What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo

There are other, unattended stories, ones that do not deny men’s age-old power over women.


Amid the chorus of stories that define the #MeToo phenomenon, there remain other, unattended stories. These others do not displace the chorus. They do not say, “You are wrong, shut up.” They do not exist in the world of “Keep quiet” or “Be good.” They do not deny the reality of men’s age-old power over women, or conformity as a silencing force. They say power is cunning, power is a hydra; it has more heads than any story or group of stories can describe. They say history does, too. They invite us to inspect the hydra.

What follows is my invitation.

We both were young, 20s, but I was older. We worked for the same outfit, but I was paid. We kissed while walking home from a party, and then at the back of a bus, and then in his stairwell. He had made the first move, but only I could say, in the midst of our distraction, “Of course this means I can’t hire you.” He was an intern, I a department chief. The declaration astonished him—whether because he sensed I underestimated him, I cannot say. Ultimately, he so surpassed the qualifying test’s requirements that not hiring him would have been absurd. Years later, a catty friend would say ambition alone drove the boy’s kisses: “After all, he was gorgeous, and you…” I was his boss and lover, he my assistant and lover, each of us on the seesaw of power and weakness that those dual roles implied until, over time, the temperature changed.

That is a true story, true to me, and the telling, I suppose, encourages you to believe it. But what do you know? Say I were a man and the intern a woman. Say I called her a girl and someone said her desire for a job figured in the encounter. Say you knew nothing of her side of the story, as you know nothing of his—as, actually, you know only the barest details of mine. Say, finally, that she knew the value of her kind of beauty in seduction and social competition—how could she not?—but also its curse. Does that imaginative exercise open what for me is a sweet, if complicated, memory to sinister interpretation? Is the intern now a victim? Am I a predator? And yet the information is unchanged, as revealing and partial as it was at first telling.

The story, like any told from a single point of view, raises an unnerving question about certainty: How can we determine the truth from what we cannot know? In his Histories, Herodotus tells readers that x is what he heard but could not confirm, that y is what his informants say they believe, that z is something he highly doubts but is, in any event, a cultural consensus. Readers might not have verifiable fact, but they are invited to interpret what those views might say about the people who hold them (or the writer who chose to record them). At the detective’s desk, a story of crime is pieced together from multiple sources, but even then, a charging document is not the truth; it is subject to challenge. In literature, truth is an investigation, not an end point, so the story is an instrument for revealing the complexity of being alive, and wisdom, rather than certainty, is the hope.

In politics, truth tends to be whatever those holding the bullhorn say it is. In January, television viewers of the Golden Globes spectacle would have seen this graphic commercial:

He said. She said.

He said. She said.

He said. She said.

He said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said. She said.

The truth has power.

The truth will not be threatened.

The truth has a voice.

The New York Times.

Today, the ad flickers from New York subway platforms. As cultural messaging, it resolves the problem of uncertainty by saying, first, that truth lies in the teller and, second, that social truth—the reality of sexual violence—may obliterate the particulars of any individual case by the sheer number of tellers saying, “Me too.”

Given the timing of its debut, the “She said” cascade could be read narrowly to represent Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and the Times’ role in his fall. It is now accepted fact that Weinstein is a violent criminal. He may be, but in actual fact we don’t know. Saying that should not be controversial; review enough cases brought on the basis of multiplying accusations in periods of high emotion, and you resist trial-by-media. That it is controversial indicates just how much people are willing to trade for certainty—also, how sheltered some are from the idea that they could ever find themselves on the wrong side of a police investigation. Weinstein basked in the bully role, and his descent would be more satisfying if it did not rely simultaneously on conviction by say-so and generalized agreement that he disempowered every man and woman who wasn’t on his security detail, from assistants to actors to journalists.

Affirmations of powerlessness are more telling than sordid details. Not because the latter might be untrue, but because the former reduce a many-layered story of sexism and human weakness to a bleached tale of monstrosity and cowering. If some of the most privileged people on the planet were paralyzed by fear, this story implies, what defense do the rest of us have against the Bad Man?

As Natalie Portman explained, we are helpless:

It’s only some men who do the harassing, but it’s all women who fear the violence and aggression. It has an effect like terror…everyone is afraid to walk down the street alone at night.*

Desperate situations demand desperate measures. After the terror of 9/11: war, torture, mass surveillance, the gulag. After the terror of Weinstein, to what ends must we go to feel safe?

That is not a glib question, nor is the “terror” reference insignificant. It points to a broader politics of fear structuring our time. Rage, revenge, the frisson of freedom as the list of accused men grew—these emotions reigned as #MeToo burst into the air-conditioning system of the culture. Notwithstanding thoughtful essays, commentaries, and critiques, fury has led. And, as after 9/11, why wouldn’t it? Who is not moved by suffering, or does not want to be resolute in opposing violence?

There is a rub, though. Strip the veneer of liberation, and an enthusiasm for punishment is palpable. Look beyond declarations of revolution, and there is an under-analyzed conception of patriarchy. Take seriously the argument that any social conflict will have winners and losers, and there remain cavernous, unplumbed realities of loss. Look squarely at the presumption of guilt in light of experience, at the bundling of diverse behaviors under the rubric of sexual abuse, at emboldened efforts to drop statutes of limitation, and the zeitgeist feels like sex panic.

Exponents of #MeToo bridle at the term. After Daphne Merkin worried in the Times over waves of accusation, and Mimi Kramer called her “a beard for covert anti-feminism” probably put up to it by a man (“That’s Dean Baquet [Times executive editor] trying to muddy the waters, no?”), other voices rose to preempt talk of sex panic, which they promptly mischaracterized. So, a definition: A sex panic, or moral panic, is a social eruption fanned by the media and characterized by alarm over innocence (stereotypically, white women and children) imperiled. The predator is a lurking, shape-shifting social presence, a menace against which the populace must be mobilized—and has been since at least the “white slavery” panic of the 1880s–1910s, but almost continuously since the mid-20th century.

That politics of fear has not been trivial. Examples range from the fever over (homo)”sexual psychopaths” (1950s) to serial rages since the late 1960s against: sex education; gay “sex rings,” teachers, and threats to family; “stranger danger”; Crime!; Porn!; satanic ritual abuse in day care; sexual abuse dug up from “memory”; AIDS predators; “superpredators”; Internet predators; Sex Offenders as a separate category of human being; “pedophile priests”; campus date rape.

Whether formulated for political organizing (the right’s “Save Our Children”), or inflated/concocted from real claims (the priest scandal), or entirely concocted (the day-care frenzy), or fueled by exaggerated statistics and unstable definitions (the college “hunting ground”), these panics have shared features. Sex figures as a preternatural danger, emotion swamps reason, monsters abound, and protection demands any sacrifice.

Sex panic reverses the order that governs law, where, formally at least, innocence is presumed. In panic, the stories are all true, and the accused are guilty by default. Law having been declared a flawed tool for achieving justice—as, indeed, it is—“naming and shaming” takes its place. Garbed as justice, accusations become moral lessons of Good’s triumph over Evil; they thus become increasingly difficult to question. Their proliferation becomes proof of legitimacy. Victims are encouraged to “Speak your truth.” Everyone else is commanded, “Believe.”

Typically, panic generates another story, written in the language of law, resuscitated as a sturdy instrument of justice, reinforcing repressive power but protecting the rest of us from monsters… until the next panic.

In Sex Panic and the Punitive State, anthropologist Roger Lancaster examines these mass convulsions alongside the expansion of state violence. That hydra’s head is unpleasant to behold, more so when cries of the oppressed have been used to feed it. Liberals and feminists stirred many of these panics and have deployed an inflammatory language that they would mock were it coming from the right. Here, Oprah’s emergence as presidential dream prospect was overdetermined. There “is a dark evil pervading our country,” she railed in 2008 over Internet strangers lurking to destroy children. “What you are going to see will shock you to the core.” Earlier she had launched Oprah’s Child Predator Watch List. During the satanic panic, her show entertained hair-raising lies about day care, and in 1991 she pushed the “Oprah Bill” while, based on such lies, scores of blameless souls languished in prison or clung to the wreckage of their lives. President Clinton signed the bill, which established a national database of convicted child abusers for checking up on day-care providers.

The language, the lists, the insouciance about false accusations… As a nation we have been shocked to the core, only to be shocked repeatedly, and to feel as fearful and powerless as ever.

The repetition should disturb us. As citizens of the biggest prison state, the leading exporter of violence, we should consider how even arguments against violence may be colonized by it. When Wendy Kaminer, Zephyr Teachout, Masha Gessen, and others warned about the indifference to due process, women from Socialist Worker to The Washington Post scoffed. Ana Marie Cox in the Post: “The courts aren’t where our national conversation is taking place so let’s not dither about the dangers of proclaiming guilt or innocence.”

That ignores the way culture and social attitudes bleed into the law, shape policy, define guilt and innocence, and determine punishment beyond the borders of any particular discussion. It ignores the crippling of due process and the ratcheting up of criminalization in all contexts across decades of serial panic. Clinton’s grotesque 1994 crime bill did not occur in a vacuum; folding the Violence Against Women Act into it was calculated co-optation. Michelle Alexander is right; no claim to conscience can ignore the realities of carceral politics. Sex panic ignores them all the time.

Some 70 million people, nearly one-third of US adults, have a criminal record, by FBI statistics. Since the 1980s, the rate has spiked. Some 50 percent of black men and 40 percent of white men are arrested by age 23. Women and girls are hardly immune. As the Brennan Center for Justice puts it, “If all arrested Americans were a nation, they would be the world’s 18th largest…. Holding hands, [they] could circle the earth three times.”

The War on Drugs accounted for much of this. The War on Sex (as noted in an excellent recent anthology by that name) now drives the fastest-growing imprisoned population. That war has standardized irredeemable existence. Some 860,000 people who have completed their sentence are Registered Sex Offenders, social exiles for whom daily life is absorbed by punishment and shame. Many were put on the list as juveniles.

Progressives used to distrust “zero tolerance,” a term that just got a face-lift. Some snapshots of its real face are in order. In 2008, police were called because Randy Castro, 6, had swatted a female classmate’s butt; sexual harassment was written into his school record. In 2015, a school threatened to press sexual-harassment charges against a 9-year-old boy for writing notes to a classmate; one said “I like you” in a scrawled heart. In 2010, Palm Beach County police arrested a 5-year-old boy for sexual battery because he kissed the buttocks and penis of another 5-year-old.

Nothing says patriarchy like the police state.

We had adjoining rooms at a hostel and didn’t lock the doors. We had talked for years about politics, race, earthly pleasures too. We had never spoken about our mutual attraction, but when I went to his bed one night unbidden I felt certain he would not object, and he did not. In a thousand ways we had signaled desire, and I would not have thought him presumptuous if he’d come to my bed. But only I could feel so unthinkingly insulated from the risk of miscalculation, being young and female and white, whiter then than now.

Young activists raising the banner of #MeToo did not make this world of punishment and fear. But every human alive is responsible to history. We inherit it, and will bequeath whatever it is we do with it.

It should be impossible to think of sex and accusation and not think about race. History grabs back. White America lynched some 4,000 black people, mostly men, from 1877 to 1968. Ida B. Wells documented the worst years. The rape of a white woman rationalized all vigilantism, but, she reported, two-thirds of those killed were not accused of this “outrage upon the community.” Murder was a more frequent accusation, but lynching’s apologists did not shout, “They’re killing our men!” One might consider how unstable the white man’s sense of his worth must have been; also how anti-miscegenation law emboldened this weak but vicious whiteness to become its enforcer. Any affectional alliance between a white woman and a black man was an outrage. A white man’s rape of a white woman was not, and black women had no rights that anyone need respect.

Wells determined that black power, not sex, was the real outrage: growing prosperity after Reconstruction, and the suspicion that a black man’s control of his own property and family and destiny might impinge on the white man’s destiny, power, and property, including his woman. The woman was hemmed in but not entirely powerless. She had only to say she’d been touched, as with Emmett Till. For the man or boy condemned, the accusation was the ultimate power; for the woman, in terms of what she could make of her own life, it was largely an illusion of power.

I expect that progressives today presume that all those white women were lying. Carolyn Bryant was in the Till case; she admitted it, as we learned last year. At her husband’s trial, Bryant had testified, “I was just scared to death.” Young Emmett didn’t scare her, but her husband may have.

It’s understandable that we should now not only disbelieve every accuser from that time but recoil at the suggestion of individual complexity. Discernment vanishes in a context where every accusation led to death.

So, here’s a problem: What if even one white woman was telling the truth?

It is a terrible question, not because it would justify the punishment—nothing could do that—but because it wouldn’t matter. Where every black man was guilty, truth was irrelevant, falsehood was irrelevant; justice was impossible, whether delivered by a court or a mob. It is reckless to forget that logic now, even if the stakes for the accused bear no resemblance, even if the headline predator is white and high on the hog.

And what was justice for the black woman whom nobody believed? What is it now wherever the hydra-head of violence is interpersonal, is racial, is economic, is state policy? One in four women, one in two black women, loves someone in prison. One in eight women, one in five black women, lives in poverty—economic violence that makes every other kind more likely. It’s not an accident that experiments in restorative justice emerged from these communities. It’s not an accident that Tarana Burke invented the idiom “Me Too” working in the thick of life with women and girls of color. Burke’s “Me Too” was a tool for helping them talk about experience and engage the compound realities of their life with clarity and confidence. Its viral presence is said to symbolize a resurgent feminism. What does this mean?

Feminism has taken many shapes. In 1977, black radical and lesbian feminists issued the Combahee River Collective Statement. One of its authors, Barbara Smith, reiterated the collective’s ethos last fall: “You can’t work on one vector of oppression and think you’re going to solve whatever problem you’re addressing. You have to be able to understand how systems of oppression connect.” What conversations might we be having now if Combahee’s analysis of power—rooted in the black woman’s interrelated experiences of production, reproduction, and violence—had for 40 years been standard feminist analysis? If this black radical vision of sexuality, solidarity, and human liberation had entered all radical analysis?

The might have been is unanswerable. So much got in the way. Sexism, racism, homophobia, backlash. Among history’s legacies, there is another, related: the path that some white feminists and liberals took in the 1970s, and where their best intentions for supporting crime victims led. The roadbed they laid would be paved and posted “Victims’ Rights” by enraged citizen groups, law-and-order advocates, and policy-makers bent not only on the privatization of public interests but on dressing up racist projects in the name of safe streets, safe families, safe women and children.

The sympathetic aspect of the victim obscured the movement’s essential function: to assert vengeance as a social good. Consider now how far along that path we’ve traveled: how normal it is to speak of “victims” (rather than “accusers”); how expected are victim testimony, victim involvement in prosecutions; how widespread is the view that a criminal trial is not about impartially determining facts but about enlisting state power for the satisfaction of the aggrieved individual. Consider, finally, how placidly we are meant to nod our heads at sentencing as a victim or victim’s family wishes suffering upon a person who is convicted; how righteous a sentence of 60—no, 100, no, 235, no, 360—years is made to seem; how lightly we are meant to laugh at jokes about prisoners being raped.

Responsibility to history requires that we attend to its surprises. South Carolina’s anti-lynching law was supposed to target racist violence; in 2003, 69 percent of its targets were black men.

When I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, people in the theater voiced approval as Mildred Hayes, the antihero seeking the resolution of her daughter’s rape and murder, tells the police chief:

If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ‘em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross-reference it, make 100 percent certain it was a correct match, then kill him.

Mildred’s speech captures the wild agony of a parent whose child has been annihilated. The audience reaction was a souvenir of how much society has abdicated its responsibility in bowing to revenge.

I was a temp, sharing the office with the secretary of my boss’s second in command. She had been there for years. Her boss screamed from across the hall, “Get in here, you old cow” or “fat sow.” Farm-animal slurs. I told him his language was vile and complained to my boss, who must have stifled him, at least while I was there. My office mate told me to ease off. “He’s a good man,” she said. “When my mother died, he gave me three days off; he didn’t have to do that.”

Humiliation was the secretary’s daily work experience. Her boss was a sexist, but his cruelties were not sexual; they were part of a terribly ordinary structure. In that structure, a hand on the butt or an explicit joke or even the boss flashing his dick is the least of it. That is an indictment, not a justification. In that structure, three days to grieve is a blessing. What do we see when we inspect the hydra-head of the working day? When we look unblinking at the embodied experience of people—men, women, trans—wherever they belong to a workforce under control?

For the boss who does the controlling—who need not be a man—sexual harassment is one tool. Humiliation, inventively variegated, is another. Physical danger, overwork, layoffs, are others. Their aim: discipline, profit. Their form: assaults on body, mind, spirit.

An insurance adjuster is assigned to train the low-wage worker who will displace him. An electrician who smokes reefer picks up a flask of urine from his brother each morning and straps it to his body to keep warm in case he’s picked for a random drug test. A farmworker prunes citrus in the heat with no water, no shade, no toilets or washing facilities. An industrial-laundry worker sorts sheets stained with semen, blood, and shit, then must suffer captive-audience harangues because she wants a union. An office cleaner must work so fast “you can’t work anymore.” A nanny is raped, then fired by the rapist’s wife. (The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 43,380 workplace rapes and sexual assaults a year.) A mechanic is ordered to crawl into a toxic-chemical tank to make a repair for which he’s not trained; he dies. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 5,190 fatal workplace injuries in 2016, up 7 percent from 2015.) An exotic dancer walks barefoot down a stairway strewn with glass. A 14-year-old ballet dancer works in pain. (The BLS reports 2.9 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses for 2016.) A food co-op manager is murdered by an enraged worker. A beautician is murdered by her husband. (The BLS reports 500 homicides, up 19.9 percent.) A medical-supply worker grows faint from the glue used to make artificial-kidney hoses and is exposed to a carcinogen. (At least 53,000 workers die each year from occupation-related illnesses, a UC Davis study estimated.) A waitress develops blood clots. A recycler loses his leg. (The BLS reports 892,276 severe injuries or illnesses requiring days off.) An autoworker does mandatory 12-hour shifts; her younger part-time and precarious co-worker loses his mind. (The BLS reports suicides up 27 percent.) A female manager is shut out of all-boys planning meetings. A university tradesman says the professoriate makes him feel subhuman. A day laborer is never sure he’ll be paid if he’s picked for a job. A chicken processor stands in cold water all day. A prisoner works for nothing. A deputy warden sits in the parking lot wondering, “How can I do this another day?” Salma Hayek asks for Hollywood women, “Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity?”

Hayek’s exquisite insulation notwithstanding, those real-work experiences are not intended to draw tearful sentiment. Workers in any struggle inevitably say, “It’s about dignity.” It’s about being used, and used up; it’s about life versus the depletion of the working day.

“I Am a Man,” striking sanitation workers asserted in Memphis in 1968, welding a rejection of racism and economic and physical exploitation. Activists like Saru Jayaraman, Ai-jen Poo, Ellen Bravo, and others have long added gender and sexuality to that. Mainstream discourse borrows the anti-harassment piece but separates it from work’s full reality, which is to say capitalism. The result is a pinched, again privileged, conception of power. If sex in the workplace were the sole measure of dignity, strawberry pickers who haven’t been sexually harassed should be happy agents of their destiny, sex workers who control the terms of their trade should be ruins, and 26,400 Hewlett-Packard workers discarded by Carly Fiorina should have had no problem.

He was my professor. He kissed like a dream. I met him at a bar. I agreed to go to his house. I recall aquavit, “Sun Goddess” on the stereo. I was too drunk to walk home, and he too drunk to drive. I was surprised to wake up beside him because I had gone to bed alone. He offered to make breakfast and then to make love. It was tempting, but I was a hungover virgin and the room was ringed with photos of his estranged wife. Maybe she was not so estranged. Breakfast sounded nice. I learned recently that he still teaches, and wondered, dismally, “Were I to tell this story differently, might I ruin him?”

I don’t think I was lucky my professor was not a rapist, and I was not alarmed. College women were not naive to the risk of violence in those days, the mid-1970s. We walked together at night, and either signed up for self-defense training or shared tips on kicking, gouging, or otherwise disabling assailants. We’d come up watching westerns—also rebellions that exposed a nation hooked on violence and inequity. We were living at the cusp of the liberationist ’60s and the fear-jacked backlash. We understood independence brought risk. I gravitated to classes taught by women and men for whom freedom and the guises of unfreedom were weighty questions. Sexuality was part of the political territory everyone was negotiating. We were encouraged to explore desire, not to say yes. I was stupid to get drunk that night, as was the professor—as are people generally—but we weren’t playing a game of blindman’s buff.

#MeToo has put ambiguous sexual interactions and harassment in the same box. This is not a #MeToo story (my history of assault involves stickups with weapons for small change). It’s an awkward story about pleasure and hoped-for pleasure, and ultimately about honesty and eggs.

Like all stories, it exists in a social context. There, reality has many dimensions. People are worked by orders but also make decisions, and sex (not just for heterosexuals, who have dominated this discussion) is complicated: by personality and socialization, by class and race, by concepts of what is “normal,” what is “dirty” or “hot,” and by anyone’s experience of repression and desire.

What doesn’t alarm one might alarm another, but before asserting, “This isn’t about sex, it’s about power,” let’s confront that cliché’s central evasion. Because, clearly, while a boss imposing sex is about power, and rape is about power, what keeps tumbling out of the closets is also some pretty bad sex. And because bad sex often involves unsorted anxieties and lacunae about who we are and how we engage with others, to say that it’s beside the point is to say that we, storm-tossed persons, are, too.

Why, in these ambiguous stories, are the men so insecure and inept? Why are the women so pliable and prone to freezing in place? Sex therapists say temporarily freezing is a common human response, but going limp is no more desirable than being a self-centered clod. Speaking up can be arduous. That isn’t the answer, it’s the question. How do people practice sexual consciousness, confidence?

The monster/victim script forecloses that conversation. The personal story as public fodder does, too. Cornered in a false debate between belief and blame, it leaves room for nothing but silence or rage.

Being fiction, Kristen Roupenian’s popular, if superficial, story from The New Yorker, “Cat Person,” at least allows interpretation. The male character is a cardboard monster by the end. Before that, he is mainly awkward, fat, hairy—an ugly man like Weinstein, like so many men in the initial lineup of monsters—traits the reader is enlisted not to ponder but to rebel against. Why? One could scarcely imagine that such “ugliness” could be beauty for a vast gay subculture, or that the beauty trap might also stunt men. The woman is lithe, aware of her perfect body if nothing else. Neither sees the other. Sexually aggressive, she is also terrified. Sexually obtuse, he is a boor. Post-coitus, she wants to slither away; he wants to watch TV. The story should have ended at their first awful kiss. Simply asserting that women are conditioned to say yes—a response to similar, nonfiction accounts of bad kisses, bad dates, bad sex—skirts the problem that neither person seems equipped with sensual intelligence. Why? Is virtual communication anesthetizing? Has the long night of sex panic—shadowing generations, along with 9/11 and war—begot a kind of sexual nihilism?

Sex exists in personal and political time. Perhaps the hydra-head of fear looms larger, and more insidiously, than public discussion so far has allowed.

My stories here, vestiges from a time before sex panic became permanent, are messy, not simple. What besides backlash happened to the sexual revolution? Capitalism bit down, absorbed the liberationist impulse, mass-produced the sex but everywhere devalued education, manifold reality; and liberationist forces were too besieged or internally at odds to withstand it. What remains is a simulacrum of freedom: at one end, the ultimate symbols of marketable feminine sexuality protesting objectification; at the other, legions of ordinary joes opening e-mails urging, “Get bigger, last longer, become the beast she always wanted.” In between is only more dissonance, including TV sex as no-foreplay gladiatorial combat initiated by powerful female characters created by a powerful female producer.

As a dream-path to a world of peace and equality, the sexual revolution would always be constrained by the contradictions of the society that birthed it. The great diversity of human personality could be forgotten in assumptions about how “freedom” should feel. Yet getting free was a serious project. Gay liberation seized on it. Women’s liberation did too, until anti-sex feminists marched into a cul-de-sac, and radical analyses of pleasure and danger were sidelined. Straight men as a group never challenged the snares of masculinity; like others, they got what the activist sex therapist Leonore Tiefer calls “permission without real knowledge, real understanding, like people have in other domains of their life.”

So much of what we call sex, Tiefer says, is actually “about training, common sense, attention. Sex glamorizes things that are everyday. It makes something the best or worst experience, but the doing of it and the script in your head make it so. It’s not the thing itself, it’s the meaning of the thing. It exists in consequences of actions. It exists in interpretation. So when does coercion come in? As opposed to persuasion, as opposed to opportunity. It’s not so easy. If we could figure that out without calling it ‘sexual,’ we’d be getting somewhere.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve practiced what the sexologist/cultural polymath Dr. Herukhuti calls “grassroots organizing in [the] bedroom.” Since we’ve dug into the sensual. Since we’ve studied songs of freedom. So much of the culture teaches us to be afraid or ashamed, instead. Sex can’t be abstracted from that culture, any more than sexual violence can be abstracted from other systems of violence. Consequences of action, all of them, matter. The politics of Good and Evil leaves only righteousness and shame. Complex humanity evaporates in shame, and we’re back in the Garden, stitching fig leaves into garments.


* Portman credits this now-widespread idea to Rebecca Solnit, who argues that all women are “groomed to be prey” and live in “pervasive fear.” Roxane Gay argues that women who escape violent or harassing male attention “escape because they are lucky.” Stephen Marche condemns all men for “the grotesquerie of their sexuality,” exhuming Andrea Dworkin to say that the only nonviolent hetero sex is “sex with a flaccid penis.” What’s relevant here is language that requires no qualification. On terrorism, anyone may decry monstrosity in the most sweeping terms; appeals to complexity must first acknowledge terrorism is awful.

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