now “many legal tools exist to defend oneself”

Thirty years ago, on November 2, 1992, Parliament included the offense of sexual harassment for the first time in French law. A legal concept that concerns the world of work, the street, or even the Internet, and is constantly evolving to better define situations and protect victims.

Obscene images, threats, insults… For several days, French streamers have been crying out that they are fed up with the online sexual harassment they have suffered for years. Videographer Maghla, known for making live video games on Twitch, posted long series of tweets where he describes, with supporting images and screenshots, the existence of pornographic photomontages involving him.

On the Internet, on the street, and at work… Far from being a new topic, sexual harassment is a criminal offense, punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros. . Registered in French law since November 2, 1992, its definition has been constantly evolving to remove certain legal ambiguities over the past 30 years.

Hierarchical superiority

“Activists of the European Association against violence against women at work (AVFT) put sexual harassment on the political agenda in the 1980s and 1990s. They accompanied the victims to file the first complaints” , explains Françoise Picq, historian of feminism and vice-president of the National Association for Feminist Studies (Anef).

The concept of sexual harassment was first introduced in French criminal law legislation on July 22, 1992 as “the fact of harassing others by using orders, threats or constraints, with the aim of getting favors of a sexual nature”.

Françoise Picq recalled that the law only concerned acts of harassment committed by hierarchical superiors at work. “At that time, French feminists did not want to enter the American model: there, the norm was not to leave a student in the professor’s office, alone with him, refers to the historian. But in France, the aim is above all to punish those who sexually harass within the framework of a hierarchical relationship, at work.

Through colleagues, strangers or Internet users

In 1998, the text was changed to the notion of “serious pressure”. Then, in 2002, the definition was refined and harmonized, characterized by the single “action of harassing others with the aim of obtaining favors of a sexual nature (…)”. Sexual harassment is already a crime in any human relationship, outside of any hierarchical relationship: of colleagues at work or of strangers on the street, and, by extension, of Internet users on the web.

The will then was to harmonize the definition of sexual harassment with that given for moral harassment, which, in 2002, had just entered French law. Unlike sexual harassment, moral harassment involves an employment relationship.

2012, a decisive year

In May 2012, it was the thunder. The Constitutional Council annuls the Penal Code’s article on sexual harassment, judging its definition to be too evasive, and therefore unconstitutional. Within months, victims of sexual harassment found themselves in a legal void.

“We had a big problem at the criminal level at the time, none of the existing processes were successful,” said Nathalie Leroy, labor law attorney and investigator at the HER office, which specializes in moral harassment cases and sexual. She continues: “Some people accused of acts of sexual harassment, the meaning of which is considered too vague, have been released. For the victims, it is terrible.”

On August 6, 2012, the new law on sexual harassment was promulgated, after being voted in the emergency procedure. The text provides a new definition of sexual harassment, establishes aggravating circumstances and strengthens the penalties associated with it.

The criminal definition is still evolving in 2018, the most recent version defining sexual harassment as “the fact of repeatedly imposing on a person comments or behavior with sexual or sexist connotations.”

Sexual or sexist connotations

Although sexual harassment in the workplace is difficult to define, “one must consider the type of acts committed, their frequency, their effects on the victim and/or the intent of the perpetrator” , explains Master Nathalie Leroy. “For now, it is sufficient that the conduct has a sexual connotation, which therefore does not require that it be overtly and directly sexual in nature.”

To align with the Penal Code, the Labor Code has recently developed in this direction. As of March 31, 2022, “you are in a situation of sexual harassment at work when a first person makes a sexist comment to you, such as ‘There are people on the balcony’ and the other continues with a comment , like ‘ At the same time, given how you dress…'”, describes the lawyer. “Before this text, the repetition had to come from the same person. This is no longer the case.”

Between 2017 and 2019, a study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on 4.5 million French employees revealed that 52% of women were victims of sexual harassment at work. For men, the number is 27%. Only 4% of these women filed a complaint and 1% on the men’s side.

According to the lawyer, “the sinews of war is prevention”. In the Labor Code, the employer has the obligation to take all necessary measures to prevent sexual harassment, to end them and to punish them. If he does not respect this obligation, “he can be sued in the industrial tribunal to obtain damages”.

81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in a public place

But outside of work, how to avoid sexual harassment?

On the online platform Twitch, which has often been talked about since the wave of denunciations of streamers, however the policy was tightened in January 2021. Sexual harassment, which until then was mentioned as prohibited by the platform, but without meaning, has clarified the entire list of prohibitions: repeated, obscene or explicit comments on physical appearance or sexuality, sending unwanted links to nude photos or videos… Avoidance is seen as insufficient to protect videographers.

And on the street? For feminist historian Françoise Picq, the MeToo movement of 2017 “radically changed the level of tolerance for behaviors related to sexual harassment” in the public space. But victims often give up filing complaints due to lack of evidence or fear of consequences. “In my generation, we didn’t always want to appeal to the authority of the State, and we couldn’t. Today, many legal tools exist to defend ourselves.”

Françoise Picq mentioned the “Schiappa” law, which created an offense of sexist contempt, to suppress the so-called “street” harassment. Four years after its creation, the offense of sexist insult shows its limits: in the period 2020-2021, 3,700 sexist insult offenses were recorded in France by the security services. A low figure in the face of the reality of what women experience on the street: according to an Ipsos survey published in July 2020, 81% of women have been victims of sexual harassment in a public place, in France .

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