Was it only a year ago that Margaret Atwood was the avatar for feminist resistance? That’s when the TV adaptation of her “Handmaid’s Tale” was widely praised for being “unexpectedly timely” (and I poked gentle fun at the notion).
But oh, how time does fly these days. Suddenly Atwood is defending herself from the charge of being a “bad feminist” because she suggested that railroading the accused out of their jobs without any semblance of due process was not, in the end, apt to be a net social improvement.
There is something odd happening to feminism these days, a stark split between its older and its younger practitioners. Daphne Merkin hinted at it in her recent New York Times op-ed on women’s misgivings about the MeToo movement. Caitlin Flanagan came right out and said it after the comic actor Aziz Ansari was the subject of a humiliating tell-all about a recent date: “Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction,” she writes. “You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.”
I have now had dozens of conversations about MeToo with women my age or older, all of which are some variant on “What the hey?” It’s not that we’re opposed to MeToo; we are overjoyed to see slime like Harvey Weinstein flushed out of the woodwork, and the studio system. But we see sharp distinctions between Weinstein and guys who press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex. To women in their 20s, it seems that distinction is invisible, and the social punishments demanded for the latter are scarcely less than those meted out for forcible rape.
There’s something else we notice, something that seems deeply connected to these demands for justice: 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?
This isn’t working. And perhaps a little expansion of our moral language will illuminate not just our current dilemma, but the structural reasons behind it. I’m thinking of a fairly recent paper by political scientist Michael Munger, which introduced the concept of euvoluntary exchange. Put simply, though we talk a great deal about voluntary exchange, the fact is that we often think voluntary exchanges are morally wrong. After all, the quid pro quo offered by Weinstein was in some sense voluntary, and yet also, totally unacceptable. Likewise price gouging after natural disasters, blackmail and similar breaches.
We have an intuition, says Professor Munger, that in order for an exchange to be really valid, both parties need to have a minimally acceptable alternative to making the deal. And in the case of sex, I think that often women no longer feel they have those alternatives. So expanding Professor Munger’s analysis to consensual sex — we might call it “euconsensual” sex — may give us some insight into what’s gone wrong.
My generation of women was not exactly unfamiliar with casual sex, or aggressive come-ons. But we didn’t feel so traumatized by them or so outraged. If we went to a man’s apartment, we might be annoyed that he wouldn’t stop asking, but we weren’t offended, nor did we feel it was impossible for us to refuse, or leave.
But then, I came of age in the liminal moment after AIDS complicated the sexual revolution, and before the internet turbocharged it. In part because casual sex was so risky, there was still a robust dating culture, which gave women alternatives to the nightly chase. Most of us chose those alternatives, which in turn limited the ability of heterosexual men to choose the nightly chase over dating.
This does seem to be different now. AIDS is no longer invariably fatal; apps like Tinder have made it easy for men to pursue frictionless hookups; colleges have shifted from majority-men to majority-women, which plausibly would lead the college culture to revolve more and more around the casual sex that the scarce men seem to prefer.
If there are enough women willing to accommodate men who approach romance like a deranged mink, then other women will feel they have to go along. It is no more realistic to tell an individual woman to opt out of this dynamic than it would be to encourage her to bring down capitalism by quitting her job. Since our society does not consider sitting home alone in your apartment night after night to be a minimally acceptable alternative to casual sex, women may feel that the sex they agree to is consensual, but not euconsensual. And they end up feeling violated when it becomes clear that he is (yes, again) interested in only the one thing.
But if this is indeed the difference between my generation and theirs, then what do we do with our new moral language? How do we get to a place where today’s young women have adequate alternatives to dispiriting sex modeled on ubiquitous porn?
One answer is “education,” but I don’t find this a very convincing answer. Millennia of experience with human sexuality seem to suggest that education, however stringent, doesn’t actually work very well at controlling human sexual desire. All society can really do is change the cost of pursuing it.
Which brings us to “affirmative consent,” the idea that — under pain of prosecution for rape — men must stop unless women are actively and enthusiastically consenting. This idea of hyperconsent is now very popular among feminists, and it would be appealing if it weren’t so totally unworkable. For one thing, because affirmative consent can presumably be withdrawn at any time, including by silence, men would be expected to operate under a perpetual state of uncertainty over whether they still have consent now.
If you cast an eye back over history you’ll see that what most societies have actually come up with is the social equivalent of a cartel: if you want the sex, you’re going to first have to invest in some sort of relationship, because it’s not (readily) available any other way. Those regimes, of course, were often quite punishing to women, but then, that’s how cartels often work; when a cartel member cheats by selling below the fixed price, it is the member, not their customer, who suffers retaliation from the rest of the cartel.
Which suggests an uncomfortable possibility. No, not a neo-Victorian morals police to force morally loose women out of town. But a decision by women to force better behavior from the men who offend them, and even to browbeat other women into going along.
If women started leaving the apartments of men who pressured them for sex after 30 seconds, then I’m willing to bet the men would adopt a more courtly approach. If they convinced each other that no sex before the third date was an ironclad rule, guys would have to wait until the third date, and maybe, I don’t know, find out her last name.
Convincing women as a group to demand better — and leave in an outraged huff if they don’t get it — seems difficult, but at least marginally more likely to work than convincing men that they don’t really want what they quite obviously do. Women are the ones most unhappy with the current state of affairs; they are the ones most likely to be willing to make the initial sacrifice in order to alter it.
And surely it must be more effective than trying to change the behavior of roughly 160 million American men by sporadic public shamings of celebrities. Internet tell-alls will not do much to improve the seduction technique of the average American male. Failure would.
I can’t help feeling that the celebrity shaming is becoming so ubiquitous not because things like the Ansari debacle are particularly useful, but because women feel so powerless to change men in any other way. Tragically, any suggestion that women have the power to change the dynamic is labeled “victim blaming” — as if we lived in an ideal world where being the person most likely or able to change something was always neatly synonymous with being the person who caused the problem in the first place.
And perhaps that, in the end, is the greatest difference between the old “bad” feminists, and the new “good” ones: We did not expect men to perfect themselves. We believed that our own power, as individual women, was both necessary and adequate to create the world we wanted. We also understood that using those powers might sometimes be unpleasant. But how much better to be the one who chooses — by telling a cad to go (expletive) himself — than to wait, as patiently as some Victorian maiden, for the men to solve our problems for us.