Education in the spotlight as watchdog warns of sexist ‘backlash’ sweeping France
France’s equality watchdog has called for an “emergency plan” to combat widespread sexism that is affecting youths in particular, amid concern that the country’s education system is failing to foster gender equality from a young and vulnerable age. While online exposure to pornography is cause for particular alarm, experts say the sexist “backlash” is also evidence that feminist themes have made important inroads, stirring vibrant – if often acrimonious – debates.
Five years into the #MeToo movement, and almost six years after President Emmanuel Macron declared gender equality the “Grand Cause” of his first mandate, France’s main equality watchdog has offered a scathing assessment of the country’s progress on the matter.
According to the High Council for Equality between Women and Men (HCE), sexism is far from retreating in France. In fact, some of its most violent manifestations are getting worse, the council warned in its annual report this week, noting that French society remains “highly sexist at every level” and that “younger generations are the most affected”.
The watchdog flagged a sexist “backlash”, amplified by social media, that seeks “to reduce women to silence”. It called for a national “emergency plan” to combat what it described as ”the massive, violent and sometimes lethal consequences” of sexism in a country with stubbornly high rates of gender-based violence.
The HCE’s scathing report is only the latest to flag major shortcomings in fostering gender equality in French schools. In August last year, the HCE’s head Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette had already panned the government over its failure to “treat equality and respect between men and women as an educational priority for children.”
Pierre-Brossolette, who was due to meet with President Macron on Wednesday, expressed particular concern about the failure to provide adequate sex education at a time when youths face unprecedented exposure to pornography on social media. She warned that failure to protect young boys from pornographic content would “sow the seeds of future violence and femicides”.
Sexuality and consent
Sex education classes are mandatory in France, but a report released by the Education Ministry’s General Inspectorate last year found that only 15% of high-school students and 20% of middle-school pupils received proper tuition. A separate study by the feminist group #NousToutes concluded that French pupils on average attended one in seven such sessions throughout their schooling – most of them taught by their biology teachers rather than trained specialists.
“Reproduction and sexuality are not the same thing – it’s not enough to know where the fallopian tubes are!” said Margot Fried-Filliozat, a sex therapist who gives sexuality classes to pupils aged 12 to 15 in the Paris region.
Fried-Filliozat said sex education classes are a key component of the fight against sexism and sexual violence, allowing teachers to introduce the notion of consent while fostering “genuine and uninhibited” exchanges with students.
“When they see that I use real words and that I don’t hesitate, they speak much more freely,” she said, adding that the #MeToo movement had helped raise awareness and loosen tongues. She noted a growing outspokenness among young girls, citing one pupil who shouted in class, “Of course girls masturbate – it’s important!”
Ahead of each session, Fried-Filliozat provides students with a digital mailbox where they can ask their questions anonymously.
“At that age, questions tend to revolve around norms and obligations, what they assume determines social acceptance,” the therapist explained. She recalled one student asking whether she was “obliged to do everything (vaginal and anal sex) when she first had sex”.
Occasionally, some pupil’s questions push disturbingly far, she added, pointing to talk of “bukkake” and “zoophilic” practices – a consequence of youths’ increasing exposure to pornography made readily available through social media.
According to a recent survey by the advocacy group Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie, a third of 18 to 24 year-olds see pornography as a means of acquiring sex education like any other. Last September, a parliamentary report urged the government to curtail the porn industry and prevent minors from accessing pornographic content on the internet – a measure that is already required of porn outlets but is seldom enforced.
“Children are exposed to pornographic images from an increasingly young age, not because they want to but because they appear on their social media threads,” said Anabelle Pasillas, a consultant who advises schools on gender equality.
“It is not uncommon for half the pupils in a class to raise their hand when asked whether they’ve been exposed to sexting or pornographic images on their phones, unsolicited,” she added, flagging an “invisible cyber-sexism that is rampant on social media and amplifies real-life inequalities.”
Pasillas uses popular video clips and advertisements during her sessions with students in order to “analyse and deconstruct” their messages, such as “perfume ads that sexualise women’s bodies or ‘virilise’ men”. She stressed the importance of fostering open debate with pupils who are “at an age when their sexual identity is still in the making – and encouraging young men and women to embrace the subject and question gender-based stereotypes.”
‘Develop a critical mind’
While schools cannot alone combat gender inequalities, they have a decisive role to play in the long-term prevention of gender-based and sexual violence, said Sarah Durocher, who co-heads Planning familial, an umbrella group of feminist associations providing sexual education, contraception and counselling. She described sexuality education as “a tool for individual and collective emancipation – a means to develop a critical mind and making one’s own choices.”
Sexism and sexual violence stem from “a patriarchal society where roles are gendered – we can see that in books, cartoons and films”, she explained. “Questioning women’s roles in fiction, from a young age, and thereby also questioning their role in real life, can help to plant a little seed in their minds.”
Durocher said the Code de l’Education – the legislation that underpins France’s education system – is, in theory, well equipped to address such topics as puberty, sexist and homophobic prejudice, and sexual health. “The law is fine as it is, we don’t want to change it. The problem is how to implement it,” she added, pointing to a lack of political will and financial means.
The scarcity of will and means is reflected in what education specialist Simon Massei, a postdoctoral fellow at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, described as the practice of “devolving sex education and gender matters to associations – instead of training teachers”.
French teachers are given only minimal training on such topics, generally in the form of supplementary modules that are not compulsory, Massei explained, noting that sexuality and gender-based issues are similarly sidelined in school programmes.
“Gender relations affect many aspects of life and are not limited to sexuality; they could be integrated with the study of literature, history and other subjects,” he said. “Instead, teachers are provided with ‘educational kits’ that are optional and soon get forgotten.”
French governments could be forgiven for treading carefully when it comes to tackling gender inequalities in schools. In 2014, the then-Socialist government was forced into a humiliating U-turn when its plan to combat sexism and gender stereotypes from primary school triggered a fierce backlash from parents convinced that their children were being taught to be neither boys nor girls, but “neutral”.
Similar backlashes have followed other attempts to address gender bias, including feminist efforts to address engrained sexism in the French language, which experts say encourages gender-based inequalities in society.
Anti-feminist reactions are to be expected, said Paris-based economist and feminist writer Ginevra Bersani, noting that such backlashes are “more visible because people speak out more and sexist behaviour gets flagged more readily”.
Bersani recently co-authored a book on the “cost of virility” – the economic cost to society of men behaving according to gender-based stereotypes. She said men are also trapped in a patriarchal system that “expects them to be strong, brave and never let out their emotions”.
Tackling these socially-constructed stereotypes cannot be done at the school level alone, Bersani added, noting that gender disparities must be addressed at all levels – whether in government, family life, advertising or the media.
“Young men are subjected to the injunctions of a patriarchal system that says they shouldn’t cry, be delicate or say certain things, including between friends,” added documentary filmmaker Laurent Metterie, who has carried out extensive interviews with school boys aged 7 to 18, testing their response to such topics as gender inequality, body shaming, pornography and sexuality.
Snippets of the interviews, visible online, reveal remarkable lucidity and awareness of gender disparities among certain youths.
“It is easier for boys to do the job they want,” says one primary school pupil, noting that girls in his class feel “some jobs are not for them”. On the other hand, it is harder for boys to express their emotions, says an older student, adding: “Do it once and all the other lads will make fun of you”.
Designed as an educational tool, Metterie’s forthcoming documentary aims to reveal the tension at play between feminist advances and patriarchal reaction. The filmmaker, who works in tandem with feminist philosopher Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, stressed the need for men to play their part in promoting ideas of gender equality among young boys, while being careful not to assign blame or fuel resentment.
“In a systemic context of patriarchy, it’s only natural to witness tension and resistance to feminist advances – but it’s not necessarily a bad sign,” he said. “It means things are also moving forward, in an encouraging way.”
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