“Sexual morality,” Stephen Marche wrote last year in the New York Times, “has returned with a vengeance.”
The America we live in now, what Marche called “post-Weinstein era” America, lives under a seemingly endless apocalypse of rape, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct charges against men of every ilk. Finally, the media has given voice to the female cri de coeur against men, masculism, and the male libido.
After #MeToo, feminists everywhere have been galvanized. It is, many seem to think, their moment at last.
Marche himself, however, has not been galvanized. Rather, though he clearly identifies with one valence or other of feminism, he has found himself in despair. As he wrote in his piece:
The (very few) prominent men who are speaking up now basically just insist that men need to be better feminists — as if the past few weeks have not amply demonstrated that the ideologies of men are irrelevant.
Liberalism has tended to confront gender problems from a technocratic point of view: improved systems, improved laws, better health. That approach has resulted in plenty of triumphs. But there remains no cure for human desire.
The male libido had appeared suddenly on center stage, this time undisguised, as the “often ugly and dangerous” thing that it is, and feminist maxims and platitudes had done nothing to stop it.
The catalogue of powerful men who have been exposed in the past several months has continued to bulge: three living presidents, numerous congressmen, parliamentarians, and candidates for political office, nearly countless actors, comedians, and media personalities, musicians, and businessmen.
Every day their apologies, denials, and alternative facts were drowned in a torrent of new outcries against more powerful men. The flood has taken liberals and conservatives, men of faith and men of none, those who advocate “family values” and those who have tirelessly waved the flag of feminism.
In such a situation, the only prescription Marche could think to write for our phallocentric ills was good old-fashioned shame. “If you want to be a civilized man,” Marche admonished men toward the end of the piece, “you have to consider what you are. Pretending to be something else, some fiction you would prefer to be, cannot help. It is not morality but culture — accepting our monstrosity, reckoning with it — that can save us. If anything can.”
Despite this careful detour around the moral questions involved, Marche sounds as if he would like Americans to draw their gender politics from Beauty and the Beast. This is not entirely unintentional.
Early in his article he brings up Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, and werewolves to illustrate the “bestial” side of male sexuality known to ages past.
What is odd about Marche’s gender politics is how, well, gendered they are. Men must deal with their “monstrosity.” Women, one can only assume, must be protected from that monstrosity. Hardly a religious group in this country espouses a theology that more thoroughly sorts women and men into hermetically-sealed groups.
We should not, however, blame Marche for this sorting. The media narrative about sexual assault unconsciously did it for him, and rightly so.
Some men, it turns out, are bestial. Women do sometimes need to be protected from men, and for that reason men need to give thought and care to their relationships with women.
One might conclude then, by a feat of logic, that men have a particular responsibly vis-à-vis women. Every age and culture has, in one way or another, recognized these ground-level facts of human sociality. But if our society agrees that men have such a responsibility toward women, we will have to accept what this implies. As it turns out, that would mean accepting the end of the sexual revolution, at least as we have known it.
The sexual revolution was possible because women had ready access to birth control. Not long before, only men could sleep around without the fear of becoming pregnant. By the 1960s women could too. Among heterosexuals at least, the freeing of women to enjoy sex without that pesky natural consequence of sex also freed men.
Sex became, in economic terms, a buyer’s marker. It was easier for both men and women, but especially for men, to obtain. The average age of marriage in 1970 was 23 for men and 20 for women, but by 2015 it was 29 for men and 27 for women. Marriage was no longer even typically a precondition for sex. By the mid 1990s, having a couple partners before finding the “right one” had become normal, perhaps almost normative in most parts of the United States.
Only one thing was necessary: consent.
The phrase “between two consenting adults” was omnipresent in popular culture, and teens were taught the new lingo alongside the put the condom on the banana exercises in health class. If both parties had said yes, we were told, or at least never said no, religious moralists had better mind their own business, at least as regards the public conversation about sex and sexuality.
But the moralists could and did work other political angles. Through religious communities, parachurch organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and programs like “True Love Waits,” pastors, priests, and religious talking heads tried to convince Americans that sexual morality was really beneficial for them personally.
Such programs always targeted young women and girls more than young men and boys, but, then again, they had to preach to whomever would listen. Consent, not marriage, was the criterion that ruled the day.
Today something has changed in the cultural ether.
It has become clear even to rather thick men that women cannot simply sleep around without fear. Many women experience fear of men in everyday circumstances. A drink at the pub, working late, walking home alone — especially for women who have experienced rape or sexual assault, life can feel like a mine field.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 28 percent of rapes are committed by someone who is a stranger to the victim. But 45 percent are committed by acquaintances, and 25 percent are committed by current or former spouses or significant others. It has taken decades, but #MeToo has allowed Americans, particularly American men, to begin to think somewhat clearly about this again.
What have we learned? What is the take-home value of #MeToo? Is it that men need more education? That society must be more vigilant in punishing men who commit sexual crimes? No. It is that consent is not a robust enough criteria for sexual intercourse.
All the education in the world will not change the male libido. It is hard wired into men. Sure, most men are trustworthy most of the time. But many men are somewhat untrustworthy some of the time, and a few men (or is it far more than a few?) are downright dangerous. Birth control and at least sixty years of open discussion of sex in the United States have not changed this.
Most importantly, we have learned that men almost always hold power in sexual situations with women and the subsequent narratives about those situations. Call it phallocentrism or phallogocentrism (Derrida) if you like. Say with Andrea Dworkin that men will have to give up “precious” erections or even with Judith Butler that feminists should give up the category of “women” to avoid limiting their freedom. It will change very little.
Finding new ways to enforce consent legally and police male sexuality might be even less effective. Apps like Sasie and We-Consent, complete with fingerprint identification technology, are now on the market to help prospective coital associates complete a virtual legal contract before doing the deed.
They have been almost universally panned. Some analysts think they could even be used to falsely establish consent after a rape. Even if they somehow became widely used, it is hard to imagine two college freshmen in each other’s arms stopping to engage in a cyber handshake. These apps, one can assume, will be ignored by the people who need them most.
Similarly, threatening men with discipline or dismissal at work has helped a few women, but it is an illusion to think such action will affect large scale social change. Advocates of such discipline seem to assume that most men accused of rape or sexual assault have a job public enough or important enough that an outcry could harm them. Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Bill O’Reilly have far more to lose than your local Walmart employee or computer programmer. Unless the later sort of man is convicted of a crime, he will simply find another job — that is, if their workplace even disciplines them.
#MeToo may have helped tens of millions of women, but we must come to terms with the fact that, unless we institute a sexual panopticon specifically targeting males, only a small percentage of men will ever pay for their crimes.
Wendell Berry’s now 25-year-old essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” seems prescient in the strange sexual half-light in which we now live. He wrote:
We are now living in a sexual atmosphere so polluted and embittered that women must look on virtually any man as a potential assailant, and a man must look on virtually any woman as a potential accuser. The idea that this situation can be corrected by the courts and the police only compounds the disorder and the danger. And in the midst of this acid rainfall of predation and recrimination, we presume to teach our young people that sex can be made “safe”— by the use, inevitably, of purchased drugs and devices. What a lie! Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.
If feminists want to fight sexual assault in this strange moment in history, it is not enough for us to wag a collective finger at men more or less vigorously, increase funding or sex education (though that would not hurt), or, probably, even fire men from their jobs en masse.
What must happen is an acknowledgement that sex was never safe after all.
This implies a reinstatement of sexual taboos in American society, the mores which have turned out to be the bedrock of trust between men and women. It also means the end of the sexual revolution.
After all, if we care to stop the epidemic of sexual assault and rape, we will have to reestablish that real commitment is necessary before sex can safely take place.
That commitment used to be called marriage. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologies all refer to marriage as a type of covenant, an agreement that binds both parties involved, restricting their possible choices in life both for their good and their safety. Consent is just a bastardization of the concept of covenant anyway.
Louis C.K. got consent, at least after a fashion. So has many a man who pushes women into sex. Even if it is established with the help of a smartphone, consent simply does not bind the parties together securely enough for sex to be safe.
Reestablishing the connection between marriage and sex is only part the solution since, after all, women are sometimes assaulted by strangers and other times by their own husbands. We must have the cultural memory to recall that until recently sex, again in Berry’s words, was “everybody’s business.” The wider community had an interest in went on people’s bedrooms, even between two consenting adults, because people could be harmed behind those bedroom walls. They are today more than ever. Relationships are shattered, worlds crumble, and often enough it is the male libido that is the world destroyer. Anyone who denies this, whether in theory or practice, is living a fantasy.
This means that local community, perhaps (horror of horrors) even religious community, will have to be involved in sex again.
Evangelicals and conservative Catholics held out some parts of the foregoing vision of sex for decades after the rest of the culture had moved on. It has turned out that they were at least half right. Mike Pence can be admired for one thing: his policy of never having dinner with women alone. On the issue of sex, at least, the Vice President is a realist. Better to be inconvenienced than to end up in a tempting or awkward situation, especially if your power can make it difficult to say no. Better to be a sexual realist.
Unfortunately, neither Pence nor his evangelical constituency have been political realists. By electing President Donald Trump and defending former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, they have, to put it in biblical terms, sold their birthright.
These communities had some of the tools to help lead the nation out of the sexual morass in which we find ourselves. Now they are passionately defending men accused of serial sexual assault — in Moore’s case including sexual assault against minors — with the stated goal of defending “family values.” Some of the same evangelical voices who have spent decades attacking the Sexual Revolution have been caught in a back-alley tryst with its most damnable children.
It strains credulity to think America’s problem with sexual assault will be solved from the right. But advocates for sexual realism could yet appear on the left. Such advocates would have to ditch consent for a stronger criteria for sexual liaison: marriage. They would need to take up again the language of sexual morality, and unabashedly say that men are responsible to women and the wider community for the way they behave sexually.
This may mean the end of the sexual revolution as we know it. If it must be so, let us say good riddance.
A version of this article originally appeared in ABC’s Religion & Ethics section.