Over the past month, the deluge of sexual harassment and sexual assault accusations that have come pouring forth from all corners could easily leave one wondering, is it #metoo or #literallyeveryone? And while it is easy to see this as an encouraging moment of cultural reckoning, a long-overdue holding to account, there is much in the current moment that should make us concerned, not just about what is being revealed, but about the potentially dangerous precedents we are setting.
If we are to be frank, human beings are programmed to do little more than eat and fuck. And, of course, fight one another for the chance to do more of both. That people frequently make poor choices with regards to both food and sex should not come as any great surprise. That people are unable to abstain from proscribed conduct in these categories in the face of social taboo should be even less shocking. These are desires both born from our most primal parts, the parts we share with baboons and chipmunks. Society and good sense are little match for that.
That doesn’t mean that all societies, in all times and places, have not tried to restrict, ritualize and moralize our most carnal desires. Society, after all, exists at some level to reign in our animal impulses. In most societies, however, historically speaking, there remain a few allowances for deviance. Glances turned the other way at not-so-savory conduct. An understanding that the questionable and creepy are different than the truly dangerous and criminal. Apparently, that is, until now.
Before I go further, let me be clear: I am not seeking in any way to mitigate the seriousness of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Moreover, it is important to reiterate that very few sex crimes are falsely reported and that every serious study indicates that they go significantly under-reported. What I intend to question here is the way in which we have greatly expanded the definition of sex crimes, both in statute and in common parlance, and the ways in which we have elevated even the most minor sexual impropriety to the level of high-crime. Most importantly, I am concerned that this most recent wave of social media driven accusations, some dating back decades, which have been met with praise and unquestioned belief, will inevitably lead to a high-profile false accusation that will delegitimize the experience of survivors.
My questions are truly simple ones. For example, are we to believe seriously that the worst thing George H. W. Bush has ever done is cop a wheelchair-bound feel of a woman’s ass? Particularly considering he was Director of the CIA. We must begin to ask ourselves when a national moment of truth-telling descends into a moment of national frenzy. Because the consequences of such a frenzy undermine everything that this movement could and should be.
Some of this danger is undeniably born in the stringent orthodoxy and self-assured universalism with regard to sexual behavior that has slowly crept into even left-wing discourse over the past 40 years. Far from the sexual libertines of old, progressives have come to resemble religious fundamentalists in viewing sex as a dangerous bogeyman ready to upend proper power dynamics at every turn. Legitimate and necessary conversations around consent have turned into comical rituals on college campuses and beyond that are as distrustful of human nature as any burka. For example, we are informed that sexual behavior of any kind becomes violent if any alcohol has touched the lips of the participants. News, I am sure, to many, including myself, who have fallen into bed for a drunken tryst. Because here is the thing: I was not raped the night I had a few too many and went to bed with the man I wouldn’t have otherwise glanced at. To argue otherwise infantilizes me and trivializes the real horror of sexual assault. Sex you regret is not rape, alcohol or not. Moreover, reporting on Twitter that this one guy this one time (maybe a decade ago) made an off-color remark to you or made you feel a bit uncomfortable quite frankly trivializes the experience of survivors of actual sexual violence. Not everything is violence. Not everything is sexual assault.
In addition to trivializing the experience of sexual assault survivors, this greatly expanded definition of sexual violence means that there are a lot more accusations to be made. A lot more victims to be praised. And a lot more scarlet letters to be handed out. One of the unquestioned orthodoxies of this moment is that one must never, ever question the validity of an accusation. The accuser is always right. Something that everyone from Lena Dunham to Donna Karan to Morrissey has now learned. It is clear that this is a default position that arose in response to centuries of sexual assault survivors being systemically disbelieved. But like most over-corrections, it is far from helpful. Never more so than when we are in a period of mass accusation. To be clear, the following must be permitted among reasonable people: assessments of individuals’ characters in the face of any accusation. To express those assessments, particularly if we know the accused. Any assertion to the contrary, I am certain, has to do with our culture’s bizarre fixation on sex crimes, a fixation that has not a little bit to do with an unhealthy relationship to sex.
And this obsession with sex crimes and sex criminals and conflation of both with the merely creepy or uncouth is harmful. And I don’t just mean to the merely awkward who get lumped in with the vile. It is harmful to the survivors of sexual violence who are told that they must equate their experiences with the simply annoyed. Or worse, they are told by all of us that what has happened to them is the worst of all possible fates. This mentality, born from the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism (“it is better to lose your life than your virtue”), disempowers survivors. It perpetuates rape culture by perpetuating the cult of purity.
In as much as we share our biological DNA with baboons, we share our cultural DNA with the Puritans. Those rigid Calvinists who valued purity in belief and body have shaped much of our sexual ethos, even among the supposedly liberated. Their love of the public confession and shaming has also shaped our culture. They dwell among us in every hashtag.
Without a doubt, there is much work to do regarding the treatment of women in the workplace and beyond. There is a pressing need to expose the sexual abuse of women, men and children around the world. But that is not going to be done with hashtavism. Moreover, nothing is accomplished by hyperbole, conflation and hysteria. #Metoo is all of those. So count me out. #NotMeToo.