The Truth about Parisian Men and Sexism
I came back to France just over a month ago. I spent the first month working in a manufacturing environment, and had a lovely experience in a coastal town in Normandy. I moved to Paris two weeks ago to go to school and promptly met an awesome international set who began experiencing what I call, “city problems.” The first thing I noticed was that all of the women were wearing headphones.
Among my classmates is that one guy. You’ve met him. He’s that brash kind of fellow who enjoys a drink here and there and loves to pursue women. He even has a type, tall blondes. I am not a tall blond and so am mostly exempt from his verbal assaults, but the talking over me and interruptions in conversation belie his less than subtle sexism. Word is getting around, and people are beginning to isolate this guy. This has been my typical experience with the American-style sexism everywhere I’ve ever been.
The French men I’ve encountered here have a whole other style to their sexism. It can be just the same when it is directed at you (those tall blonde ladies do not have it any easier with the French guys). But most of the time, I’ve had to get used to being looked at all the time. I am not a snazzy dresser, nor do I wear much makeup, nor present an “I’m putting it out there” kind of vibe. So when the guys standing on the corner, one by one, give me the feet-to-head survey, it’s a little strange for me. I’m used to blending into the background of the street in a busy city. Yet still, the men stare.
There are the ladies who dress very nicely here. On one particular day, one well-dressed woman was ahead of me in the street, and I could see the men watching her walk down the sidewalk and making comments. Without being crude, they weren’t discussing how cute her shoes were.
This is part of the “culture” here, and it is something that many women, myself included, are a little startled by at first. France is a major, democratic power in the world. Surely, they have less sexism; they are known for their sexual progressiveness!
The women will tell you differently, once they get to know you… or if you happen to be involved in a feminism class full of French and American women. Sexism and harassment are present here. It is usually more subtle, but it can be scary. For example, when a guy sits down on the bench next to you while you’re on the phone with your mom and then tries to follow you back into your building. (This actually happened to a classmate).
So far, short of beginning a social revolution, the best way to get through the streets/metro/bus un-harassed seems to be:
1. Wear headphones everywhere. It’s not that you’re listening to loud music or anything, maybe you’re not even actually listening to anything, but the headphones help communicate that you are not interested in conversing with others.
2. Ignore almost everyone in the street. Most city dwellers develop a skill where they can be aware of their surroundings and personal safety while ignoring most other people and situations in the street.
3. Try to move in a group of three or four. Larger groups tend to attract attention and smaller groups can be harassed just as easily as one person.
I know it seems like old advice, but when hanging out with some of the younger graduate students who have never lived in large cities, I’ve found that there’s always someone who can benefit from a few reminders. So, I was eventually able to answer my own question about why all the women were wearing headphones. It’s so that the more casual harassers will leave them alone.
As a disclaimer: I have met so many wonderful people in Paris, that I feel a little bad even writing something this negative, but Paris is a large international city full of tourists, diplomats, international organizations, but above all it is a home for millions of us who live here. Some of the worst people I’ve met have not been from here, and some of the best are people who have lived here their whole lives. I’ve also seen the opposite to be true. Paris has a complex and wonderful mixture of people, places, and history.
Photo credit: Flickr