Barely four months have passed since Harvey Weinstein was first publicly named and shamed as a serial sexual harasser and possibly worse and already, the backlash has begun. Actress Catherine Deneuve joined 100 prominent Frenchwomen in denouncing the wave of sexual assault allegations which have followed as "puritanism". Campaigns like the #MeToo movement had turned into a "witch-hunt", they argued. "Rape is a crime," they reasoned, "but insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is men being gentlemenly chauvinism." Their open letter in Le Monde newspaper has prompted a response from 30 feminists, who say they are defending the impunity of aggressors.
The open letter is frighteningly reminiscent of Mr Weinstein's own defence of his actions. While he has denied the more serious allegations against him, he admitted he had behaved inappropriately and bleated that he "came of age…when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different". His former lawyer Lisa Bloom excused him as "an old dinosaur learning new ways". Clumsy flirting is the very least of the charges laid at his and others' doors. But claiming cultural or generational differences is not an excuse. Mr Weinstein was the billionaire owner of a successful movie production company, with the power to make or break careers. The women on the receiving end of his advances said they felt "intimidated" and "trapped". That might not constitute a crime but any behaviour which can make another human being feel vulnerable – particularly from someone wielding power and authority – cannot be justified or excused. The open letter called for leniency for men forced to resign "when their only wrongdoing was to touch a knee, try to steal a kiss". But if thieving possessions are a crime, then stealing a kiss or touch is even more invasive and threatening.
Mr Weinstein is not alone in using this as his justification, nor, as the open letter shows, is it restricted to men alone. Accusations of sexual assault are not always black and white. The grey area in which consent can be argued explains why so many of these allegations end up in court, where judges and juries wrestle with the complexities of cases until they can be decided beyond reasonable doubt. Simply because women have come forward does not mean we should automatically believe all accusations wholesale. Nor should we point fingers without being party to all the evidence. But they must be heard, because we are barely in the afternoon of victims feeling liberated enough to talk about issues which have been silenced for decades, centuries even. Shutting down that conversation when it has only just begun could be hugely detrimental to those who have only just started to open up about their experiences. Only then can we start a truly equal debate.