It’s understandable that some of the more vocal advocates of the #MeToo movement have scoffed at the idea that we might be “going too far” in terms of hunting down sexual predators in the workplace and having a chilling effect on society. I can relate to that response because we’re talking about something truly awful, far too common and extremely serious. And besides, it’s not like everyone is going to completely overreact, right?
The response to that sentiment from Washington Post opinion writer Christine Emba was… hold mah beer. (Emphasis added)
Let’s Rethink Sex
This #MeToo paranoia isn’t all baseless. While some worries should rate only an eye roll, others highlight the precariously gray continuum from annoyance to harassment to assault.
But it’s also true that these questions hold something in common. They gesture toward America’s prevailing and problematic sexual ethic — one that is in no small part responsible for getting us into this sexual misconduct mess in the first place.
At the bottom of all this confusion sits a fundamental misframing: that there’s some baseline amount of sex that we should be getting or at least should be allowed to pursue. Following from that is the assumption that the ability to pursue and satisfy our sexual desires — whether by hitting on that co-worker even if we’re at a professional lunch, or by pursuing a sexual encounter even when reciprocity is unclear — is paramount. At best, our sexual freedom should be circumscribed only by the boundary of consent. Any other obstacle is not to be borne.
The article goes on from there at great length to make an argument against non-consensual sex. Emba suggests that people actually arguing with the idea that, “the policing of sex seems to assume that it’s better to have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience.”
This is an idea which the author rails against mightily. And why would she not? If the argument is whether or not the drive and desire for sexual intercourse should be a non-factor when the alternative is sexually assaulting someone who hasn’t given consent, she’s absolutely correct. Of course, there’s one serious fly in the ointment here. Nobody is arguing that men should be allowed to rape women even if they’re really, really horny.
Emba proposes that it’s time for society to “reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love.” Hey… I’m all in favor of that. But it’s also not the sort of thing which human society has been terribly successful at regulating. And fond memories of virtuous and chaste days long past tend to disguise the truth of the matter. The “sexual revolution” of the sixties didn’t really mean that people were having all that much more sex outside of marriage or committed relationships (though the invention of the birth control pill certainly contributed). It was just more out in the open and discussed in public. People have been “acting naughty” for as long as there have been people as near as I can tell from available historical documents.
None of that is really the point here, though. The proper response to this newly exposed epidemic of men using their power and influence in the workplace over female underlings to prey on them sexually isn’t to say that everyone needs to admit they are sex addicts and start taking saltpeter pills. It’s to stop sexually harassing and assaulting women and call out and arrest the people doing it.
We’re quickly riding this train down the tracks to the point where asking a woman for a date is being equated with sexual harassment or even assault. The conflation of these ideas seen in Emba’s essay is a prime example. Some workplaces have rules in place against employees becoming romantically involved and if that’s the policy for everyone, so be it. But single people tend to seek out company, sometimes in the hopes of establishing a long-term relationship or perhaps just a fling with a like-minded human being. If we decide that simply taking a chance and asking someone out on a date (or even paying them a compliment) qualifies as sexual assault, then the #MeToo movement will have turned from one of the more noble and heroic efforts of the 21st century into a new monster of its own creation.