A radio campaign detailing harrowing experiences and a call from President Francois Hollande to “face up to harassment” show that France still has much to do tackle the widespread denial of violence against women.
In one of the radio spots that began airing at the weekend, a woman identified as Anna describes how her husband Louis came into the bathroom as she was preparing to go to bed.
“He forced himself on me, he raped me. It was the start of a nightmare for me. I was too afraid to divorce, so I said nothing. But keeping silent for 30 years — no-one should have to go through that.”
The radio campaign has been organised by the Feminist Collective Against Rape, who are hoping victims who feel ashamed — or somehow to blame for their own abuse — can be encourage to speak out.
The group believes that in France more than 86,000 women a year are victims of rape or attempted rape, but only 13 percent complain to police and just one percent of those complaints leads to a conviction.
“Making people feel at ease with expressing themselves is the first step,” said Marie-France Casalis, one of the Collective’s leaders.
But due to the disparity between the number of suspected offences and the number that go punished, the group is calling for each complaint to be systematically investigated.
It also wants sex attacks to be classed as a crime and not merely an offence, which under French law carries lighter penalties.
In France, a rape — defined as “any act of sexual penetration, regardless of its nature” that is committed “by violence, constraint, threat or surprise” — is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
That can rise to 20 years if there are aggravating circumstances, such as rape by a partner, or the rape of a victim who is pregnant or suffering from an illness.
A study on the perception of rape in France, published last week by “Memoire traumatique et victimologie”, a group that researches the psychological effects of violence, showed that worrying stereotypes persist.
For example, 24 percent of French people believe a forced act of oral sex is a sexual assault and not rape. Two out of five people believe the responsibility of the rapist is lessened if the victim is “seductive”.
Another finding that provoked particular concern was that a third of people aged 18 to 24 believe that “women can get pleasure from being forced during sexual intercourse”.
– ‘Sexist myth’ –
“The rule of silence, impunity and an absence of recognition, as well as the abandoning of victims of sexual violence, still dominate,” said Muriel Salmona, the head of the group that carried out the research.
To mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday, President Hollande has taken to the pages of a women’s magazine for the first time in his four years in power to admit that harassment of women is “scandalously trivialised” by French society.
He told Elle that verbal or physical harassment of women was a “mass phenomenon which must be faced up to because it attacks the very principles of living with others”.
But is France really a country where “the sexist myth of a naturally violent sexual masculinity” persists, as the study on the perception of rape darkly concluded?
Francois de Singly, a sociologist, said: “Society puts on a pedestal the notion of virility, which contains a logic of the sort of violence you find in war, in competition and in sexuality. And no-one dares say that this virility should be condemned.”
He wants a rethink in the way boys are educated in France because he believes that historically they have been brought up to believe that “force is legitimate”.
“Behind the logic of rape, you find the logic of legitimate violence,” he said.
De Singly also called for corporal punishment meted out by parents to be banned because he thinks it conditions children from a young age to believe that violence is legitimate.
France was criticised by the Council of Europe last year, which said its rules on smacking were not sufficiently clear compared to bans in many other European countries.
“Until physical punishment is banned, any speech hitting out at rape is hypocrisy,” the sociologist said.