Sex is done for, or so you might conclude if you read several recent articles taking aim at the #MeToo movement.
In The New Yorker, journalist Masha Gessen warned that “while we think we are moving forward, we may be willingly transporting ourselves back to a more sexually restrictive era, one that denied agency to women.” In The New York Times, Daphne Merkin fretted that “we seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women, in particular,” and that, by “asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance” — something Merkin deemed both “innately clumsy and retrograde” — we risk “the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.”
I doubt we’re facing the immediate rescission of the sexual revolution. But we are witnessing the exposure of one of its flaws. The sexual revolution made a vast number of previously unavailable sexual choices available. But it took place in a society that struggles to agree on what freedom actually means. And without a consensus on what constitutes a free choice, sexuality is bound to remain a domain wherein the powerful are able to exploit the less powerful — and call that freedom — even in a putatively liberated world.
To understand our difficulties with defining freedom, it’s helpful to consider our intellectual history. In a society that imagines itself to consist of free and equal people, the question of how laws and regulations come to have authority is explained by an imaginary “social contract” that the members of a society are said to consent to, exchanging unchecked liberty for some measure of peace, order and security. This way of thinking about how people get along — largely through informal, metaphorical, but sometimes literal contracts — strongly informs how we imagine ourselves getting along in society. It’s our origin story, and it has immense power to frame the way we think.
But before we can understand what makes for a fair contract between equals, we have to explain what constitutes a free choice. And the contract tradition has some serious problems in that vein. For instance, Thomas Hobbes, an early and influential contract theorist, wrote that “Fear and liberty are consistent; as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will: it is therefore the action of one who was free.” In other words, calamitous circumstances don’t diminish a person’s ability to choose freely; they just change the available choices. In this mindset, non-physical coercion may not be decent or seemly, but it doesn’t invalidate the freedom of the choice that follows.
Maybe that kind of reasoning seems too archaic and strange to persist in modern society. But it does. In fact, it’s frequently invoked in arguments against raising the minimum wage and creating other protections for workers. “If two free people want to enter into a voluntary, consensual agreement that doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, why should the government stop them?,” one writer at the libertarian Reason.com wondered, in a representative example. “If someone wants to work for $5 an hour, and someone wants to hire that person for that much, and no one is forcing either one of them to enter into the agreement, by what authority does government step in and stop them?”
In the sexual domain, the same reasoning often reigns. As journalist Irin Carmon pointed out at The Washington Post, Harvey “Weinstein hid in plain sight because there was nothing remarkable about a man trying to trade his power for sex with an otherwise unwilling woman.” That is true in part because society undervalues women’s desires, but it’s also true because we are inclined to regard exchanges between adults as generally permissible. The women Weinstein bullied and coerced into sex acts were like Hobbes’s unfortunate mariner, releasing precious cargo into the dark sea in hopes of making it to shore. So are workers in exploitive jobs.
If we believe that consent itself is the only qualification for an exchange to be good and free, the most powerful people will always have the upper hand: After all, they’re the ones most able to elicit consent, however grudging, from those beneath them. Some have suggested different kinds of contracts — literal ones, signed before sex; or affirmative consent laws, which require explicit clarification of terms before and during sex — to remedy our current contractual mess. But if a person can compel ordinary consent, they can compel a signature on paper or a tap on an app screen, even many times over. More and better contracts don’t appear to be the answer.
In truth, I don’t have a perfect solution: There will always be some inveterate predators and some who are insensitive to the suffering of others. But I have a suggestion: It might be time to stop thinking about our relationships with other people as a series of contracts, exchanging what we have for what we want, trying to minimize our losses and maximize our gains. Instead we might think of our relatedness as inherent and obligatory, requiring us all to put our own good second, not prior, to the good of others. And we should expect the same of others, especially those with a great deal of power. It would be a radical shift. But I can’t imagine anything less will do.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post.