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The 344th Slut: A French Feminist Fights for Equality

It’s a longstanding feminist complaint: men can do anything from yardwork to club sports with their torsos exposed, but when a woman appears topless in public it’s considered illegal and indecent. What may surprise American readers is the fact that France, a country we associate with racy films and nude beaches, shares this double standard—and just like in the United States, the desire to control women’s bodies results in restrictions on health care access and reproductive rights.

In December 2013, Éloïse Bouton, a French journalist and then-member of the international feminist organization Femen, took a bold stand against the stigmatization of women’s bodies and  reproductive rights access. Along with four other women around Europe, Bouton posed topless on the altar of the Catholic Madeleine Church in Paris, with the words 344e Salope (“344th Slut”) scrawled on her stomach in reference to a French abortion rights law. The church priest lodged a complaint against Bouton for exhibitionism; she was found guilty, given a one-month suspended sentence, and ordered to pay 2,000 euros in damages and 1,500 legal expenses to the church.

Bouton is currently appealing the case and campaigning to politicians to change the outdated exhibitionism law. When she contacted Amy’s secular feminist group LAWAAG recently to share her story, we were inspired enough to share her words with the Skepchick audience, and I conducted the following lightly edited interview via email. The parallels between her experience and that of American feminists in our movement—right down to the “first world problems” fallacy when we challenge sexist norms—are striking.

Your story about your public action is truly inspiring. For our mostly American audience, can you tell us a little more about the symbolism of your action and what led to it?

In Fall 2013, the Spanish government began to discuss a draft bill to restrict access to abortion, only allowing it in cases of rape or when an expectant mother’s life was at risk. With Femen, we decided to launch a European campaign called “Christmas is cancelled” in protest of this law and the Catholic church’s opposition to abortion.

There were five individual actions in different European places (Vatican, Madrid, Cologne, Dublin and Paris). The idea was to make a mockery of baby Jesus’ birth and celebrate the right to abort.

On December 20 2013, I posed topless on the altar of the Catholic Madeleine Church in Paris and brandished two pieces of calf’s liver to represent the abortion of the baby Jesus, with “Christmas is cancelled” painted on my back and “344e salope” (344th slut) on my stomach. It is a reference to the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts,” a declaration published in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 1971 and signed by 343 women, who publicly admitted they had an abortion, whereas it was still illegal at the time. This text led to the adoption of the 1975 law that legalized abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy (now it’s 12 weeks).

We Americans tend to think of France as a comparatively open place where the female body is not as taboo as it is here. How would you describe the French cultural attitude toward women’s bodies? How much does Catholic culture inform this view?

France is very ambivalent regarding women’s bodies. We have images of hyper-sexualized women spread all around, but when it comes to political action, nudity becomes indecent. France is supposed to be a secular country but its Judeo-Christian history of shaming women’s bodies still weighs on us today. On the surface, one may have the impression that France is a paradise for freedom of speech and feminism, but it is not the case. Also, French people are very proud of themselves and always think they are more well-rounded and irreproachable than other nations. If you tell them we still have a problem with our perception of women’s bodies and sexuality, they will tell you: “Oh yeah? And what about women in Egypt or India?” The truth is it is still the Middle Ages.

How much support have you received from other women in your fight to change the law? Are French women in your circles likely to identify as feminists?

I received a lot of support from women and associations. I believe they are aware that what happened to me reveals the dark side of our society. However, it is hard to build bridges between women and to create networks, because they are not used to doing it. I hope the spontaneous supports I received will last in time. Some of my friends identify as feminists, but for a few, feminism is still a nasty word. Even though they are feminists, saying it makes them uncomfortable and they’re afraid they will be considered “hysterical,” frustrated, and man-hating women. Speaking of feminism is quite recent in France. Two years ago, we were still discussing the notion of “gender” and gender studies.

How receptive are politicians to your case? 

I believe only progressive politicians really embrace my fight. I was surprised that some of them accepted to meet me and told me they supported me. Having them listening to me was already a small victory. Before hearing my story, they didn’t always understand why I did this action, what I was fighting for, or why I was a feminist. Now they know. The next step is to make them act and convince them to change the law.

We often talk about a “war on women” here in the US, where complete ignorance about the female body and disrespect for women’s health and freedom reaches even the federal level. Does the shaming of women’s bodies in France extend to other issues—reproductive health access, abortion stigma, etc.—as it does here?

It does! You just described what France is today. Everything linked to women’s bodies is an issue: ART, contraception, abortion, street harassment, lesbian marriage, pregnancy, weight. As I see it, the US is the country of extremes. On the one hand, you have very puritanical and conservative ideas, racism, guns, and religion, but on the other hand, you have a remarkable creativity and freedom of speech, which I believe is much higher than in France. Paris doesn’t reflect France and still, this is where I was tried and sentenced. I cannot imagine what it would have been in a small town. In New York or California, I could protest topless for women’s rights without going to jail!

Julia Burke

Julia Burke

Julia Burke is a Chicago-based wine professional and freelance writer with an interest in social justice. She has been known to drink Grenache with PB&J. Follow her on Twitter or on Google+ or check out her website at Stellenbauchery.

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3 Comments

  1. May 4, 2015 at 4:02 pm —

    Does skepchicks support her actions?

    • May 4, 2015 at 4:37 pm —

      Skepchick writers speak for themselves, but I absolutely support the fight to destigmatize women’s bodies and increase reproductive rights worldwide.

  2. May 7, 2015 at 3:00 pm —

    In America, we still have people like Todd Akin, who said that if a rape victim gets pregnant, he imagines the body has some means of shutting that down. Is there a similar phenomenon in France?

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