Sex after #MeToo
Heterosexual relationships are in crisis.
Finally alone after an evening spent drinking, laughing and flirting, the young couple fall silent. They take out their phones. Fingers rapidly swipe and click. He smiles, she shakes her head, eyes still transfixed on the screen. Eventually, simultaneous notification. At last they look up, but, just as their lips are about to meet, another ping. ‘It’s the alcohol question’, he says. ‘That last round’, she groans, ‘I can’t consent’.
Sex in the #MeToo era is complicated. Campaigners tell us that ascertaining consent is as simple as asking someone if they’d like a cup of tea. But the demand for consent apps and classes, the ongoing debates about sex and dating triggered by the fictional ‘Cat Person’ and the non-fictional Aziz Ansari, as well as news coverage of men accused of rape only to have all charges against them dropped, suggests people are increasingly uncertain about how to negotiate sexual relationships.
Sex is now so complicated that many young adults seem to have given up on it entirely. Recent research suggests that one in eight British 26-year-olds has never had sex, up from one in 20 a generation ago. Last year’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles confirmed this trend, showing that 23 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds had not had sex in the past year. Clearly, sex was in decline prior to #MeToo, #TimesUp and all the recent publicity surrounding allegations of rape, sexual assault, unwanted kisses, hugs that linger and, of course, knee-touching. But the interminable coverage of #MeToo has certainly ramped up the anxiety, the fear of getting it wrong, of being abused or falsely accused.
The success of #MeToo
Nine months from conception, #MeToo is still very much with us. The New York Times story in which Ashley Judd and others went public with allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, leading to his resignation just three days later, could have made headlines for a week and then blown over. Instead, the story gathered pace and the list of alleged victims – and those accused – grew. One week later, actress Alyssa Milano famously tweeted: ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.’
In recent years, many campaigns have taken off on social media only to be forgotten. #MeToo is different. Today, no high-profile woman is interviewed without being asked about her experiences of sexual harassment and her views on the #MeToo movement. But it is not just celebrities: #MeToo is inclusive. The reward for joining in is membership of a community. There is an audience ready and waiting to validate your experiences and praise your bravery. The platform might only be secure until someone who has suffered more comes along, and the community might be entirely imaginary, but the high of belonging feels empowering.
#MeToo fancies itself as revolutionary, but it taps into a well-established narrative of predatory men and vulnerable women. Each new contribution reinforces an already existing assumption that sexual violence against women is prevalent on campus, in the workplace and in the home. These general claims are rarely substantiated and often overstated, but the #MeToo movement needs no proof of female suffering beyond its own existence.
Ironically, the enormous impact of #MeToo proves the power some women now have; its influence demonstrates the very status #MeToo’s proponents claim they lack. But just as women have gained power, the currency has changed. A decade ago, young female journalists made column inches out of stories revealed over flirtatious Westminster lunches. Today, those same journalists make columns out of those same lunches – but this time casting themselves in the starring role. Once, men held power and women gained influence through flirting. Now, more women are on top and they gain power – access to platforms and resources as well as the moral high ground – through making their private suffering public.
Reappraising the sexual revolution
The #MeToo movement has, on both sides of the Atlantic, publicly brought down once-powerful men. Striking a blow against the patriarchy (albeit a jaded patriarchy well aware of its own obsolescence) lends it a veneer of radicalism. But #MeToo has endured not because it is radical but because it is fundamentally conservative. The movement’s focus on vulnerable women in need of protecting and predatory men in need of taming rehabilitates age-old tropes. Yet again, women are cast as innocents whose life’s work is to ward off unwanted sexual advances.
Women have always policed sexuality. But the matriarch who threatened dire consequences to girls who let boys ‘go too far’ was once ridiculed. Today she’s back – only now she wears dungarees and an ‘I heart consent’ badge. She doesn’t warn against unwanted pregnancy or even sexually transmitted infections. Instead she tells young women of the irreparable psychological trauma that will certainly be induced if sex is not preceded by the incantation of previously rehearsed scripts. In this way, the #MeToo movement feeds into a reappraisal of the sexual revolution as fun for men but bad for women.
One of the first demands of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s was for access to contraception and legal abortion so that women could exercise some control over their own fertility. Young women, already questioning the regulations and restrictions placed upon them, challenged the double standard that dictated only men could enjoy sex. Women wanted a sexual revolution so that – like men – they could be free to have sex without fear of either pregnancy or moral disapproval. They wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ and not just ‘no’.
Right from the start, feminists argued the sexual revolution was problematic. To Kate Millett and later Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, heterosexual sex was a means for men to assert control over women. Women were expected to surrender and be satisfied, men to possess and dominate. Later, panic-fuelled campaigns drew a link between casual sex and the emergence of the AIDS virus. As Katie Roiphe pointed out in the early 1990s, for young women at the time, the focus shifted from ‘free love’ to ‘safe sex’. Since then, the risks of casual sex have shifted from the physical to the psychological. Sex might not lead to an unwanted pregnancy but, young women are taught, it can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, humiliation and depression.
#MeToo has exposed an apparent generational divide within feminism. Many young feminists blame the older generation for either ignoring or, worse, colluding in sexism. Older feminists decry these identity-obsessed ‘snowflakes’, unable to determine what women are, still less what they want. Younger feminists are more likely to consider whistling, knee-touching and winking to be sexual harassment, while older women bemoan the end of flirtation. This generation war is ugly: it can seem as if no insult is too offensive it can’t be hurled at a second-wave feminist.
But feminism’s generation war can be exaggerated. The main criticisms of the sexual revolution – that it went too far, that it robbed women of legitimate reasons to say no to sex, that it encouraged commitment-free sex rather than lasting relationships – have become widely accepted. Those now arguing for a sexual counter-revolution insist that men and women are fundamentally different and that while men enjoy casual sexual encounters, women do not. Many have reached the conclusion that the sexual revolution sold women the lie that casual sex was empowering, while all along it was really only men who gained. But these criticisms hold a previous era to account for promises it never actually made.
It seems that we have forgotten what life was like for women before the sexual revolution. The repercussions for a woman becoming pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ were severe. Just decades before the women’s liberation movement took off, women could be indefinitely sectioned in asylums for immoral behaviour, and being pregnant and unmarried was sufficient evidence of immorality. Within living memory, an illegitimate baby meant a life of poverty and social ostracism. Some risked illegal abortions. Some passed their own babies off as siblings. Other women found themselves compelled into ‘shotgun’ marriages and a life of unhappiness.
The terrible consequences of an unwanted pregnancy meant women’s behaviour was under constant scrutiny. Unmarried women were treated more like children than adults; how they dressed, where they went and who they met with were all routinely policed by family members and neighbours. For the first women to go to university, chaperones, single-sex dormitories and curfews were the order of the day. Today’s sexual counter-revolutionaries have forgotten the extent to which women’s freedom was previously restricted.
Today’s young feminists are angry that the promises of the sexual revolution have not been fulfilled. As the grown-up daughters of second wavers, they were handed sexual freedom along with boxsets of Friends and Sex and the City. But they have been left disappointed. They were told sex would be liberating, but all they have is anxiety. Ubiquitous, commodified, available to view with a click on a screen, sex has become separated from intimacy. The private, physical act of sharing your body with another person does not necessarily involve an emotional connection, or as the sociologist Anthony Giddens describes it, ‘a psychic communication, a meeting of souls’. Indeed, sex educators now go to great lengths to stress the dangers of emotional entanglement. Without intimacy, sex remains an individual experience. It becomes vacuous, meaningless; no more than a temporary distraction, a momentary release.
Of course, sex can be fun and meaningless. But the bind for today’s young adults is that there’s little casual about meaningless sex. The more sex is separated from intimacy, the more it becomes detached from an emotional connection with another person. The more it is separated not just from an ongoing relationship, but from a potential future relationship, the more emotionally risky sex seems. People make themselves vulnerable during sex but they do so on the assumption that their chosen partner can be trusted not to abuse that vulnerability. When that trust is no longer taken for granted the sense of risk is amplified.
It is easy to blame the sexual revolution and its promotion of no-strings-attached, responsibility-free sex for today’s separation of sex and intimacy. But to do so is to overlook all the other social, cultural and political changes that have occurred in the intervening years. Community and family ties, solidarity with colleagues, political or religious convictions shared with friends have all been weakened and, as a result, trust between people has been eroded. As the trust forged through shared values and collective projects has been weakened, sex has come to be seen as a potential substitute, a way of establishing a meaningful connection with others. Casual sexual encounters are expected to provide something they can never deliver.
The sexual revolution created the possibility for women and men to enjoy sex without consequences – even if this was not always the case in practice. But, at the time, consequence-free sex was less burdened with a weight of expectation and more likely to take place within a broader context of trust between partners. Significantly, this trust was not based on formal conversations and negotiations around consent. Rather, as Heidi Matthews explains, trust was based on ‘a shared commitment to embrace the fact that sexual pleasure and danger often occupy the same space’. The potential for intimacy remained.
The sexual revolution brought about momentous changes in society, particularly for women. But to hold the sexual revolution responsible for every social change that has since taken place gives it too much credit. Today’s separation of sex and intimacy was not an inevitable outcome of more freely available contraception, safe access to abortion and the loosening of social strictures. The meaning and intimacy that today’s young adults are looking for were not taken from them by older women championing sexual liberation.
The tyranny of consent
Sex without intimacy is experienced as risky. Making yourself vulnerable to another person requires a huge leap of faith that they will not abuse the trust you place in them. So much is at stake. In the spontaneity of the encounter, you might lose control. Your partner might have different expectations. You might not be able to make your feelings known or understood. You might end up doing something you later regret. You might be left unsatisfied, disappointed, rejected and humiliated. For the already fragile, the prospect of having their vulnerability exposed induces anxiety and depression.
The #MeToo movement throws up daily illustrations of the consequences of trust abused. In response, the call goes out for more regulation of relationships between men and women in the workplace, on campus and on the street. This public regulation of private interaction takes away the freedoms gained during the sexual revolution. There is no longer an assumption that men and women, as equals, can freely and spontaneously negotiate relationships on their own terms. Instead, people need to defer to rules, frameworks and codes of conduct, for their own safety. Those who refuse need professional re-education in consent workshops.
The key claim of this sexual counter-revolution is that sexual harassment and rape cannot be defined objectively. What is important in determining abuse is not the behaviour itself, but whether or not it is wanted. The understanding and the intention of the accused is irrelevant. The feelings of the accuser – even if not made clear – are all important. Winking and whistling are sexual harassment not because of anything intrinsically harmful about them, but because they are unwanted. Rape becomes redefined as unwanted sex. Sex, by the same logic, is no longer something created spontaneously between people in the give and take, rough and smooth, of a messy real-life interaction. Rather, it becomes a consciously desired, formally summoned and sanctioned, wanted good.
This focus on ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’ sexual interactions throws up new problems. Sometimes we don’t know what we want until we have it, or no longer have it, or begin to have it. Seduction, the stuff of countless novels, poems, films and cheap romances, is the art of persuading someone to want to have sex with you. It forms the basis of stories dating back over centuries because it taps into deep-rooted fantasies. To be seduced, to be persuaded to want someone, is thrilling. Seduction is not just powerful men and passive women. The tension and excitement of chasing, persuading, making yourself attractive and desirable, making someone want you, is enjoyed by men and women alike. Passion and love are made in seduction far more than in the physical act of sex.
Even within the context of existing relationships, the simplistic distinction between wanted and unwanted sex is difficult to maintain. India Knight bemoans the fact that women once engaged in ‘politeness sex’. But in reality people might have sex when they don’t want to for all kinds of reasons: to get pregnant, to please their partner, to sustain a relationship, because it’s easier than saying no. In none of these instances has a woman been raped unless she has communicated to her partner that she does not want to have sex and he proceeds regardless.
The redefinition of rape and sexual harassment as unwanted behaviour further contributes to the presumed riskiness of sex. It is difficult ever to know what another person truly wants – and even the act of ascertaining whether something is wanted can itself be unwanted. Young adults have been taught that the only way to inoculate themselves against the danger of doing something unwanted is through the formal process of ascertaining consent.
One legacy of the sexual revolution is that when it comes to sex there are few remaining taboos. Consenting adults can do with and to each other anything they please. The imagination, not morality, sets limits on sexual activity. But the emphasis here is on the consenting. It might be the case that anything goes, but for consent to be requested and given things can’t be worked out in the heat of the moment. There’s no room for spontaneity when everything must be predetermined and micromanaged. Once underway, you can’t veer off-script. Of course, in the reality of the sexual encounter, what we want is not known in advance, but made up as we go along. But what we can never consent to is sex without consent.
The focus on consent formalises the assumption of an inherent power imbalance in all relationships between men and women by putting in place a supposedly necessary corrective. But the process of asking and answering, the need to predetermine and negotiate, does not ameliorate risk – it erodes trust and removes the possibility of intimacy. According to Giddens, ‘intimacy means the disclosure of emotions and actions which the individual is unlikely to hold up to a wider public gaze’. The regulation of sex through consent classes subjects private interactions to public scrutiny, or, at least, the possibility of public scrutiny. Doubt and suspicion are cast on every private interaction.
#MeToo has shone a light on the behaviour of some abusive and exploitative individuals. But, at the same time, it offers membership to women everywhere. In so doing, it places the vulnerable woman at the centre of her own imaginary community, praises her for suffering and tells her to make sense of her experiences through her own personal truths. If an interaction was unwanted, then she was sexually harassed. If sex was unwanted, then she was raped.
#MeToo feeds into a sexual counter-revolution triggered by a crisis of intimacy. But the solutions proposed are formal and technical. Conversations about consent, shared permissions, even signed statements can never provide a satisfactory solution to the breakdown of trust between men and women. Indeed, the more sexual interactions are policed, the louder the message that sex is inherently risky and the more trust is undermined. Men and women now meet as equals, but only in the sense that each is equally nervous about the other. The focus on consent makes intimacy impossible. It rules out the unguarded and the spontaneous and instead insists that people behave in private according to public standards.
Joanna Williams is associate editor at spiked. Her new book, Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, is out now.
Picture by: Jaime Silva, published under a creative commons license.