Svenja Flasspöhler, philosopher: ‘Saying no is a sign of autonomy. But something even stronger is saying I want you’

The German thinker finds the trouble with the MeToo movement and the woke left. She says that if women find their sexual power, men’s fear of them will turn into desire

Svenja Flaßpöhler
Svenja Flasspöhler pictured in Mitte, Berlin, on May 8.Omer Messinger
Carmen Pérez-Lanzac

Philosopher Svenja Flasspöhler has a penchant for controversy. She devoted her thesis to studying the pornographically-tinged work of the Marquis de Sade; in it, she stated that, since God does not exist, the only force that humans could cling to is that of our own sexual stimulation. She set out to analyze the links between this idea and the modern individual; in 2019, she published Die potente Frau [The powerful woman], where she criticized some of the positions of the MeToo movement and advocated an active femininity, rejecting the view of women as victims, and in 2021 she published Sensibel [Sensitive], where she addresses the progressive social and individual awareness and the limit of what is tolerable.

The interview takes place in a Berlin café. She is a powerful woman, a close one, with a disturbing gaze. She fears being misunderstood. Criticism, when she considers it unfair, hurts her.

Question. You say that the modern individual expects protection from the state, from others, but at the same time expects nothing from themselves.

Answer. I think there was this tendency to accuse other people and to ask for protection from the state, but there was no critical view on themselves, to analyze how culture and how history has made women always to be polite, not to refuse. And I think that this leads to the problem that women often don’t really have a known desire, or they are not able to say no. This kind of self-reflection was lacking [in the MeToo movement]. You need this kind of self-reflection to empower yourself and to empower your own gender.

Q. You write that resilience is the sister of sensitivity.

A. When you want to be resilient, you have to be sensitive at the same time. I think resilience means that you react and you listen, but you have an attitude. This is what I mean by resilience. And resilience, of course, also means that if you are a woman and you are in a hotel bar and there is a man who is sexually interested in you, that you find a way to be self-confident and autonomous and deal with that situation.

Q. Or be the one who shows interest in the man, if that is the case.

A. Of course. This was, from my point of view, one of the biggest problems with MeToo. There was no [openness] to the possibility that the woman could also be the one who desires. Men are perpetrators, women are victims, and that’s it. And the best thing a woman can do is to say “no.” I mean, of course, “no” is a very strong sign of autonomy. You have to do that from time to time. But I think something even stronger is to say, “I want you, and I’m the one who has the desire.” I think that the whole MeToo thing was not really emancipation; it was just a step.

Q. You insist on the responsibility we have over our own lives.

A. When you understand who you are or how you became who you are, you are able to be responsible for your life. And yes, there are structures in society which influenced the way you feel, the way you act, and so on; but there is also the individual power. I have a very complex family and a very complex history because my mother left our family. It was not easy. I did psychoanalysis for many years; this was the way to liberate myself and to find my own power.

Q. You even wished that your mother would suffer for having abandoned you. How did you manage to forgive her? You wrote a book about it: Verzeihen: Vom Umgang mit Schuld [Forgiveness: Dealing with guilt].

A. My mother had many affairs and she divorced three times. She had a sexual desire, she was much more free than other women in my village. When I felt that my feelings for my mother changed a little bit, I tried to understand her. I tried to see why she acted like she acted.

Q. Do you have to understand what someone is feeling in order to help them?

A. The left-wing woke group says that only people who are concerned by something could say something about that topic. And if you look at therapy, the other person [the therapist] is not concerned. But the fact they are not concerned is exactly what enables them to help. You also need the perspective of those who are not concerned (I don’t mean the perpetrator).

Q. When we empathize, sometimes we adopt the other’s perspective to the point that you think we lose perspective.

A. Nietzsche says that when somebody is too empathetic, he loses his self. German philosopher Max Scheler says that when we talk about empathy, it is a kind of emotional affection; it’s not empathy, you are affected by the feelings of another person. It’s a kind of reflex. When, let’s say, a war begins, people are so affected that the whole mass gets into a kind of emotional rage.

Q. You say that we should turn men’s fear of women into pleasure.

A. If you look at the psychoanalytic discourse about this whole question of being afraid of women, it says that men are afraid of women because they are afraid of being castrated, because women have nothing between their legs. And so, if it is possible to develop a female consciousness and to give sexual power to the women and to prove that there is a male and female desire, I think it is possible that men lose their fear and really recognize there is a female alter ego. I think this is the way you can transform fear into desire and pleasure.

Q. Cancel culture has reached Europe. How should we manage this issue?

A. Institutions are somehow strongly influenced, and also kind of suppressed, by social media, the whole atmosphere in society. And if there is the danger of a shitstorm or whatever, the institutions give up and cancel a lecture or whatever they’re doing. But they have to be resilient.

Q. How would you describe the moment we are living right now?

A. There is a very big struggle. People are fighting for their rights. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher who wrote a book about democracy in the U.S., and he says the more equal societies become, the more sensitive they become for still existing privileges. I would say that the fact that we fight each other so hard is a sign of progress.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS