Olivier Roy on the Subject of Sexual Harassment: Academic Legitimacy and Antifeminist Opinions

By Vanessa Gauthier Vela.

[This article was first published in French at Jed d’Encre. The original French version of this text can be found here.]

One week after the Feminist week at IHEID and less than two weeks after an internal newsletter of the Institute “inviting [its community] to join the global movement to eliminate sexual harassment,” the Yves Oltramare Chair of IHEID Jean-François Bayart[1] convened a talk on May 9 entitled “De quoi le cochon est-il le nom? Des agressions de Cologne à l’affaire Weinstein.” While I was at first intrigued to receive an invitation to attend a presentation about sexual harassment given by Olivier Roy, a recognized expert on political Islam, I left at the end with the uncomfortable feeling that I had instead been invited to listen to an hour of antifeminist speech.

Roy opened his presentation by saying right away that he was going to engage with “a set of heterogeneous topics.” He first started with the topic of sexual assault by comparing the events on New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne[2] to the current wave of denunciations brought to light through the #MeToo campaign. According to the researcher, while the former triggered reactions aimed at the Islamic religion and thus calls for a reform of Islam, the later was interpreted as a problem of nature, “a problem of men’s libido.” In both cases, Roy quickly brushed aside the argument of the patriarchal culture, whose role has by now been widely emphasized in many analyses of sexual harassment. The pretext used by Roy for doing so was especially astonishing in an academic setting: “No, it is not cultural, because it is part of all cultures.”

It was better before!

After his bewildering introduction, to say the least, Roy was ready to present his main thesis. He argued that the globalization currently experienced is leading to a cultural crisis. According to Roy, culture is what allows us to communicate. Yet, the disparate examples used all along by the researcher made his demonstration particularly difficult to follow. He explained that culture tends to valorize both implicitness and ambiguity, which are necessary, for example, in humour. It is this notion of culture that is being challenged according to Roy. We are thus faced with a crisis resulting in the loss of the implicit. There is no room for ambiguity anymore, because the current state of globalization requires a system of code. Following this logic, a code is purely explicit. It does not allow private space and does not require deciphering, like the Highway Code for example. To illustrate his point about the loss of the implicit, Roy used the example of “Globish,” a minimal vocabulary of English words used by non-native English speakers to communicate in the globalised world and alluded to the disappearance of humour.

The presenter also associated the current debate on sexual harassment to the crisis of culture. Accordingly, consent between persons, in a sexual or seductive relationship, considered hitherto as implicit, should now be expressed according to an explicit code. In doing this, the presenter set code and culture in opposition, a code deemed explicit and culture understood as implicit and requiring permanent deciphering. It is through this logic, according to Roy, that we would be witnessing the “disappearance of humour” and the establishment of “suffering as a feeling that gives right to reparation.”

Unfortunately, the links between his main thesis and the patchwork of examples used to support it did not go beyond the level of opinions frequently put forward in antifeminist circles. Following Roy’s own logic, we live in a troubling time where humour is more policed than ever, where consensual physical contacts between people are destroying the magic of human relationships and where culture itself, taken for granted as transcendent and ahistorical, is in danger.

Alas, according to Roy, almost no one reads Proust anymore! In other words, life was way better before!

The spontaneous and transcendent culture

In his presentation, Roy constantly referred to “we” without ever defining it (“we cut short the notion of culture,” “we limit language,” “we are witnessing a crisis of culture”). Likewise, his tendency to generalize from facts taking place in the United States contributed to make his ideas sketchy. It is really hard to understand for example how his caricature of a university workshop about consent where “John asks Sarah if he can put his right hand on her left shoulder. Don’t laugh, it’ll come here too!” or his diatribe against the practice of safe space convincingly support his analysis about the crisis of culture. According to this kind of reasoning, not asking a woman if she wants to be touched before attempting to touch her would be characteristic of a culture that is not in a state of crisis, just like reading Proust or not using emoticons.

Throughout the entire presentation the audience was left in the dark without knowing who the actors behind this crisis were. Who is influencing it, who is benefiting from it, who is losing power? The picture painted by Roy is one of a world where social changes and changes of norms come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. A world in which the norms that existed “before” (before globalization?) are not seen as the product of struggles, coercion, tensions and contradictions, but are taken instead as a given. According to this canvas, culture is not produced by humans but transcends all power struggles, hierarchies, social constructs and even time.

False opposition between code and culture

By rightly suggesting that culture is based on the implicit, but without going any further, Roy let us lose sight of the fact that what is implicit is learned and is also part of social codes.

However, the interrelation between code and culture is much more complex than a simple binary opposition. If we take the example of sexual harassment, some learning is necessary before people come to internalize the idea that kissing someone is more romantic if it is done without seeking the explicit consent of the person beforehand. In a similar way, little girls hear from a very young age that if boys jostle them or touch them “it is because they like them.” These norms are produced and shared by society as a whole, from the family unit to popular culture. What Roy seemed to regard as pure codification and opposition to the implicit should rather be seen as a point of tension, a certain reorganization in the production of the implicit which is made possible by the mobilizations of women and feminists. These mobilizations raise important questions regarding the nature of power. These women and feminists have decided to replace social codes that produce fixed roles in which one person must be active and the other passive by a different set of norms where mutual respect and pleasure are put at the forefront. This change seems to be making Roy, like everybody who is nostalgic of an ideal world devoid of struggle and coercion and of a past that has never existed, visibly uncomfortable.

The university and respect for specialists

While it was surprising to see the Yves Oltramare Chair of IHEID ignore the enduring contribution of feminist analysis to the understanding of issues of patriarchal power in different societies by inviting someone like Roy to share his personal views on sexual harassment, this event must be understood in light of the broader context of antifeminist backlash. After all, the struggle against gender hierarchy and for the emancipation of women does not happen, and has never happened, without clashes. Although there is no doubt that feminist ideas have gained legitimacy and popularity, feminists are still often seen negatively. During the Feminist Week earlier this month, I have heard young female researchers talk about their uneasiness with the idea of presenting themselves as feminists publicly because they worry that this label could harm their professional advancement. The truth is that they are probably right. Unfortunately, it looks like it is still easier to be invited to speak on women and feminism without being an expert in the matter than to be invited as a feminist to speak on a topic of our expertise. Moreover, in an institution which aims at promoting (or claims to promote) women in the academic world, inviting a non-specialist reproduces an invisibilisation of those who work on these issues and know what they are talking about. What both the context and the content of this presentation by Olivier Roy demonstrate is the need to remain vigilant in the face of various forms of antifeminist demonstrations, even when they manifest themselves under the cloak of academic respectability.

[1] The mission of the Yves Oltramare Chair is to bring a major scientific contribution to the analysis of the impact of the relationships between religion and politics on the evolution of societies and the international system.

[2] In 2016, in Cologne, Germany, more than 600 individuals filed complaints of sexual assault and theft occuring at New Year’s Eve.


Vanessa Gauthier Vela is a PhD candidate in International Relations/Political science at IHEID.

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