Several months into the great predator purge of Hollywood and Washington, some have begun to wonder aloud whether we might be blurring important distinctions, and how likely it is that innocent men will find themselves caught in the net of false allegations. Beneath these second thoughts, I’ve detected a third misgiving–a creeping suspicion that this whole casual sex thing might not be workable, after all.
What Is Harassment, Exactly?
For instance, writing at the New York Times, Daphne Merkin sounds like a secular mind coming to terms with the need for an erotic ethic beyond consent:
I think this confusion reflects a deeper ambivalence about how we want and expect people to behave. Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar. Some are now suggesting that come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree. Asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of “Mother, May I?” We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.
Stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution. Nor is calling out individual offenders, one by one. We need a broader and more thoroughgoing overhaul, one that begins with the way we bring up our sons and daughters.
David French doesn’t pull his punch where Merkin does. Writing at National Review, he argues that this confusion results because our culture’s sole remaining sexual rule–consent–inevitably degenerates into harassment charges:
Consent is determined by the request, and in a completely sexualized culture, the request can come at any time, anywhere, and from any person you encounter — regardless of the power imbalance or the propriety of the location.
In other words, whether a request for sex is harassment or the beginning of a rollicking good night is often determined entirely by the second person’s reaction. Two men who approach the same woman in identical ways might receive two different answers. One might become her live-in boyfriend, while the other might be labeled a sexual harasser, possibly on the basis of something as trivial as his appearance or lack of confidence.
Casual Sex Requires a Request
Herein lies the problem with the consent-only ethic. In order for there to be consent, someone has to ask. But there are times, places, and ways in which most people consider it inappropriate to ask for sex—or to even ask someone out for a date. There are also people from whom most consider it inappropriate to ask for sex, even if they’re adults capable of consenting.
We naturally (and rightly) understand that a Hollywood producer, a boss, a president, or a married man should not be asking just any woman, especially those over whose careers they wield power, for sex. But harassment can happen on the street between strangers. The only thing that distinguishes it from a hookup (which our culture celebrates) is that little word “no.” Thus we have gotten ourselves into the intractable position of making from two identical acts one that’s condemned and one that’s cause for winks and elbow-nudges at the bar.
If Harvey Weinstein’s victims had said, “yes,” and were willing to vocally defend their decision to say “yes” as uncoerced, our culture wouldn’t be able to raise any objections to his actions. His bold advances were merely the request which always forms the first half of a consenting sexual relationship. But we know what he did was wrong. And we know it would be wrong regardless of how those women answered.
Casual sex requires a request for sex. But the request for sex is, in many cases, precisely what’s being construed as harassment.
Consent Isn’t Enough
That’s why we’re witnessing this mass-revolt against sexual harassment and the summary destruction of harasser’s careers. It’s not just that some of these men have become violent and physically coercive (though that is true in a few instances). It’s that they have tried to initiate casual sex in the context of power imbalances. This needs to be recognized for what it is: a form of soft “coercion” that makes it difficult for women–even strong, independent feminists who need men like a sturgeon needs a Schwinn–to say “no.”
But here’s the rub: If what the neo-victorians on the left tell us about inherited privilege is true, then there’s nary a relationship that doesn’t involve some type of power imbalance. Differences in race, income, nationality, religion, and of course sex all entail yawning privilege gaps in the telling of the intersectional theorists who dominate modern liberalism and who are leading the charge against the Weinsteins of the world. Precisely which two people are on equal enough footing to date? How much power, money, fame, or pull in the industry is too much? When does a come-on become coercion?
It begins to look very much as if consent, by its lonesome, is not a workable sexual ethic. Something else is required. Now, if only there were an institution that bound particular men exclusively to particular women sexually, financially, and socially, which included legal recourse against abandonment or unfaithfulness, entailed the social presumption that a woman’s offspring were sired by her legal mate, and was traditionally bolstered by a powerful stigma against sexual advances of any kind outside of its sacred boundaries.
Hang on, why does this sound like what our society has been diligently deconstructing for the past fifty years?