unwanted sexual advances.
Sexual harassment may come before sexual coercion or rape just as it does in the hierarchy of sexual violence. It consists of micro-aggressions, which as Mary Bularzik put it, can be likened to “petty rape” since they represent an invasion of an individual by suggestion or intimidation through a more or less brutal confrontation of the victim with their vulnerability (Bularzik 118). Sexual harassment is therefore a form of pressure aimed at destabilising a person so that they will give in and cave into the sexual act. It is a tool of mental control which annihilates any possible form of consent and which is rendered invisible by the recurring suspicion that women fake resistance.
This project aims first to recover the words under which these acts, markers of masculine domination, have been reported or denounced. Our comparative approach, since it will be carried out by scholars who work on different geographical areas, also intends to study the national specificities of these phenomena as well as their cultural variants both in terms of how they are legitimised and accounted for. At the same time, it will allow us to question the potential sanctions imposed on the perpetrators of these acts and their judicial process. Finally, we intend to use our sources to produce a socio-historical map of the places conducive to this social behaviour.
Mary Bularzik, « Sexual Harassment at the workplace » in James Green (ed.), Workers' Struggles, Past and Present: A "Radical America" Reader, Temple University Press, 1983, p. 117-136
Carol Bacchi et Jim Jose, « Historicising Sexual Harassment », Women’s History Review, 3.2, 1994, 263-270.
Alexis Buisson, « Harcèlement sexuel, des ressorts culturels », La Croix, Vendredi 10 novembre 2017, 2-3.
Shani D’Cruze, « Approaching the History of Rape and Sexual Violence : Notes towards Research », Women’s History Review, 1. 3, 377-397.