In 2012, as the Democratic Party mounted its electoral defense of the Obama presidency and its bid to control both the White House and Congress, its unified message popularized the phrase “War on Women,” a catchy alliteration that news media were happy to repeat.
The presumption behind the Democrats' campaign was that there was an ideological formula to men’s treatment of women. If you believed in the party's agenda, in abortion, in taxpayer-funded goodies, in higher taxes, or any number of left-wing priorities irrespective of their lack of connection to women’s wellbeing, you weren’t waging war on women, you were on the side of the angels. Your political views, as in former President Bill Clinton’s case, were an absolute defense against charges of sexual transgression.
There was always ample evidence that this was bunk. Women are not a special interest group. They are the majority of Americans. On many of today’s most controversial issues, abortion being the most glaring example, their political opinions in poll after poll are comparable or even identical to those of men, even if their voting habits are not always the same.
Where men and women are clearly different is in how they are treated by others, and especially in the workplace. That can change for the better, but not based on how anyone votes.
This week, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers, two powerful liberal Democrats, were forced to resign over charges of repeated sexual harassment and assault that occurred over many years. Their lengthy patterns of boorish behavior and their abrupt downfall put the lie to the idea that there is an ideological war on women. It showed, rather, that in Washington too many men think their power gives them a special, easy-going morality all their own.
Now they are learning differently. An avalanche of revelations in the past two months about men who have abused their positions to molest and suppress women has demonstrated that sin is real, and prevails wherever virtue does not stand guard.
How men and women interact in the workplace is much more complicated and sensitive, and much less ideological, than all the "war on women" rhetoric would have had you believe in 2012 or 2014. That’s because how men treat women is not a political issue. It is an issue of one’s humanity, upbringing, and strength of character.
The exercise of self-restraint over one’s urges has fallen out of fashion. It has indeed been treated as fusty best and a repressive anachronism at worst, for at least the past generation. But the truth is that when men allow their worst instincts to govern them, and not their intellectual and spiritual faculties, there are predictable outcomes that quickly become unacceptable and even criminal.
The proliferation of sexual exploitation in workplaces is the result of a lack of sound moral education, indeed of its deliberate destruction. We take too many of life’s lessons from a corrupt entertainment culture created by Harvey Weinstein, and many others of his ilk, which tells us to do what feels good. When young men learn from it that sexual self-expression is the apex of human existence, they unsurprisingly begin making a lot of bad decisions, and they continue to do so even as they get older. Their decisions often don't include respect for the wishes or well-being of others. As we learn each day, most recently with the firing of former Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., from his consulting job, the sexual revolution’s self-admiring vision of itself as guilt-free and victim-free bears no resemblance to the reality it has created.
For everyone, men and women, it takes a constant effort to place respect for others ahead of fulfilling one’s selfish personal desires. Even worse, try telling someone to live that way, and you’re accused of peddling a prudish, sectarian moral message.
The virtues required to live a life that is respectful of our fellow men and women are difficult for subjectivist moral sensibilities to accept. Otherwise, we would see Vice President Mike Pence honored, not mocked, for taking great precautions to avoid the near occasions of sin.
But those virtues are still out there, described in books, and waiting to be taught to a new generation, whose experience will, one hopes, include far less sexual harassment.
We expect that the coming months will produce many more career-ending allegations against both Republicans and Democrats, both inside Congress and out in the wider world. It is right that those who have used their power to harass, compromise, or corrupt others, should be exposed. Let what was once whispered in dark rooms be brought out into the cleansing sunlight of publicity. Although we should always keep an open mind in case allegations are false, it is healthy for society to nurture a culture in which no one is afraid to speak out about this sort of mistreatment.