Liberation has wrought two problems. The lesser, as chivalry has died, is sexual harassment by those with power over someone they desire. The greater problem as the old restraints atrophy is that we don’t live in a world without rules but in one where they are unknown until broken
It took less than two weeks before the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and its impact on cultural politics spread from Hollywood and Broadway to the Westminster Parliament in London. “Sexminster” and “Kneegate” are the names of the scandal locally. It’s being treated by the media as an outbreak of sexual harassment among MPs so shocking that it may bring down Theresa May’s Tory government.
Yet one can’t help noticing that so far the total of all reported “offenses”—which range widely from one rape to two reports of Ministers touching knees surreptitiously over dinner—is only a small fraction of the rapes and serious assaults alleged against Weinstein alone. Whatever pretensions the House of Commons may still cherish, it’s very far from being Hollywood-on-the-Thames.
News and rumors of sex emerge with every twist of the 24-hour cycle, however. So, with that qualification, here is a quick summary of recent news from Babylon:
- A dossier prepared by anonymous “researchers” alleged that forty Tory MPs were known to be guilty of sexual harassment of young aides and researchers. Some MPs and their harassed aides on the list, however, promptly stood up to identify themselves and to firmly deny the charges. Two of the MPs are taking actions for libel. The number of Tory MPs in the dossier has now been reduced to 25.
- Though not mentioned in the dossier, a number of Labour figures were soon led into the dock. One MP was charged with aggressively vulgar sexual advances in a bar a decade ago; another with hinting broadly to a young Labour sympathizer that he nursed feelings that made her feel “uncomfortable” (he envied the young man who was her lover); and the third case, mentioned above, was that of a Labour apparatchik outside Parliament accused of rape by another young activist.
- As the tumbrils began to roll, more names were outed. One former Tory Minister, married and once mentioned as a possible PM, was found to have sexted to a young woman after interviewing her for a job. (He decided not to offer her the job but risked texting her anyway.) Another Tory MP has been accused of putting his hands up the skirts of women MPs in the elevator—the only accusation so far that mimics the odd Hollywood stories of producers, writers, and actors masturbating in front of women they were hiring or working with. A third Tory, Charlie Elphicke, has in effect been expelled from the Tory benches by the Whips’ Office which also passed allegations involving him onto the police. He has not been told what the allegations are, however, and the police have not yet taken any action against him.
- Though we are still in mid-scandal, several careers have already been destroyed. One of the more able Ministers in the government, defense secretary Michael Fallon, resigned after admitting that he was guilty of falling below the high standards required by the armed forces (he had stroked a woman reporter’s knee and kissed another woman reporter without adequate warning.)The deputy prime minister, Damian Green, was accused of stroking the knee of a different young activist (a family friend, moreover), almost imperceptibly she said, and when he denied it, he was accused of having “extreme pornography” on his computer by a police officer. Some years ago the same Officer Plod had breached parliamentary rules by invading Green’s office, threatening him with arrest (over an unrelated leak of official secrets), and seemingly walking off with computer files. Plod was later dismissed—again on an unrelated matter. Green suspects a vendetta, but the Cabinet Office is now investigating the allegation nonetheless. If it finds against Green, he could be forced to resign and May’s embattled government would suffer another embarrassment, probably not a fatal one but still . . . Etc., etc,. etc.
There’s been a slight pause in the Westminster sex allegations in the last few days. We still wait to learn what charges Mr. Elphicke will face, if any, whether Damian Green remains Deputy Prime Minister, and what safeguards against future harassment will be agreed by all-party talks at Westminster. But sex never sleeps; nor does tabloid inquisitiveness. There has been a further cascade of revelations in recent days about sexual harassment in the U.S. entertainment industry, in the Alabama senatorial election against the Republican candidate, Roy “Ten Commandments” Moore, and now in the halls of Congress itself. Senator Al Franken, formerly of Hollywood and Saturday Night Live, has been accused of “groping” an actress (also a Playboy Playmate but the same person) in the 1990s.
And, finally, in the most significant sign that the times, they are a-changin’, leading Democrats and media liberals are saying that they were wrong to dismiss the accusations by several women of sex harassment and (in one case) rape against former President Bill Clinton. He should now be shunned by decent society, said one.
We seem to have reached a general social conclusion after a remarkably brief and one-sided debate: sexual exploitation of vulnerable women by powerful men has been a vast hidden epidemic in our society and must now be halted once and for all. But how?
That’s not difficult to answer. George Macdonald, the Scottish religious novelist (who inspired C.S. Lewis), once wrote that it was the duty of a man to protect women against all men, starting with himself. If all men were to act consistently on that principle, there would be no little or no problem of sexual harassment to solve. But as every man must concede (including the author of this column), only a small minority of men (generally with names prefixed by “Saint”), consistently live up to this standard. We should be encouraged to do so by our moral upbringing and by the general messages of our culture. But since both sexes are composed of fallen creatures, we will always fall well below one hundred per cent success in this endeavor even in a high-minded society.
An additional problem is that we don’t live in a high-minded society but in a liberated one. And the liberation of manners, in alliance with the law of unintended consequences, has had effects the reformers didn’t expect. One woman writer on the website www.conservativehome.com demanded a new set of rules that included forbidding the naming of women’s body parts as swear words in order to create an atmosphere of greater respect for women. I understand that plea and feel a wistful hope it might be answered at some times and places such as mixed company. But it seems to me completely utopian as a universal rule. Almost the entire armed forces would let down Michael Fallon by falling below it minute by minute.
It might just about be possible to revive the custom that men don’t swear in the company of women that actually prevailed until fifty or so years ago. But that reform would have to surmount the obstacles that women themselves use the “C” and other words, as marks of liberation, and that their usage has been introduced and approved not by the submerged tenth of society but by its cultural leaders in literature, academia, and the media as litmus tests of honesty, authenticity, and frankness.
The most serious result of this “liberation” is really not widespread sex harassment of the weirdly promiscuous kind employed by Harvey Weinstein. That’s an exotic sin of exotic places. Most men don’t have the power to get away with such behavior; it’s largely illegal anyway which deters most of the few tempted by it—Weinstein will go to prison; and above all it’s weird. How many men dream of masturbating naked in front of attractive women? It’s the absence of women that gives masturbation its niche appeal. Being caught at it by a hot date would fill most men with acute embarrassment.
For the majority of people, both men and women, what liberation has wrought is two problems. The lesser one, as chivalry has evaporated, is genuine sexual harassment by (usually) men with a little brief authority over someone they desire—the “groping” charges of the last month. Laws already deal with that, and the lesson of the last month is that social willingness to invoke those laws is now catching up with them. The greater problem is that when the old informal restraints have atrophied, we don’t live in a world without rules but in one where the rules are unknown until one of them is broken. For many people the attempt to initiate a sexual and/or romantic encounter in one of the most daring things they will ever do. Many, especially beginners, will get it wrong, either misunderstanding or being misunderstood. They will blunder across an invisible line. And then all hell breaks loose.
We are not likely to restore the old standards of modesty, restraint, and discretion, at least not any time soon. That would mean repealing not only the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but also the associated revolution of manners. Instead, we face an acceleration of a more recent development: the spread of formal or even legal rules of sexual engagement to replace the Christian moral etiquette of two generations ago. That replacement may be better than nothing, but it is certain to be both less effective than a broad morality (sensitively) enforced by an overwhelming consensus; and less fair to both men and women in a battle of the sexes waged by both sides. The latter drawback is already clear from how the scandal is rushing along—and the kind of implicit rules that are emerging in its wake.
To begin with, there has been the erasing of commonsense distinctions in the term sexual harassment. It’s as elastic as an old-fashioned suspender belt since it seems to mean everything from a flirty drink invitation to an actual rape. Mr. Fallon was finally felled by the claim of a woman political correspondent that he had tried to kiss her as they walked back from a (mildly alcoholic) lunch twenty years ago. Maybe he shouldn’t have kissed her. His wife probably thinks so. Doubtless she was right to resist. But when she rebuffed him, he didn’t persist. And they seem to have been on civil terms since then. Does a simple “pass” in error—a faux pass, so to speak—amount to sexual harassment? And if the lady had responded enthusiastically, would the kiss still be harassment? After all, though bad things like divorce sometimes start with a kiss, so do good things like romance, marriage, a family, and someone at your bedside in your last moments.
Some stern sociologists insist that the most tentative advances are wrong if the protagonist is in a position of power over her prey—yes, there was at least one such gender-bending allegation at Westminster. One can see the rough-and-ready calculation behind that rule. There should be a presumption that an MP’s junior staff is out of bounds sexually. Anyone who proposes to cross that line must clearly and explicitly discard authority when doing so.
That said, the argument rests upon a very formal and unreal notion of power. A political reporter is not less powerful than a minister; in many respects the reporter is more powerful, able to do real damage to a ministerial reputation if offended or rejected. Similarly a male boss in love with a secretary may well be inferior in power to her for that very reason. Power in these circumstances does not flow along the lines of a bureaucratic chart. And who has power to start with? The patriarchy? Or an organized sexual minority with good PR which demands sex-change operations for minors against medical opposition?
Power isn’t always easy to define when love or sexual obsession enter the room—which is why consent is a vital if partial part of any new rulebook. Yet consent is being abolished in the name of consent. Much feminist argument insists that the only legitimate sexual consent is that of equal sexual enthusiasm (and that, of course, is almost never present in their theories.) Consent under the influence of alcohol or sympathy or “pressure” is really rape. That too is completely unrealistic. People inside and outside of marriage consent to a sexual encounter for all sorts of reasons good and bad: a transactional performance on the casting couch; a celebration of genuine love; farewell sympathy for someone being rejected or at least not embraced permanently. That last kind of yielding occurs more often as a motive for women than for men, I think. But it’s not unknown in reverse: hence the upper-class English term, a “boff de politesse.”
Such reluctant couplings may not be wise or moral, but they don’t amount to harassment, let alone rape, and only a narrow inverted puritanism would suggest they do.
In particular the idea that if two people have sex after drinking, then the man is a rapist, is a discriminatory application of this consent rule. It also rests on the assumption that women are nicer and more moral than men. While I’m prepared to concede that in a small way—see above–I have to add the qualification: they’re not really that much nicer than us.
Heather Macdonald of the Manhattan Institute points out that if women spend large amounts of money on transforming themselves into sex objects, they can’t revert to the status of outraged Victorian maidens at the first gauche kiss or vulgar innuendo (though that is what is currently happening in both Hollywood and Sexminster.) By the same token she also warns men not to move too easily from defending college males from false charges of rape in kangaroo courts to approval of the promiscuity that landed them there. Or, as now, fearing any sort of
Rules don’t work unless supported by a common moral understanding of what is decent and indecent. Without that, men will be too afraid of offending to risk the most honorable pass; women will feel insulted by conventional courtship; each sex will fear, resent, and eventually avoid the other. And that will end a great deal. But not well.
(A shorter version of this column appeared in The Australian)