Last fall, as the first #MeToo scandals scrolled across the cable news chyron, I happened to be reading "Sticky Fingers," Joe Hagan's biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. As Hagan describes the magazine's early years in the 1960s, just about everyone on the staff was having sex with everyone else.
Did the women of Rolling Stone consent to the goings-on at what today would be regarded as an illegal den of harassment? It seems they did. In the ladies' room, they scribbled graffiti ranking male staffers for their sexual performance — not, as girls do on college campuses today, the names of rapists in their midst. Jane Wenner, Jann's wife, was known to judge job seekers by "whether a candidate was attracted to her" and, in some cases, to test the depth of their ardor personally. Photographer Annie Leibovitz, who made her name at Rolling Stone, routinely slept with her subjects.
Different as those days seem, there's a direct line between then and now. Today's clear-cut protest against workplace harassment is mutating into a far-reaching counterrevolution against the combustible contradictions set in motion 50-odd years ago. But as in the 1960s, this sexual rebellion is utopian and deeply naïve about the tangled knot of human motivation. Don't expect the young women who are building the #MeToo barricades to succeed.
It's fair to say '60s-style liberation endorsed the value of female sexual desire, autonomy and consent. This was a genuine moral achievement, and we can be thankful it is a settled part of modern life. But the sexual revolution also helped midwife the soaring number of single-parent families and the related ills of inequality, poverty, achievement gaps, and men MIA from family life. And all these many years later, younger feminists are exposing new flaws in the sexual deregulation bequeathed to them by their elders.
First and foremost is the revolution's blindness to la difference.
In every human society, powerful men take advantage of their positions to procure sex partners — the more nubile the better. The radically laissez-faire sexual attitudes set in motion five decades ago didn't give permission to predators to have their way, but it surely convinced a lot them that they weren't monsters.(See Bill Cosby.) And more modest sinners — stealth kissers, gropers and flashers — got to think hey, I'm just "pursuing shared feelings" — TV host Charlie Rose's explanation for strutting around wearing only an open bathrobe while his female assistants were in the room.
The sexual revolution also ignored the truth that females across cultures and species are "choosier" than males about sexual partners. By proclaiming sexual self-expression as the primo value for all enlightened people, it weakened social support for those women who weren't in the mood. "Sex is feminist. And empowered women are supposed to enjoy the hell out of it," as New York magazine's Rebecca Traister described the mind-set. Except they don't always, and especially not now.
The problem is that this powerfully seductive ideal confuses personal choice and consent, especially for a young person still struggling to figure out an adult identity. As #MeToo crowded the headlines, Jessica Bennett, the gender editor of the New York Times, wrote a piece with the striking title "When Saying Yes Is Easier than Saying No." Young women, she argued, aren't always sure what their real desires are. Bennett failed to note that men often don't suffer the same uncertainty. When women acquiesce to their partners' agenda, one that happens to align with the ideal of female empowerment, should we be surprised that anger and confusion — and contentious accusations of assault — sometimes follow?
#MeToo began as a defrocking of exploitative, powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Rose and many others. At first, Second Wave feminists and middle-aged Gen-X-ers were as outraged as their younger Third Wave counterparts by the exposure of so many brutes. But the younger set wasn't willing to end the conversation with the demons in the workplace.
In January, a 23-year-old pseudonymously called Grace described a "bad date" with comedian Aziz Ansari. Despite her "nonverbal" attempts to communicate discomfort, he pressured her to have sex. Older women were appalled at the idea that Grace's predicament had any connection to workplace harassment. "You have chiseled away at a movement that I along with all of my sisters in the workplace have been dreaming of for decades," HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield, 50, hectored.
Banfield, and her sisters, saw Grace as a party to her own misery. Ansari took off her clothes and performed oral sex on her, but Grace never said no. She reciprocated. Young women evidently don't "know how to call a cab," Caitlin Flanagan wrote in the Atlantic. The younger set blasted them back. " 'Normal' sexual encounters are not working for us," tweeted Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti. Common patterns of "gendered" behavior, wrote Anna North on Vox.com, are "deeply in need of change." Her sisters, North said, should not be placed in the role of "sexual gatekeeper."
Like every generation, Second Wavers view the present through the lens of their own experience. They successfully navigated a world of sexual freedom and autonomy, why couldn't these younger women? What they didn't factor in is how much earlier generations benefited from the lingering cultural capital of more mannerly times — long-established courtship norms don't disappear overnight, after all. There has never been a time when women didn't have to fend off gropers and assaulters, but most of us of a certain age weren't limited to a dating pool heavily populated by males in the throes of porn- and hookup-infected post-adolescence.
Still, neither their falling out with Second Wavers nor their catalog of bad dates has made a dent in young women's feminist certainty that differences in male-female sexual behavior can be chalked up to the toxic social messaging of patriarchal culture. Dismantle it, and they will find affection, mutuality and orgasms with any stranger they find tempting, just as the original revolutionaries promised. Dismantle it, and they no longer will be "so strongly socialized to put others' comfort" ahead of their own, as Jill Filipovic wrote in the Guardian, that they can't fend off an Aziz Ansari.
I feel confident in saying that this is unsorted rubbish. "Patriarchal culture" provides young women with plenty of bad-ass un-paralyzed role models, from Mulan to Lara Croft, Buffy to Sarah Connor. Educators, marketers and parents pay homage to girl power, and over the past months of #MeToo revelations, young women have wielded it aggressively, even viciously. "Was I worried about the possibility of a man being falsely accused? Not in the least," wrote Leah Finnegan in a hipster zine. Nice.
Inflammatory exaggeration and self-dramatization won't help the young women's counterrevolution to succeed. Above all, #MeToo lacks a realistic appraisal of men and women. As the choosier sex, females will always be gatekeepers. The biological mechanics of sex and the facts of reproduction demand it. As writer Nora Ephron once said, a lot of men "would have sex with a Venetian blind."
The original sexual revolution stripped young women of the social support they need to successfully play gatekeeper, just as it deprived men of a positive vision, or even a reason, for self-restraint. Recognizing the legacy of those losses is where any reformation has to start.
Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys." A longer version of this essay appears in the spring issue of the institute's City Journal.
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