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False Feminism: How we got from sexual liberation to #MeToo

This essay was published in the February 2019 issue of First Things.

As the #MeToo movement has spread from the upper echelons of Hollywood to the halls of Congress, what has most struck me is the startling disconnect between the movement’s feverish sensitivity to sexual impropriety, on the one hand, and women’s eager embrace of our nation’s sex-drenched popular culture, on the other.

For example, in 2017—the year #MeToo came to public attention—hip-hop/rap surpassed rock for the first time as the most widely consumed genre of pop music. Americans are now avid consumers of a form of music that demeans and hyper-sexualizes women. Yet far from protesting, Hillary Clinton agreed to appear at the 2018 Grammy awards in a video mocking President Trump that featured raunch-rappers Snoop Dogg and DJ Khaled.

Movies, television shows, and video games routinely depict women as male playthings, and women willingly buy into it. Indeed, the world’s best-selling women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan, coaches them in how to project sexual desirability and availability to men—how to make themselves “hot.” In 2012–13, E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey—written for a female audience—burst onto the publishing scene. Fifty Shades glamorized sadomasochistic abuse of a vulnerable young woman by a powerful man. James earned $95 million by “selling more copies” of her book “faster than any other author in history,” according to Forbes.

The #MeToo movement has made one thing incontrovertibly clear: Contemporary America is confused and conflicted at the deepest level about sex, sexuality, and social norms that should guide men’s and women’s intimate relations. Sometimes these schizophrenic tendencies are on vivid display in the same person.

Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, for example, made news when she was arrested at the U.S. Senate Building during an anti-Kavanaugh demonstration. “Today I was arrested protesting the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a man who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault,” she tweeted. “Men who hurt women can no longer be placed in positions of power.” Yet ­Ratajkowski launched her career by dancing nude in an R&B music video, arousing the male libido that fires the “rape culture” she deplores.

Nowhere is the current confusion more evident than on American college campuses, where administrators tolerate the hook-up culture—in which young people engage in casual sex with no intention of emotional connection—as a matter of course. “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.”

Joanna Coles, former editor of Cosmopolitan, reports in a new book on what has become a way of life for some female students. A friend’s daughter, she says, gave this description of a typical weekend at her liberal arts college: “My friends and I all go out on Friday nights, get drunk and hook up. And on Saturday morning, we go down to the health center together to get Plan B.” Some feminist commentators regret 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, who was appointed the Times’s first “gender editor” in October 2017, thinks she knows. Bennett openly admits that she and her friends often say “yes when we really mean no” to a sexual encounter. They wish to avoid hurting men’s feelings, having to argue, or appearing inexperienced.

Sex today, she 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.

Many women now believe they are supposed to—expected to—have casual sex with men who don’t respect or care for them.

This was not supposed to happen. The sexual revolution promised to lead to more natural and equal relations between men and women. By draining sex of moral content and stripping it of the context of a loving relationship, however, it made the very idea of consent problematic. After all, theologian Angela Franks asks, if an act has no content, how do you know if you want it? “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, women faced with potential sexual encounters today must contend with what Franks 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 socially supported ways to say no.

A recent Wall Street Journal article likewise confirms that women face pressure to engage in sex even in the most fleeting of encounters. The article—titled “Saying OK to Sex? There’s an App for That”—advises women to “decide what you want in advance,” including “the type of sex” or “whether you want it to be casual or part of a continuing relationship.” Then, it suggests,

If you have a date but don’t want to have sex that night, tell the person beforehand. And give a reason. “I am eager to go out with you tonight but have to get home early.” This will make sure everyone is on the same page.

In other words, a woman who doesn’t want to have sex must not only expect to apologize for but to defend her decision. She can’t even tell a man the truth about why.

Technology (of course) is coming to the rescue of men and women who want to get their consent on record. The Wall Street Journal reports that phone apps, such as the recently introduced uConsent, “allow potential sexual partners to tell each other what level of physical intimacy they are comfortable with and record their eventual agreement so there is no misunderstanding.” The process works this way:

One person types what he or she is requesting into the app . . . [and] the other person . . . then types into his or her phone what he or she will agree to, and a bar code is generated. The two people then hold their phones together and the app captures the bar code and makes sure that what was requested matches what was granted.

The next frontier in twenty-first-­century romance: trying to find the magic moment to pop the cell phone app question.

The #MeToo movement has revealed the treacherous 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. The New York Times’s Bennett points out, for example, that men and women have “wildly different understandings of consent.” In one study, 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, Bennett adds. A 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that at least 40 percent of current or recent college students believe that undressing, getting a condom, or nodding “yes” establishes consent for sexual activity. Conversely, at least 40 percent said those same actions do not.

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, a woman may well become caught up in the whim of a moment—which is hard to explain to herself or the man involved, and liable to change suddenly.

This inconsistency reflects the inevitable confusion surrounding what does and does not qualify as consent. A Department of Justice report, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women,” found that 49 percent of women who were raped, according to researchers’ criteria, said that what happened to them was not rape, while an additional 4.7 percent said they didn’t know. According to another study, 42 percent of supposed rape victims reported they had sex again with their rapists.

This reduction to meaninglessness of what has always been regarded as a horrific crime is predictable. “If you see desire in the terms that have become fashionable—as the pursuit of pleasurable sensations in the private parts—then . . . the outrage and pollution of rape . . . become impossible to explain,” philosopher Roger Scruton has observed. In other words,

Rape, on this view, is every bit as bad as being spat upon: but no worse. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes unintelligible.

The recent case of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman illustrates the state of near-paralysis in which the “default of the yes” has left many women. Schneiderman, who had cast himself as a champion of the #MeToo movement, resigned in May 2018 after four women accused him of sadomasochistic physical and sexual abuse. The women who accused him publicly were influential and progressive feminists. Yet each returned to Schneiderman repeatedly after he abused her.

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 accusers told him she wanted to leave, he 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.” State officials have declined to prosecute him.

Why do so many women seem ­incapable of taking responsibility for their own welfare? As ­Maureen Dowd has pointed out, while today’s women “can Lean In” in the boardroom, they “can’t Walk Out” of the bedroom.

The answer is related to the fact that just as the sexual revolution was rearranging our social architecture, a parallel and sometimes contradictory transformation was underway. Allan Bloom described the dynamic this way. Change in sexual relations “came over us in two successive waves”—the sexual revolution and feminism:

The sexual revolution marched under the banner of freedom; feminism under that of equality. Although they went arm in arm for a while, their differences eventually put them at odds with each other, as Tocqueville said freedom and equality would always be.

The sexual revolution presented itself as an embrace of nature, a liberation from social convention, and a “bold affirmation” of doing what comes naturally, Bloom wrote. Feminism’s watchword, by contrast, was “biology should not be destiny.” Feminism presented itself as a “liberation from nature,” which required “not so much the abolition of law but the institution of law and political activism.”

Put simply, you might say that when a woman goes upstairs with a young man after a frat party, she’s acting under the influence of the sexual revolution. The next morning, when he doesn’t call and she feels violated, feminism kicks in.

Feminist ideology undermines women’s ability to grapple with the consequences of ­sexual freedom. Its defects are threefold: It holds out a utopian vision of equality; it promotes rights without responsibilities; and it predisposes women to view themselves as victims ­incapable of ensuring their own interests.

Feminism’s utopian vision of equality springs from its ideological roots. The movement reduces male/female relations to a power struggle, and it denies the importance of the physical, sexual, and emotional differences between men and women, including the unique nature of women’s vulnerability in the face of the aggressive male libido. Feminist ideology denounces fundamental social institutions as the products of a patriarchal culture, and views them as intentionally designed to oppress women. From this perspective, the edifice of social norms that protected today’s college girls’ great-grandmothers is cast as an instrument of domination—an intentional denial of equality.

Susan Faludi captured feminism’s utopian vision in her 1992 best seller, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. She spoke of feminism as bringing salvation, as ushering in what she called “the promised land of equality.” By this measure, women cannot be truly equal unless their outcomes on every front are identical to men’s. That includes the ability to engage in sex of any kind without heartache or regret. Such expectations are unrealistic, given the limitations of the human condition. On the other hand, they ensure that women will always have cause for anger and grievance.

Feminism also hobbles women’s ability to navigate complex male-female relations by framing them in terms of “rights.” Such “rights talk”—a phrase coined by Mary Ann Glendon—is political, and can never exhaust the richness and nuance of the age-old dance between men and women. It refuses to acknowledge that rights bring responsibilities, and it precludes the notion of contributory negligence by women in any social conflict, including sexual encounters gone wrong.

Finally, feminism undermines women’s ability to cope with the challenges of today’s sexual free-for-all by conditioning them to think of themselves as victims—weak, bewildered, and lacking in moral agency. By portraying women as pawns of patriarchal forces beyond their control, feminism suggests they cannot advance, or even grasp, their own interests.

Notions of this kind seem out-of-date in a world where women make up 56 percent of college students and a majority of medical and law students, and serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, such as General Motors and IBM. But the idea of women as victims is a pervasive theme in the works of second-wave feminism’s founding mothers. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s 1963 best seller, women of the 1950s are portrayed as “empty” and “infantile” creatures, “anonymous biological robot[s] in a docile mass” who marched glassy-eyed into their comfortable suburban “concentration camps.” In 1983, ­Gloria Steinem described women as “psychic colonies . . . half-people who labor confusedly under a derived identity.” By 1992, despite the remarkable gains of preceding decades, Susan Faludi still maintained that women—no matter how prominent and successful—remain “blind to their own interests and abilities,” groping “in the dark for purpose and direction,” and making the most important decisions of their lives on the basis of the “whispers” and “cajolings” of the patriarchy.

Today, the narrative of woman as hapless victim remains central to the #MeToo movement. It is the theme of “Cat Person,” a 2017 New Yorker story that went viral as the movement was gathering steam. The main character, a twenty-year-old college student named Margot, meets a man and initiates sex, but is then revolted by his body after he ­undresses. Nevertheless, she takes a swig of whisky and hops into bed with him, submitting without protest to his porn-inspired moves. At one point, she “almost floats above her body—watching herself perform the sex act almost as if she’s a third party,” as the Times’s Bennett put it. Two lines of the story, which describe a text Margot sends the man afterward, capture the tenor of the entire tale: “Why did I do that? And she truly didn’t know.”

Margot and women like her—including Schneiderman’s four lovers—are the spiritual granddaughters of Friedan, Steinem, and Faludi. They lack both a sense of their own dignity and the qualities of character necessary to preserve it, including prudence, wisdom, courage, and self-reliance.

Feminist ideology facilitates the irresponsible behavior of Margot and her like-minded sisters. It maintains that when sexual tension or conflict occurs, women—as victims of patriarchal oppression and false consciousness—bear no responsibility. In such situations, it insists, an evidence-based search for the truth amounts to “blaming the victim.” This is the source of the #MeToo movement’s simple-minded mantra, “We believe survivors.” Or as a sign I once saw in a university women’s bathroom said: “Sexual assault, dating/domestic violence or stalking are never the victim’s fault.”

Instead of liberating men and women, the sexual revolution and feminism—in lethal combination—have bred anger and distrust that are driving them apart.

The resulting cultural upheaval has changed men as well as women. Today, our society lectures men about “toxic masculinity” instead of encouraging virtues long associated with manliness, such as self-mastery, delay of gratification, and protection of the vulnerable. Gone are the days when Jimmy Stewart, in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, chastely put a tipsy Katharine Hepburn to bed and then explained to her later why their “affair” hadn’t gone further: “You also were a little the worse—or the better—for wine, and there are rules about that.”

Men of good will increasingly fear women, thanks to the #MeToo movement’s lynch-mob mentality and repudiation of due process. They hesitate to enter relationships, worrying that a woman may interpret an overture as harassment, and that her disappointment after an encounter may lead to charges of non-consensual sex that can ruin their lives.

Pornography makes it easier for men to distance themselves from women. It drenches men in graphic images of sexual exploitation that grow more lurid every year. A laptop never says no, won’t get a man fired, and makes no emotional demands.

For their part, women are increasingly giving up on men. Many say it is becoming harder and harder to find a man who is respectful, kind, and considerate. That’s no surprise, says sociologist Mark ­Regnerus. For American men, sex has become “cheap.”

In the past, sex was expensive, notes Regnerus—women demanded a lot in return for it. Generally, the price was marriage, with its promise of love and fidelity. 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.” In other words, Regnerus concludes, women “are hoping to find good men without supporting the sexual norms that would actually make men better.”

When women make themselves more available and less “expensive,” they lose one of the fundamental social processes that made men grow up and act responsibly. By decoupling sex from the institutions of marriage and family—with their guardrails of mutual care and fidelity—the sexual revolution ­eliminated men’s incentive to redirect their powerful sexual impulses to pro-social ends.

#MeToo is the wrong response to a serious problem. It blames sexual indignities on toxic masculinity and rape culture, when it ought to look at the very premises of sexual liberation.

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

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