We're told that America is in the midst of a “reckoning” with its problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment. That would be giving ourselves too much credit.
Yes, many powerful men have been stripped of the power which enabled their abuse. Hopefully, men in power are increasingly coming to view their authority as a constraint rather than a license. And thankfully, women’s voices are increasingly being heard. But we’re still not quite reckoning with the problem.
The chief obstacle to a real reckoning is the dogma of the sexual revolution, specifically, three tenets of modern morality:
1) Any objection to consensual casual sex is repressive prudery;
2) Marriage is whatever an individual or couple defines it to be;
3) There are no fundamental differences between men and women, and we shouldn’t act as if there are.
These tenets, combined with the aversion to nuance that comes with any heated political or cultural issue, has made it impossible to address the problems.
Aziz Ansari, comedian and actor, was the subject of a much-debated expose. Readers and commentators described his story as anything from “sexual assault” to a “date gone bad.” If you read the tawdry story, you come away seeing clearly how inadequate the concept of “consent” is when it comes to sex.
The inadequacy of “consent” is a theme in many of the recent revelations in which women tell of being pressured into sex by men like Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein — men who have power over them. These sexual encounters, in which consent was murky, have scarred women emotionally, driven them out of their desired profession, and even ruined lives. Clearly, our culture needs norms more robust than simple consent to determine when sex is OK and when it is not.
We used to have norms that did exactly that, and some parts of society still do. The norm is called reserving sex for marriage. It certainly didn’t prevent all abuse of women, but it provides robust assurance that consent is legitimate and heartfelt, and it aims to make sure that sex is paired with love and lasting commitment.
But scrap that norm as repressive and prudish, and suddenly you need to create new norms around sexuality. After about 50 years, the sexual revolution has failed to provide those norms.
Modern sexual teaching doesn’t merely scoff at the notion of limiting sex to marriage, it denies that there is a single definition of marriage. Marriage can be permanent or it can be a starter marriage. Marriage can be between any two people, and heck, why limit it to two? And marriage can be monogamous ... or not!
Of course, every marriage is different, but without a basic shared definition of marriage, it becomes devalued. The “Me Too” reporting has shown how irrelevant marriage is to our cultural commentators.
When the Washington Post and Politico reported on alleged “romantic overtures” from Congressman Patrick Meehan toward a young female staffer, neither paper even bothered to mention that there is a Mrs. Meehan. My colleague Emily Jashinsky noticed this pattern with much coverage of married men’s sexual misconduct involving colleagues or underlings — the papers apparently didn’t find it relevant that the offenders were also wronging their wives by cheating on them.
Another complication in the Meehan case arises from our culture’s desire to deny differences between men and women and demolish the idea that men or women ought to behave differently around a man or a woman.
You’ll recall the mockery and anger directed at various ideas of a “Pence Rule,” which cautions men against sharing intimate situations with women who aren’t your wife. Don’t have late-night cocktails with them, don’t work together late into the night in a hotel room, and don’t do a candle-lit dinner for two.
The perceived problem with such rules is that they treat women differently than men, and maybe deny them some bonding opportunities with the boss.
But wouldn't Meehan have benefitted from such rules? Who could possibly say otherwise?
On the Meehan case, reporter Kaitlin Collins said something that shouldn’t need saying: “to all of the grown men out there … the younger women who work for you do not want to date you, they do not want to be your soul mate, they do not want to go to ice cream with you.”
The simple and forgotten fact is that a married man cannot be soulmates with a young woman not his wife, and when he goes for one-on-one ice creams with that woman it is always inappropriate. It is a form of infidelity, most people would agree, and you can’t disentangle that fact from gender, which is a biological reality and not a social construct.
The old way of viewing and doing things had its problems. But the new way, we're finding out more and more, has plenty of its own.