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Writing the History of Sexual Harassment: The Avisa Project

In recent days there has been a flurry of reports on the depressing ubiquity of sexual harassment and sexual and gender-based violence. In France there is a project, the Avisa Project, taking a look at the long and horrible history of sexual harassment.

Today’s post about this project, which is likely to be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project, is by Armel Dubois-Nayt of the Université de Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines.

We would especially like to congratulate Louise Piguet (whose presentation is mentioned below) for successfully defending her doctoral thesis. Wonderful news, Dr. Piguet!

The Avisa Project

Avisa is the eponymous female character of a sixteenth century narrative poem, Willobie his Avisa (1594), who successfully rebuffs a series of persistent and aggressive wooers. The Avisa Project is named after her and was launched in September 2020 by two French universities: the University of Evry and the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin. One aim of the project is to identify, collect, and examine behaviours in times past that can be classified today as sexual harassment. What can we discern about how harassment was experienced, exposed and resisted by the women and men who endured it? How did they challenge sexual harassment, be that in in court, or through creative modes of expression?

The project is currently funded by the MSH-Paris Saclay and offers webinars, held every two months, giving scholars and PhD students from different disciplines (literature, history, the history of ideas and the sociology of film) the opportunity to present their findings and work in progress.

The first term has been dedicated to designing the bilingual French and English platform, which will continue to present collective research. It will contain a searchable glossary of the French and English terms and phrases used to identify, document and report this type of sexual violence. Alongside this, the platform will assemble information about all of historical, literary and filmic victims and survivors of such crimes. In time, the platform will develop into a corpus database of all works analysed, with up-to-date bibliographies, and other research information on the topic. The site will also advertise forthcoming events and summarise findings of prior project activities.

So far, the webinars since December, have focused on words (i.e. the vocabulary of sexual harassment) and images (i.e. the visual depiction of sexual harassment). Recurring in both focus areas are markers of masculine domination and female victims.

In the first webinar, Guillaume Peureux discussed Idylles (1605), poems by Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye (1536-1607), in which the terms harceler and harasser appear (both translate into English as “harass”). Peureux revisits Idylles in the light of a recent controversy in France (2018), which was initiated by the candidates for the agrégation (i.e. the high level competitive exams for teachers), and centred on how texts depicting sexual violence should be taught in class and whether focus on sexual harassment constitutes anachronistic reading of early modern literature.

Next, Chloe Tardivel presented  on two explicit cases of sexual harassment from 14th-century court records from Bologna: those of Margarita (in 1351) and Maria (in 1373). Neither case, however, was tried for the sexual violence involved but for the physical violence and injuries that followed the women’s resistance. This paper illustrated how historians can recover cases of sexual harassment even in the absence of a law that recognises the offence.



Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Comune, Curia del Podestà, Giudici ad maleficia, Libri inquisitionum et testium, boîte n° 219, registre 1, fol. 30.

Rejane Vallee discussed the corpus of films identified as dealing with sexual harassment on the IMDb.com website, the content of which is supplied by anonymous contributors. On this website, 750 films appear under the category “sexual harassment,” a figure far below the 5400 entries under the word “rape,” and the 1151 entries under the word “stalking.” It is, however, higher than the 661 films listed under the category “sexual assault.” The corpus covers films between the years 1899 and 2021, 40 different nationalities, and 16 different genres. It also raises a series of questions, starting with the criteria applied by contributors to categorise films as containing sexual harassment, which appears to have changed considerably over time.

Brigitte Gauthier looked at social fracture and harassment in South African cinema. Hence, sexual harassment in South African university contexts might be seen to be debunked in Steve Jacobs’s film Disgrace, adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s complex novel of the same name. The film portrays but does not resolve themes of sex and sexual violence cast against a background of racialised violence and territorial fights. Gauthier mentioned that South Africa has implemented new laws regarding sexual harassment in the film industry to fight the “embedded” harassment processes in an industry that capitalises and thrives on female beauty. Local filmmaker and member of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), Tiny Mungwe, has encouraged people to take the pledge against sexual harassment by using the #Don’tLookAway Mzansi Facebook profile frame (Mzansi is another name for South Africa).

In the second webinar, Susan Baddeley looked at words used in 16th-century French and English to describe acts that we would today classify as sexual harassment. She showed that the words we use in the present – namely, (English) harass and (French) harceler – were not then generally used in the same way. They did, however, in the past, too, describe repeated and hostile attacks, which explains how these terms acquired the meaning they hold today. An intuitive search, from synonym to synonym, through various lexical databases (FRANTEXT, EEBO-TCP, LEME) yielded a few terms (such as attempt in English, attoucher in French) which could be construed as having this meaning, among other meanings. One term however, stood out, and referred to “sniffing around (a potential sexual conquest)”: this is the French verb mugueter. Although several dictionaries attempt to play down this meaning, the fact that others coyly include the word (but not the definition), and that translators tend to under-translate or even omit it, speaks volumes about the true meaning of the word at the time.


The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177

Louise Piguet investigated the extent to which we can apply the present-day notion of sexual harassment to 17th-century French society. She took the case of Madame Guyon (1648-1717), and considered how the practice of “controlled anachronism” (Paul Veyne) can help us use her spiritual autobiography to shed some light on domestic abuse in late 17th-century high society. In her autobiography, Guyon recalls a violent past of constant surveillance, attacks, pressure and unwanted sexual intercourse with her husband. This would be labelled today as marital rape but, at the time, it was depicted by the victim as part of her conjugal duties. Piguet concluded that if self-sacrifice on the altar of wifely obedience was in this specific literary genre a major trope to demonstrate a woman’s forbearance and holiness, it can still prove useful material for present-day social history on sexual harassment.

Armel Dubois-Nayt analysed the historical case of sexual harassment of Elizabeth Tudor by Thomas Seymour between 1547 and 1548, which was placed in the limelight by a recent documentary on Channel 5 (2017). Dubois-Nayt examined the confessions of Elizabeth Tudor’s governess and treasurer, as well as a hand-written note on the back of a letter dated 9 June 1548, by the princess herself, on which the case is built. She then turned to and confronted the gender-prejudiced treatment of these texts by generations of historians, going on to propose an alternative philogynist version of events, underpinned by texts such as Willobie his Avisa (1594).

The next seminar will be held on 2 April 2021, and will welcome three speakers. Anne Rochebouet will survey courtesy in medieval fiction, with a view to determine how behaviours associated with courtly manners and courtliness fit with our assumed conceptions of medieval misogyny.

Line Cottegnies will discuss harassment and the battle of the sexes in Mary Astell’s philosophy.

Fanny Beure will talk about the ambiguities of the acts of loving conquest pictured in Hollywood musicals.

For more information about the project see: https://avisa.huma-num.fr/s/avisa/page/accueil

We look forward to Avisa and Shiloh collaborations.

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