We are in the middle of a profound shift in our attitude towards sex. A sexual counter-revolution, if you will. And whereas the 1960s saw a freeing up of attitudes towards sex, pushing at boundaries, this counter-swing is turning sexual freedom into sexual fear, and nearly all sexual opportunities into a legalistic minefield.
The rules are being redrawn with little idea of where the boundaries of this new sexual utopia will lie and less idea still of whether any sex will be allowed in the end.
It is partly whipped along by the fact that each episode in the revolution is so grimly fascinating, and each has its own internal propulsions. For instance, nobody outside Hollywood could regret the disgrace of an overpraised toad who spent far too long surrounded by overly attractive people. After Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, who could not enjoy the resulting sweep of Tinseltown for DNA evidence — or mere hearsay — exposing that whole rotten, preachy, liberal façade?
Since then the exhilarating and powerful weapon of social media has whipped this along in every unpredictable direction. A journalist from GQ magazine was given the heave-ho after that famously prim publication learned that he had made an ungallant pass some years ago at a lady who was not his wife. How that hack’s opponents and competitors rubbed their hands with glee. Around the same time, a preachy hack from a left-wing website was found to have behaved grimly with women and his career too was dashed to the floor by people high on the octane of unreflective moral outrage.
This week the urge to purge the pervs has turned on the Houses of Parliament, with stories about ‘the Weinsteins of Westminster’ moving from the blogosphere to the newspapers. So far this has centred on a list of 27 MPs alleged to have behaved inappropriately towards women and 13 towards men. There is talk of investigations and firings. But this — it must be remembered — is not a list of people alleged to have committed crimes. It is a compilation of people heard to have been in some way forward with male and female researchers.
Among all this are stories which may need not only a focus but a criminal focus. Some now-public allegations will require a police investigation and maybe even prosecution. If the outing and shaming of sexual predators encourages other men and women who have been the victims of actual crimes to come forward then good should come from it.
But it is away from the law — tied up in the ‘#MeToo’ movement that followed Weinstein’s downfall — that the real revolution is happening. Accusations of genuine and monstrous abuse are being mixed with news that a cabinet member touched a woman’s knee many years ago. This week The Crown actress Claire Foy was forced to issue a statement saying she had not been offended after angry Twitter users pointed out that actor Adam Sandler had touched her knee — twice — during their appearance on The Graham Norton Show.
If deeds are so dangerous, what can be said about words? Sad to say, not all men are pitch-perfect in vocabulary and timing. Some are crass, some incorrigibly so. A BBC journalist recently revealed that in a restaurant some years ago a male colleague had told her: ‘I’m unbelievably sexually attracted to you. I can’t stop thinking about you.’ This was from a colleague twice her age, she said: ‘I had experienced sexism in the workplace before, but not in such an overt way.’ But was that really sexism?
A new generation is being encouraged to redraw the lines of acceptability in a way that goes too far. What once was gauche has now become unacceptable. And from unacceptable it is being made sackable and then elided with the criminal. That is a long way to go in a very short time.
When the sexual revolution began in the 1960s it reframed sexuality in the direction of greater freedom and licence. But for all the good that movement did, who wishes it hadn’t been more thought through?
At the most extreme end, the pro-paedophilia groups which fixed themselves among the gay and women’s rights movement not only seriously damaged those movements but demonstrated how hard it is to sort good claims from bad amid the stampede of the crowd. Likewise, the present événements are picking up claims which should be treated with deep suspicion.
Are we comfortable with the idea that whenever sexual interest is expressed it must be fully reciprocated at the risk, when declined, of utter ruin? We might expect people in public life to behave well, but are we certain that we want to create a situation where everyone there (however tenuously) must be either monogamous or celibate? Would the public like this morality to trickle down to them? The morality of the sexual revolution certainly did, so they can be assured that the effects of any counter-revolution will come to them too.
Worse lies beneath these presumptions. Not least the whipping up of fear and loathing between the sexes. A loathing familiar to male students who now appear to be treated as at best rapists-in-waiting.
Foremost propeller of this is a form of modern feminism which is in fact barely disguised misandry. Take an essay from the sociology professor Lisa Wade, which argues that ‘We need to attack masculinity directly. I don’t mean that we should recuperate masculinity — that is, press men to identify with a kinder, gentler version of it — I mean that we should reject the idea that men have a psychic need to distinguish themselves from women in order to feel good about themselves.’ Or, as Lara Prendergast has noted in this issue, other women writers have taken it upon themselves to issue strict instructions for men on how they must behave. This ‘feminism’ isn’t producing guides for helping men. It is producing manifestos for torturing them.
If we are to enter this strange new puritanical era, then at least let us not enter it silently. Allow it to be admitted that many women as well as men are happy to use their looks and wiles when these work to their advantage. It is not always victim-blaming, but a mere statement of fact that attractive people attract unusual amounts of attention and that not all find this a disadvantage. Actors and models of both sexes — as much as parliamentary assistants — know this and so does everybody else. And unless we decide that only a super-class of beautiful people are allowed to seek sex, we should accept that people in the lower to middling ranges of attractiveness should be allowed the odd punt too.
None of this justifies men in positions of power behaving like pigs towards people who work with them. If there is good to come from this then it would be in such behaviour being deemed more unacceptable than it has been. But sexual etiquette is not a science. It is improvisation in a very imperfectly set-up battlefield. Only at the most extreme end does the law have anything to say. Everywhere else we are talking about the exercise of manners. True, we may currently be rethinking those manners. But let us not do so in the midst of a moral panic, high on counter-revolutionary retribution. Or if we must, then let us still worry a little about where this stampede may yet take us.