One evening about a half-century ago, a group of smart-alecky hooligans I ran with at the time hatched one of many ill-considered schemes and piled into a car to follow our favorite high school teacher and drama coach home from a play rehearsal. Our fondness for her was of a respectful enough kind, but we were irresistibly curious about her life away from school.
Miss Johnson (not her real last name) drove into south Minneapolis and double-parked, engine running, while she hurried into a house. A minute later she emerged leading a little girl by the hand. And before they drove off, our favorite teacher turned, scowled and waved to us.
We’d been made, and we’d learned more than we really wanted to know. Miss Johnson harbored what was still a scandalous secret in those bygone days. She was an unwed mother.
But times were changing before our eyes in the 1960s. Abruptly, following our invasion of her privacy, Miss Johnson simply stopped concealing her situation and started bringing her daughter to rehearsals and other after-school events. She seemed happier, liberated, the way I remember it. Anyway, we liked her all the more.
And this small, curious defeat for “scarlet letter” shame concerning sex and its consequences seemed part of that rebellious era’s sweeping social victory for nonjudgmentalism and free living.
I excavate this memory because in recent months the times have seemed to be changing before our eyes once again, in a rather different way, where sexual norms are concerned. And there aren’t that many of us dinosaurs left who can dig up living memories of what the world was like before the sexual revolution set everybody free — sort of.
“There is something odd happening to feminism these days,” writes estimable Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle in a remarkable recent column. She identifies “a stark split between its older and its younger practitioners.”
McArdle says it turns out that younger women have not been feeling particularly free in recent years, but almost “powerless.” And they don’t seem satisfied with the #MeToo movement’s stunning successes toppling rich and powerful sexual predators and harassers far and wide. Younger women, McArdle writes, seem to want a broader change — enough to liberate them from a reckless sexual scene where they feel socially compelled to indulge men “aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target” and often behaving “like a deranged mink.”
Meantime, McArdle says, ancients like her who came of age in the 1980s or ’90s “see sharp distinctions” between genuine sexual exploiters and assaulters like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein on the one hand and less-culpable “guys who press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex.” These older feminists worry that today’s punitive backlash against mere sexual pushiness is going too far.
But to “women in their 20s,” McArdle adds, such distinctions seem to be “invisible.” Almost all male sexual excesses are nearly as unforgivable as “forcible rape.”
If McArdle is right, something like a real sexual counterrevolution may be afoot. Like any uprising, it’s apt to startle veterans of the previous revolution, and it may indeed lead to excesses and injustices of its own, along with reforms.
I’m eager to salute McArdle’s line of analysis, if only because only women seem to have much credibility now to discuss such matters. And as McArdle suggests, it may ultimately be only women who can tame men in this department of life.
Back in October, when the #MeToo moment had only begun to mow down prominent abusers, I wrote a column hazarding the crazy idea that today’s discontents aren’t just about the most extreme miscreants but about a modern cultural regime of sexual license ill-suited to civilize male sexuality, which all previous generations understood to require clear rules and close boundaries. I was favored with abundant pushback to the effect that I was blaming victims and romanticizing an inhumane puritanical past.
Fact is, I remember clearly, as with Miss Johnson, how the old days’ rigidities could punish good people, especially women. But when McArdle writes that today’s young women sometimes mischaracterize sexual wrongs done to them because “we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent,” it sounds like she (and they) are longing for some kind of partial return to a time when there were many ways for sexual advances to be judged seriously wrong without being equivalent to rape.
Nothing is harder for the modern mind than contemplating the possibility that not everything “new” is necessarily “improved” — that our forebears actually may have understood some things better than we do. Humans have been struggling to manage their species’ sexuality for quite some time, and they’ve pretty much always and everywhere concluded from experience that it calls for stricter supervision than it’s been getting in our era.
Evolutionary psychology may help explain the essential mismatch. Biological reality is that the male of the human species can in theory reproduce as often as he can have sex; the human female is on a very different reproductive schedule.
So the theory of natural selection (i.e., survival of tendencies that help pass genes to later generations) suggests that evolution may have favored females who successfully sought durable relationships with capable males to help protect their limited number of offspring. Meanwhile, a zest for the “thrill of the chase,” for many sexual partners, may simply make evolutionary sense for males.
Too simple? Maybe. But is it possible that the elaborate customs and restrictions previous generations imposed on courtship were in part a way of giving males “the chase” while postponing the prize? McArdle muses that today’s women may need to recreate what she likens to previous generations’ “cartels.” The transaction offered to men: “[I]f you want the sex, you’re going to first have to invest in some sort of relationship.”
She concedes that in the past such arrangements were often punishing to women who failed to enforce the cartel’s “fixed price”(like Miss Johnson, I suppose).
But real change is seldom cost-free. As a longtime male of the species, maybe I have a measure of credibility on this one point: McArdle is onto something when she cautions that it’s optimistic to “expect men to perfect themselves.”
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.