These women express a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness, even though they are not being threatened, either physically or economically. How has the most empowered generation of women in all of human history come to feel less control over their bodies than their grandmothers did?
Let me propose a possible answer to this, suggested by a very smart social scientist of my acquaintance: They feel this way because we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent. So when men do things that they feel are wrong — such as aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target — we’re left flailing for some way to describe this as non-consensual, even when she agreed to the sex.
Under the old code, of course, we had ample condemnatory terms for men who slept with women carelessly, without much regard for their feelings: cads and rakes, bounders and boors. Those words have now decayed into archaism. Yet it seems to me that these are just the words that young women are reaching for, when instead they label things like mutually drunken encounters and horrible one-night stands as an abuse of power, a violation of consent–which is to say, as a crime, or something close to it. To which a lot of other people incredulously respond: now being a bad lover is a crime?
In addition to McArdle’s piece, there have been several other excellent articles about the #MeToo phenomenon, especially in the case of Aziz Ansari — Heather Mac Donald’s and Mona Charen’s stand out especially. They all point out the uncomfortable fact that sexual liberation was always going to be skewed heavily in favor of male desires. Turning sex into another commodity to be haggled over in the deregulated marketplace and casually disposed of like any other product was only ever going to be an “improvement” for the insatiable male libido, but the dogmatic assumption that there are no significant differences between men and women that can’t be erased by more gender studies seminars and feminist fundamentalist preaching has left us unable to honestly discuss it.
The loss of a cultural consensus regarding the rules of courtship and sexual intercourse has left a void which can’t remain unoccupied for long. As conservatives since Burke have been warning about, when the informal social mores governing human relationships disintegrate, the only authority left capable of refereeing a disputed marketplace transaction is the state. Hence, as the above writers note, men who formerly would have been merely scorned as jerks, cads or players are now accused of sexual assault, harassment, or even rape. The purview of the legalistic state expands to fill the areas of social life vacated by informal custom facilitated by good-faith dialogue.
Jonathan Haidt describes it as the transition from a “dignity” culture to a “victimhood” culture — formerly, people would have felt ashamed of looking weak and helpless under adversity and needing authority figures to fight their battles for them, but now the default is to appeal to increasingly powerful third-parties, whether campus administrators or the state itself, for protection and refereeing, while viewing discomfort and adversity as a hostile enemy action requiring punishment. Mac Donald spells out the unintended consequences — we’ve come full circle to presuming women to be frail, flighty creatures lacking agency and requiring protection, only now, we appeal to the state where formerly we relied on the power of reputation among family and community to restrain bad behavior.
There’s no “going back,” of course. The imagined social consensus of, say, the mid-20th century was a product of the fact that a small, homogeneous group of people had all the power to dictate the rules and boundaries of discussion. Outsiders and rebels, if not actively oppressed, were simply ignored. In fact, one could easily argue that we’re simply in the process of forming a new social consensus for a global age, dominated by the clerisy, or progressive media class. Little Susie and her boyfriend in the famous song only had to worry about her parents’ disapproval and her friends’ teasing; now, a date gone wrong brings the risks of a social media mob attack and loss of a career. The reason Ansari, of all people, has been the focus of such intense debate for a week or so (the equivalent of a decade in news-cycle time) is because his case illustrates how far the new clerisy is willing to go to enforce their new norms, and the remnants of dignity culture, or second-wave feminism, or classical liberalism, or whatever you want to call it, are fighting a rearguard action here.
If the new clerisy wins the battle, it will no longer be enough for men to refrain from forcing themselves on women; they will also have to somehow make them feel special and fulfilled in a social context, hookup culture, that has up until now been defined precisely by its meaninglessness and lack of personal connection. The unstable fault line in “Grace’s” personal expectations of a one-night stand is a miniature version of the fault line in our culture. “Grace” felt betrayed because a hookup with a TV star was a disappointment, much like how Americans in general, despite having more personal freedom to customize their lifestyles down to the smallest detail, constantly report feeling increasingly lonely and unhappy in social science surveys. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as a wise old bard once put it. But rather than do the practices and form the habits that would provide it, we demand it from authority as a “right” to which we’re entitled. Sooner or later, one would think, these contradictions will become untenable, but until then, there’s likely to be a lot more tremors and destructive quakes.