France’s equality watchdog has called for an “emergency plan” to combat widespread sexism that particularly affects young people, citing concerns that the country’s education system is failing to promote gender equality from a young and vulnerable age. While online exposure to pornography is cause for concern, experts say the sexist “backlash” is also evidence that feminist themes have gained significant traction and sparked lively—if often bitter—debates.
Five years after the #MeToo movement, and nearly six years after President Emmanuel Macron declared gender equality the “Grand Cause” of his first mandate, France’s top equality watchdog has issued a scathing verdict on the country’s progress in this area.
According to the Supreme Council for the equality of women and men (HCE), sexism is far from disappearing in France. In fact, some of the most violent manifestations are getting worse, the council warned in its annual report this week, noting that French society remains “very sexist at every level” and that “younger generations are most affected”.
The watchdog signaled a sexist “backlash”, amplified by social media, which seeks to “silence women”. It called for a national “contingency plan” to combat what it described as “the massive, violent and sometimes deadly consequences” of sexism in a country with persistently high rates of gender-based violence.
The HCE’s damning report is just the latest report to identify major shortcomings in promoting gender equality in French schools. In August last year, the head of the HCE, Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, had already ridiculed the government for 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 lack of adequate sex education at a time when young people are facing 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 femicide”.
Sexuality and consent
Sex education classes are compulsory in France, but a report released last year by the General Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education found that only 15% of high school students and 20% of high school students received a good education. A separate study by the feminist group #NousToutes concluded that French students attended an average of one in seven such sessions during their school years – most taught by their biology teachers rather than trained specialists.
“Reproduction and sexuality are not the same – it’s not enough to know where the fallopian tubes are!” said Margot Fried-Filliozat, a sex therapist who teaches sexuality classes to students ages 12 to 15 in the Paris region.
Fried-Filliozat said sex education classes are an important part of the fight against sexism and sexual violence, allowing teachers to introduce the notion of consent while promoting “sincere 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 candor among young girls, citing a student shouting in class, “Of course girls masturbate – it’s important!”
Prior to each session, Fried-Filliozat provides the students with a digital mailbox where they can ask questions anonymously.
“At that age, questions often revolve around norms and obligations. What they assume determines social acceptance,” the therapist explained. She recalled a student asking if she was “required to do everything (vaginal and anal sex) the first time she had sex”.
Occasionally, some students’ questions go disturbingly far, she added, pointing to talk of “bukkake” and “zoophilic” practices — a Result of young people’s increasing exposure to pornography readily available through social media.
This is evident from a recent study by the interest group Memoire Traumatique and VictimologyA third of 18-24 year olds see pornography as a means of getting sex education like any other. Last September, a parliamentary report urged the government to curb the porn industry and prevent minors from accessing pornographic content on the internet – a measure already mandatory for porn shops but rarely enforced.
“Children are exposed to pornographic images from an increasingly younger 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 more than half of the class to raise their hands when asked if they have received unsolicited pornographic images on their phones,” she added, marking an “invisible cybersexism that is rampant on social media and reinforces reality.” inequalities in life.”
During her sessions with students, Pasillas uses popular video clips and advertisements to “analyze and deconstruct” their messages. They include “rappers who say girls don’t want to be respected and perfume ads that sexualize women’s bodies or ‘virilize’ men.”
She stressed the importance of fostering open debate with students who are “at an age where their sexual identity is still in the making – and encouraging young men to embrace the topic and question gender-based stereotypes. ”
‘Develop a critical mind’
While schools cannot tackle gender inequality alone, they have a decisive role to play in the long-term prevention of gender-based and sexual violence, said Sarah Durocher, co-chair Family plans, an umbrella group of feminist associations that provide sex education, birth control, and counseling. She described sex education as “a tool for individual and collective emancipation – a means of developing 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 movies,” she explained. “Questioning the role of women in fiction from a young age, and with it their role in real life, can help plant a seed in their minds.”
Durocher said the Code de l’Education – the legislation that underpins the French education system – is theoretically well equipped to address issues such as puberty, sexist and homophobic prejudice, and sexual health. “The law is good as it is, we don’t want to change it. The problem is how to implement it,” she added, citing a lack of political will and financial resources.
The scarcity of will and resources is reflected in what education specialist Simon Massei described as the practice of “handing over sex education and gender issues to associations – rather than training teachers”.
French teachers receive only minimal training on such topics, usually in the form of additional modules that are not required, explains Massei, noting that sexuality and gender-related issues are also sidelined in school curricula.
“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 given ‘educational kits’ that are optional and quickly forgotten.”
French governments could be forgiven for being cautious when it comes to tackling gender inequality in schools. In 2014, the then Socialist government was forced into a humiliating U-turn when its plan to combat elementary school sexism and gender stereotypes provoked a fierce backlash from parents convinced that their children were being taught to be neither boys nor girls, but “neutral “.
Similar responses followed other efforts to address gender bias, including feminist efforts to address entrenched 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 reactions are “more visible because people speak out more and sexist behavior is more easily spotted.”
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 and courageous and never express their emotions.”
Addressing these socially constructed stereotypes cannot be done at the school level alone, Bersani added, pointing out that gender differences must be addressed at all levels — whether in government, family life, advertising or the media.
“Young men are subject to the orders of a patriarchal system that says they can’t cry, be delicate or say certain things, even between friends,” added documentary filmmaker Laurent Metterie, who has conducted extensive interviews with schoolboys aged 7 up to 5 years. 18, testing their response to topics such as gender inequality, body shaming, pornography and sexuality.
Excerpts of the interviews, viewable online, reveal remarkable clarity and awareness of gender differences among certain young people.
“It’s easier for boys to do the work they want,” says an elementary school student, noting that girls in his class feel that “some jobs aren’t for them.” On the other hand, it’s harder for boys to express their emotions, says an older student, adding, “Do it once and all the other boys will laugh at you”.
Designed as an educational tool, Metterie’s forthcoming documentary aims to expose the tension at play between feminist progress and patriarchal reaction. The filmmaker, who works with feminist philosopher Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, emphasized the need for men to play their part in promoting ideas of gender equality among young boys, ensuring they do not assign blame or fuel resentment.
“In a systemic context of patriarchy, it’s only natural to see tension and opposition to feminist progress, but that’s not necessarily a bad sign,” he said. “It means things are also moving forward, in an encouraging way.”