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Sex and the single mind: The origins of #MeToo

A culture hell-bent on separating pleasure from responsibility made #MeToo inevitable, so now should come the reflective part of the reckoning.

This Sunday opinion cover commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on June 24, 2018.

The first waves of sexual-harassment allegations that powered the #MeToo movement are past, but the pressing issues the movement raises will be with us for a long time.

The actions of many of the accused men — actors, politicians, businessmen — were reprehensible and caused real misery. But stepping back, what strikes an observer is a puzzling disconnect.

Why were these men so furiously denounced — and their careers abruptly ended — because they approached and treated women in ways that our popular culture glamorizes and portrays as the norm every day?

Close to home, for example, former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken made his reputation before his political career as a boorish, potty-mouthed “Saturday Night Live” comedian. Franken made his views on women as sexual objects very clear in a 2000 article for Playboy Magazine called “Porn-O-Rama” — fantasizing, for example, about sex with combinations of females who fit the Playboy view of women as big-breasted automatons.

Minnesota voters knew exactly what they were getting with Franken, yet in 2008 they elected him to represent them in the U.S. Senate, and re-elected him in 2014.

But in 2017, after a one-time female co-star of a USO tour accused Franken of forcibly kissing her and groping her in a staged photo, and several other women claimed he had groped them while posing for photographs, he was driven from office amid cries of outrage.

The lack of consistency extends to what’s happening in the larger culture. For example, a few weeks after Franken’s resignation, Nielsen announced that in 2017, a music category dominated by hip-hop/rap surpassed rock for the first time as the most widely consumed pop music genre. Americans are now voracious consumers of a style of music that has set the standard for demeaning, degrading and hyper-sexualizing women.

The #MeToo movement has made one thing clear: Contemporary America is confused and conflicted at the deepest level about sex, sexuality and the social norms that should guide men’s and women’s intimate relations with one another.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: The ideas about sex we have wholeheartedly embraced make what we’ve labeled “sexual harassment” virtually inevitable.

Consider the messages about sexual expectations with which our popular culture bombards men and women every day.

Music, movies, TV shows and video games that portray sex as the single-minded pursuit of self-focused pleasure fill our screens and headphones. Pornography is everywhere, drenching men in graphic images of sexual exploitation that grow more lurid every year. In one survey, almost 50 percent of men reported viewing pornography in the past week — 27 percent in the past day.

Women are willingly buying into this depiction of themselves as male playthings. The mission of the world’s best-selling women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan, is to coach them on how to project sexual desirability and availability to men — how to make themselves “hot.”

In 2012-13, E.L. James, author of “Fifty Shades of Grey” — aimed at a female audience — became the world’s top-earning author at $95 million by “selling more copies” of her book “faster than any other author in history,” according to Forbes. “Fifty Shades” glamorized sado-masochism by a powerful man against a vulnerable young woman.

These cultural trends are so pervasive we take them for granted. Today, they are converging on American college campuses, where the hook-up culture — in which young people engage in casual sex with no expectation of an emotional connection — reigns unopposed by administrators.

“Casual sex was happening before in college,” according to Indiana University psychologist Debby Herbenick, “but there wasn’t the sense that it’s what you should be doing. It is now.”

The #MeToo movement is prompting discussion among some influential feminists about how women’s own behavior is contributing to an apparent epidemic of sexual harassment.

“I’ve noticed a weird pattern, in fiction and life, about sexual encounters,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote recently. “Women decide they’re not attracted to a guy they’re nestling with. … But they go ahead and have sex anyhow.” Why? she asks.

Jessica Bennett, the Times’ recently appointed “gender editor,” has an answer. Bennett readily acknowledges that she and her friends often say “yes when we really mean no” to a sexual encounter to avoid hurting men’s feelings, having to argue or appearing inexperienced.

Sex today, Bennett explains, often falls into a “gray zone.” By this she means “that murky gray area of consent: begrudgingly consensual sex, because, you know, you don’t really want to do it but it’s probably easier to just get it over with; lukewarm sex, because you’re kind of ‘meh’ about it; and of course bad sex, where the ‘bad’ refers not to the perceived pleasure of it, but to the way you feel in the aftermath.”

Here’s the takeaway: Bennett is suggesting that many women now believe they are supposed to — expected to — have casual sex with men who don’t respect or care for them.

How did we get into this fix? The cultural muddle we find ourselves in has its roots in the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.

That ideological revolution sprang from two fundamental ideas. First was the conviction that women should approach sex in exactly the same way men do. To acknowledge differences in men’s and women’s sexual needs, desires or vulnerabilities, the revolution’s doctrine held, would be to deny the equality of the sexes, to impose a “double standard.”

Second, the sexual revolution decoupled sex from marriage, with its guardrails of mutual care and fidelity. It affirmed the sex act as a good in itself — a biological necessity and a form of self-expression. It taught that there is no inherent right and wrong in sexual encounters, because all that matters is the personal pleasure of those involved.

The outcome? Today, all that is necessary for social affirmation of a sexual encounter is the consent of the parties.

The sexual revolution was supposed to lead to more natural and equal relations between men and women. Instead, it sowed the seeds of confusion that now bedevil us. By draining sex of moral content and stripping it of the context of a loving relationship, it made the very idea of consent problematic.

After all, if an act has no content, how do you know if you want it? asks theologian Angela Franks. “Without a sense of a true good in relationships,” she says, “we don’t know to what we should consent. We are left with an arbitrary act of the will.”

As a result, says Franks, women faced with potential sexual encounters today must contend with what she calls “the default of the yes.” While a woman may turn down any given opportunity for sex for idiosyncratic reasons, she can no longer invoke in her defense any socially supported ways to say no.

The #MeToo movement has revealed the dubious nature of a central tenet of the sexual revolution — that women can enjoy casual sex with men who want their bodies but don’t care about their welfare.

It has also exposed the shortcomings of making consent what Franks calls the social “seal of approval” of a sexual encounter.

The Times’ Bennett points out, for example, that men and women have “wildly different understandings of consent.” In one study, she writes, 61 percent of men said they rely on nonverbal cues to indicate whether a partner consents, while only 10 percent of women said they actually give consent through body language. And since persuasion is part of the sexual game, many men just take “no” as a reason to try harder, she adds.

Bennett also observes that a woman’s decision to consent “isn’t always black and white.” Given the difficulty of knowing what she is consenting to, it may well be the whim of a moment — hard to explain to herself or the man involved, and liable to change suddenly.

All these cultural markers were on display in the recent case of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in May after four women accused him of sado-masochistic physical and sexual abuse.

Schneiderman had cast himself as a champion of the #MeToo movement. The women who accused him publicly were influential and progressive feminists. Yet each returned to him repeatedly after he abused them. Schneiderman defended his actions by appealing to our culture’s one-dimensional standard of consent. “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity,” he said in a statement before announcing his resignation. “I have never engaged in non-consensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

Apparently, he also viewed sexual abuse as normal and pleasing to women. According to the New Yorker, when one of his partners told him she wanted to leave, Schneiderman responded, “You’d really be surprised. A lot of women like it. They don’t always think they like it, but then they do, and they ask for more.”

How can we be outraged — or even surprised — by Schneiderman’s attitude, when it is so consistent with the messages our culture sends men and women every day?

The #MeToo movement is the latest evidence that, instead of liberating men and women, the sexual revolution has bred anger and distrust and is driving them apart.

Thanks to the movement’s rejection of due process and its frequent lynch-mob mentality, men of goodwill are increasingly uncertain about how to approach women. They worry that a woman may interpret an overture as harassment, and they fear that her disappointment after an encounter may lead to ruinous charges of nonconsensual sex.

Moreover, some men are finding it easier to distance themselves from women because ubiquitous pornography now allows them to find erotic release without a female partner. A laptop never says no, it’s said, won’t get you fired, and makes no emotional demands.

For their part, women are getting increasingly fed up with men. Many say it is harder and harder to find a man who is respectful, kind and considerate.

That’s no surprise, says sociologist Mark Regnerus. For American men, he explains, sex has become “cheap.”

In the past, sex was expensive, Regnerus notes. Women demanded a lot in return for it. Generally, the price was marriage, with its promises of love and fidelity. But today women give sex away without expecting much in terms of time, attention, respect or faithfulness, and “men, in turn, do not feel compelled to supply these goods as they once did.”

Women, Regnerus concludes, “are hoping to find good men without supporting the sexual norms that would actually make men better.”

The #MeToo movement is attempting to stem sexual harassment and men’s exploitation of women through threats and litigation, and perhaps more “yes means yes” lectures on campus and in corporate settings. But this won’t suffice.

Male-female relations are unlikely to improve until our society acknowledges that sexual intimacy can only promote human flourishing when men and women “hook up” in relationships of mutual care, rather than viewing one another simply as a means to pleasure.

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment.

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