Relativising sexual violence

3 min
The hand of a demonstrator at the Place de la Republique in Paris, 29 October 2017

The appearance of La familia grande by Camille Kouchner, who accuses her stepfather of repeatedly raping her twin brother when he was a teenager, has fallen like a bomb in France. This is not the first published testimony on child sexual abuse that can be described as incest, but it has now had an unprecedented impact - prompting even the French Senate to return to deliberations on further legal measures to protect children - not by chance but for various reasons

First, it has positioned itself in the furrow of the #MeToo movement, creating its counterpart #MeTooInceste, which collected thousands of testimonies from incest victims in just a couple of days. If #MeToo freed the word of many people who had not dared to denounce abuse, this new movement has allowed others to dare to express aloud deep wounds with which they had lived, often for many years. Another circumstance that has amplified the statements of the author of the book is that both she and the accused, Olivier Duhamel, belong to a social and economic elite that many identify with Champagne socialists. Attributing to a certain left the permissiveness that would justify the sexual abuse of minors is quite frequent - forgetting the transversality of the phenomenon - as well as assimilating, wrongly in my opinion, the so-called "sexual revolution" of the sixties and seventies with a kind of sexual "open bar". And, finally, the rise of the feminist movement in France - as in the Spanish state - is no stranger to this debate: feminists thus underline the weight of structural sexism on the silence and inaction that often accompany incest and sexual violence. The fact that more than 95% of the people who commit these acts against minors are men is not considered accusatory evidence against the gender nor male sexuality, but rather evidence of this collective burden.

Furthermore, the explosive set off by Kouchner has had side effects, including two media-related dismissals. A television channel has expelled one of its talk show hosts, Alain Finkielkraut - a media philosopher who has followed the same path as certain intellectuals of the aforementioned elite, from the political orbit of the left to a conservative position - for having wondered if the victim of the Duhamel case consented to this relationship with his stepfather. The next day, the newspaper Le Monde published a cartoon by one of its cartoonists, Xavier Gorce, in which one character asks another a complicated question: "If I have been abused by the adopted half-brother of my father's partner, who is a transsexual and has become my mother, is this incest?" Social networks were immediately inflamed, and the newspaper's management also invited the cartoonist - who justified the cartoon by saying it was a critical allusion to the Finkielkraut statements - not to collaborate any further

These two decisions have once again led to controversy: can the philosopher and the humorist be considered victims of censorship due to the much-feared political correctness? And the old question has also resurfaced: is it legitimate to joke about any subject? The immediate answer to this question is yes, since not putting up barriers to humour seems to be a sign of individual and collective mental health, and of not suffering from personal or democratic insecurity. Those who say that the right not to be offended does not exist are right: critical humour always offends someone and makes someone else laugh (and reflect), and this does not make it illegitimate. However, we know from experience that sometimes behind a joke lies a mocking aggression and, above all, that the sense and effect of humour depends on who is practising it, in what circumstances, who for and in what way. Few humorists today would dare to make fun out of the very high number of people who have disappeared because of covid and the mourning that these deaths have caused.

The same reasoning can be applied to the question of consent (we also recall Vanessa Springora's writings against the writer Gabriel Matzneff, entitled precisely Consent). It is very logical to ask, from philosophy, justice or feminist thought, what the definition and limits of consent are, but is this the same as doing it in a talk show, talking about a specific case that affects a teenager and their parent and guardian? Both Finkielkraut's commentary and Gorce's cartoon can be interpreted as a trivialisation of incest (in the latter case, made a mockery of the new forms of family, of trans people and of lesbianism), in the sense of finding mitigating circumstances in an event that is totally reprehensible.

Marta Segarra is research director at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)