Like many high-libido men, I’ve done some soul searching and scouring of distant memories over the course of this past fall. I’ve seen some honest and wise statements from fellow high-libido men on my Facebook feed. One of them said something like this: “Though I have never assaulted anyone or used a position of power to extort sex, I have been at times aggressive, manipulative, and selfish in my quest for sexual satisfaction.”
I take no great pride in saying the same thing about myself. I hate to quote the Harasser-in-Chief uncritically, but when not-yet President Trump reportedly said, “There’s nothing in the world like first-rate p—-,” he was expressing a view shared by vast numbers of heterosexual men of all races, social classes, and political persuasions (even if they might not put it in those words.)
I do not view my libido as pathological or toxic. However, like all good citizens in a democratic society (which I earnestly wish to be), I don’t want to violate the rights of others in the pursuit of my own happiness.
But I also think it’s OK to wonder aloud — now and then skeptically — about the changing terrain of sexual deal-making in a time of social and cultural convulsion. Feminism is the revolutionary movement of our era, and my thwarted wish that we could also have a revolution for economic and racial equality isn’t going to blind me to the glory of the vigorous movement for gender equality that is re-shaping our society. As freedom-loving Americans, we should all celebrate when exploited people get payback.
I never thought of myself as a victim of sexual harassment — until late October, when the careers of actor Kevin Spacey and chef John Besh fell to the scythe of revolutionary justice. It suddenly occurred to me that I, too, had been the victim of sexual harassment, though I hadn’t thought of it in years. Me too? Not lately, but in my teen years, for sure, in the sexual free-for-all of the 1980s French Quarter restaurant scene. It struck me when I read that Spacey had inappropriately rubbed himself on a 14-year-old: the same thing happened to me, a lot.
I started working full-time in French Quarter restaurants the summer after ninth grade. As a cute 15-year-old, I was, in the gay slang of the day, “chicken.” Older men were all over me. Groping, boorish propositions, etc. Customers were the worst. I remember a particularly uncomfortable incident when I was refilling coffee cups and asked a man if he wanted more. He didn’t answer, just stared in my face as I awkwardly repeated the question. His words were simple, not vulgar, but gross to hear: “I want you.” For some reason I remember this mild exchange with more distaste than more direct, crass, and physical come-ons from co-workers and supervisors.
Memories of my first jobs also bring to mind the issue of work environments made uncomfortable — today we would call them “hostile” work environments — due to pervasive sexual commentary. My gay co-workers constantly recounted sexual exploits in graphic detail. Yes, it did make me uncomfortable, but I didn’t think to resent it or see it as exploitation. Lost on me in those days, these men may have found it liberating to be able to speak freely about their sexuality in a safe setting, surrounded by other gay men, perhaps for the first time.
I think that my early experiences as a sexual target for older men helped me to realize what young women go through as a matter of course in patriarchal societies. But the one situation I recall that could perhaps, today, result in criminal charges, involved not a man, but a woman — a “seductress,” to invoke the old euphemism for what people today might call a “sexual predator.”
I was reticent about experimenting sexually with men, but not with women. A 30-something woman co-worker took a shine to me and pursued me with “ardor,” another word perhaps destined for the dustbin. We ended up having sexual encounters when I was 16. I was nervous, guilt-ridden, perhaps in part because I was cheating on a girlfriend my own age. But I certainly did not feel exploited. On the contrary, I was proud of myself.
Some will counter that the “sexual revolution” was a half-century ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, and that what we’re witnessing now is an all-too-predictable backlash to that sexually overstimulated era. But I think that’s a misinterpretation.
The freedom to abstain from sex is just as much an assertion of sexual freedom as the freedom to engage in sex. We need to remind ourselves of the radical scope of the current revolution, which has been going on, in fits and starts, since women got the right to vote way back in 1920. Earlier than that, if we remember proponents of “free love” in the 19th Century, like anarchist icon Emma Goldman and the first woman candidate for U.S. President, Victoria Woodhull.
Nietzsche, who heralded the coming of an “Übermensch” able to instigate the “re-valuation of all values,” would surely not have expected feminism to be the front line in such a sea change, but the gender revolution underway right now is exactly such a re-valuation. We can’t know exactly where it’s going, but TV pundit Geraldo Rivera’s fear that the outing and public shaming of sexual harassers could “criminalize courtship” is worth thoughtful consideration.
The question is whether the courtship rituals of the former era are worth defending. If we interpret courtship broadly, as any kind of romantic or sexual proposition, we see that many of the men who are coming under fire today were inept at getting what they desired, or simply didn’t realize that, as the Stones put it in the recording that became Trump’s campaign theme song: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
That doesn’t make their desire wrong, but it calls into question their sense of entitlement. Men — even rich ones — need to accept that not everyone is willing to jump into bed with them. I’ve been known to cry in my beer over this realization myself, but there’s no getting around it.
Here it must be said that the recent cases of high-profile public shaming involve transgressions of varying types and degrees. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein seems to have earned “sexual predator” status, though I would caution against applying such an incendiary term too thoughtlessly. U.S. Senator Al Franken and radio host Garrison Keillor do not belong in the Weinstein category at all, though the President of the United States clearly does — if his boasting and the accusations against him are true.
People get very emotional about sex. The cliché holds that “a special place in hell” has been reserved for perpetrators of “sexual misconduct” — without noting that the very term, “sexual misconduct,” is frighteningly vague. It can refer to a variety of different practices, not all of them abusive. “Sexual exploitation” is the more accurate descriptor, since there is no misconduct if there is no exploitation. And, yes, Geraldo, I do think our current rash of accusations bears at least a theoretical risk of demonizing libido itself, in men, anyway.
At this stage, that may be a paranoid fear, but puritanical demonization of sex in general is not unheard of in the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron, in announcing measures to combat sexual harassment in his country, was able to say “We are not a puritanical society.” The U.S. can’t really say this, though perhaps New Orleans can.
Thus far, the most publicized cases in this country seem to center on the core issue, the only one that really matters: consent.
The difficulty discussing degrees, specific contexts, and nuances of each incident shows that we are now in a vengeful stage of our sexual revolution. There’s a sense of relish in the outing of the malefactors. But it’s also typically puritanical that the sensationalized topic of sex serves to obliterate all other considerations of character.
It’s not “hypocritical” to weigh positive achievements to society against an offender’s sexual transgressions. Politicians like Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Franken, or ex-President Bill Clinton have been allies for women in general, even as they have harmed (in greater or lesser ways) individual women. We can rightly call cases like these tragic, in the sense that admirable individuals have committed inexcusable trespasses. It’s not “hypocrisy” to acknowledge the great policy or art such men may have produced, while at the same time deploring their conduct in certain instances.
Rivera’s fear for the future of courtship reflects a deeper anxiety: the fear of a life without sex. The challenge is that we have to approach prospective partners more forthrightly and conscientiously, to insure that consent is genuine and unequivocal.
Yes, courtship is changing. It was already quite different for me than it was for my parents’ generation. It will also be different for my children — the boy and the girl. I wasn’t traumatized by the many instances of inappropriate sexual speech and conduct I was exposed to as a young man, but I also have no problem with a future where people are more careful about whom they hit on and under what circumstances.
A couple of prominent men have been busted lately for a very crude way of expressing sexual interest: just coming out of the bathroom buck-naked, with no prior warning. Are they predators or just inept? Figuring out who might be into you, and who definitely is not, involves a degree of social perceptiveness that even very successful men may lack.
To take a less egregious example, there’s a charming scene in the first season of the Netflix hit series, “Stranger Things” (set in the 1980s). A 13-year-old boy impulsively plants a kiss on the mouth of a girl his age. The girl plays the scene very well — you can’t tell if she’s pleased or disappointed by the sudden kiss, but the boy certainly could be castigated as a perpetrator of unwanted kissing. The new ethics of courtship may require more careful verbal interactions than the impulsive grabbing and kissing that older Hollywood movies inculcated in generations of men.
Certainly University of California system guidelines requiring a clear “yes” (rather than the absence of “no”) are a further step away from the etiquette sanctioned by Hollywood in its golden era. But is it the loss of sex or the loss of an antiquated sense of “romance” that people like Rivera are worried about? The problem is that it’s difficult to separate the double-speak of romantic banter from misrepresentation and outright lying.
Do we really need to be so obtuse and euphemistic in expressing desire? The old Creole song, a leitmotif in Kate Chopin’s famous 1899 novel of sexual liberation, “The Awakening,” goes like this: “Ah, si tu savais, ce que tes yeux me disent.” (“If you only knew, what your eyes are telling me.”) But conveying desire nonverbally is a tricky business, and probably always was. A good rule to go by now is that a woman who does not actually say she’s into you, really isn’t.
Clearly most of the abuses we’ve read about over the past months were not simply matters of miscommunication. It was the thrill of power, and the thrill of power and sex together, that motivated the most extreme cases (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump) into crossing the line and violating other people’s rights.
One of the great theorists of second-wave feminism passed away this past September. Kate Millett published her classic “Theory of Sexual Politics” in 1969. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to talk about sex and gender roles in our era —which is why I often assign it to my students.
One of Millett’s great insights: “Patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality, the latter often equated both with evil and with power. This is apparent both in the sexual fantasy reported by psychoanalysis and the one reported by pornography. The rule here associates sadism with the male (‘the masculine role’) and victimization with the female (‘the feminine role’).”
Millett’s insight holds true today. It explains the libidinal problem at the core of the social problem of unwanted sexual advances. A revolution in libido is the long-term solution to sexual abusiveness, and raising boys and girls in different ways offers hope for a sexual revolution along more truly feminist lines.
Until that distant day, we need to enforce laws and workplace policies ensuring that more powerful individuals don’t try to extort sex from underlings. I’d also like to see our society no longer divided so starkly between the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots, but obviously — and especially if the G.O.P. tax bill reaches the president in anything like its present form — that day remains beyond the horizon.
Abuses will continue, but for people in certain industries and professions, the workplace is becoming more egalitarian, at least as regards the balance of sexual power. That’s good news for everyone who wants to continue building a truly free society.
C.W.Cannon’s latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.” He teaches in the English Department at Loyola University.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.