In general the recent trend has been toward more regulation: The sexual-assault tribunals on college campuses, the changing rules of workplace harassment, the new politesse surrounding pronouns and sexual identity. Part of this reflects a pattern often observed by conservatives, in which certain forms of sexual liberation seem to require more micromanagement than the old “thou shalt nots” — like the rigor required to distinguish supposedly empowering “sex work” from the exploitative variety, or purportedly egalitarian pornography from the misogynist or pedophilic sort.
But this regulatory mood is contested and unstable. Last month there was an internal progressive debate about whether, now that Pride parades are essentially part of a new civic religion, their kinky side should be sanitized for kids, or whether encountering B.D.S.M. is a healthy part of a queer-affirming childhood. In New York’s mayoral race, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Scott Stringer helped derail his campaign but also exposed progressive discomfort with the stricter forms of #MeToo orthodoxy.
I don’t know how long the current period of progressive cultural power can last. But so long as it does, these debates will continue, because the regulation of sex is an inescapable obligation of power.
So progressives will continue to teeter between two anxieties. On the one hand, the fear of turning into the very Puritans and Comstocks they brag of having toppled. On the other, the fear of Helmut Kentler’s legacy, and liberation as a path into the abyss.