France Is Finally Reckoning With Decades of Shoulder-Shrugging Over Child Sexual Abuse

France Is Finally Reckoning With Decades of Shoulder-Shrugging Over Child Sexual Abuse
A woman holding the book “Le Consentement” (“The Consent”) by Vanessa Springora. Photo:Getty

A woman’s book-length account of being molested at the age of 14 by a noted French literary figure has prompted a reckoning in the country over attitudes toward child sexual abuse. Last Thursday saw the publication of Vanessa Springora’s Le Consentement (or Consent), which details how the author was allegedly groomed into a quote-unquote “relationship” by celebrated writer Gabriel Matzneff, then 50, whom she calls a “predator.” That a book detailing such vile acts has sparked outrage in France isn’t surprising—except that its revelations are not new. Matzneff has long been vocal about, by the definition of United States law, sexually abusing children (in his own delusional terms: having sex with children).

Now, despite the previous widespread awareness of Matzneff’s writing about children, the high-profile book has suddenly prompted Paris prosecutors to launch an investigation and the French government to reconsider a writer’s allowance provided to him. It’s also caused some to scramble to excuse their previous joviality toward Matzneff. The New York Times reports, “The former host of France’s most famous literary television program struggled to explain why he and other guests—except, tellingly, the only non-French invitee—laughed with good humor at Mr. Matzneff’s preferences for minors.”

Matzneff, now 83, is the author of the 1974 book Les Moins de Seize Ans (or The Under-16s), in which he not only detailed his attraction to children but also wrote, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.” He has also reportedly boasted of taking so-called “sex tours” to exploit children in Southeast Asia. Just recently, following the attention over Springora’s book, Matzneff reportedly deleted “a blog in which he exulted in relationships with at least 20 underage girls.” The current uproar over Matzneff follows the country’s own MeToo-style movement, #BalanceTonPorc (or #ExposeYourPig), as well as debate in recent years over France’s legal approach to child sexual abuse, which is anomalous in Europe.

France does not have an age of consent, but outlaws sex with anyone under the age of 15. This means that sex with someone 14 and under is not automatically considered rape, as it would be in the U.S. and many other countries, but rather a sexual infraction. (The baseline penalty being five years in prison and a fine roughly equivalent to $83,500.) However, it might be legally regarded as rape under certain limited circumstances involving “violence, coercion, threat or surprise.” In 2018, a push to institute an age of consent failed. Needless to say, these laws have left much to the discretion of individual judges, and has led to recent explosions of outrage. For example, in 2017, a man accused of raping an 11-year-old was acquitted because it was considered consensual.

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France’s legal approach to child sexual abuse, Matzneff’s writing, and the cultural embrace of his work all have to be viewed within a troubling historical context. As the Times points out, “Matzneff is the product and longtime beneficiary of France’s May 68 movement, the social revolution started in 1968 by students and unions against France’s old order.” That movement challenged authority and “fought against imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism and homophobia.” At the same time, it argued for “[liberating] children from the domination of their parents and allow[ing] them to be full, sexual beings.” Matzneff, of course, was among those advocating for such self-serving “liberation.”

In 1977, he wrote a letter in support of some men accused of sexually abusing 15-year-olds, and landed such noted co-signatories as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Roland Barthes. At the time, defenders of child sexual abuse believed “that France had an ‘aristocracy’ that was not bound to ordinary norms of conduct,” explains the Times. The “ordinary French appeared revolted by the apologists,” but “writers were considered part of this elite and were even expected to engage in acts of moral transgression.”

The sudden reconsideration of Matzneff is happening within France’s unique political and historical context, but there is also broader resonance here. As we saw with MeToo, individual allegations of abuse and the moving personal accounts of victims have the power to introduce sudden perspective. They can shed new, harsh light on behaviors previously tolerated or considered an “open secret.” They can even recast behaviors previously romanticized and celebrated. Suddenly, people begin asking: How did anyone ever think that was OK?

Of course, some then cry that the rules have unfairly changed overnight. Some pronounce that it “was a different time back then.” But the exploitation of power, in its many forms, isn’t so morally tenuous. It isn’t that right or wrong fundamentally changes but rather that there is a transformation in the tolerance of the latter. It’s a shifting of empathies away from the powerful—and sometimes, sometimes, hearing from the relatively powerless will do it. Even if it takes 30 years.

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