Sexual harassment has been a regular in the news cycle for the past twenty-plus years–often but not always as a tool of political exposure. Powerful men with covered-up but uncurbed desires have been a mainstay of U.S. politics and political news coverage since Anita Hill leveled unproven, but not disproven, accusations against Clarence Thomas in the days of his Supreme Court nomination hearings. Bill Clinton’s confirmed affair with Lewinsky, and the subsequently-told and re-told stories of Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, among others, should have been impossible to ignore, but were somehow forgotten, or glossed in a more sympathetic light than they should have been, for quite a long while.
But in recent years, the spate of sexual harassment and rape allegations has spiraled beyond politics into the entertainment and journalism worlds as well: Bill Cosby, George Takei, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, John Lasseter, Charlie Rose, Glenn Thrush, Brett Ratner, Jeffrey Tambor, Hamilton Fish, Mark Halperin, Roy Moore, Al Fraken, and Matt Laurer–to name just a few, and most of these in just the last two months, though for behavior spanning years, in some cases decades. It is likely that at least some of these accusations are false: piling on against men disliked or at whose hands people have suffered otherwise, or looking for a handout, or attention, or something. It is more likely, however, that the majority are true.
Why is this? Historical revisionists and radical feminists will point to instances of sexual misbehavior by men throughout all known civilization and say, “This is nothing new, men have always been power- and sex-hungry jackals.” It is a true statement, but for the implicit universality–that is, it is true if, but only if, we add the qualifer that “there have always been some men who are power- and sex-hungry jackals.” This qualifier, however, strips the initial statement of its implicit causal explanation: that men are acting on some base, primal, uncouth instinct to do whatever pleases them sexually; that it’s an instinct bred into the human male by vis a tergo evolutionary impulses to procreate and which has culturally devolved into non-procreative power dynamics of lust.
This common but very wrong notion is not responsible for sexual improprieties. Ideas are not agents. But they do, when believed by agents–belief being the conviction in the truth of a proposition such as to determine the believer’s actions accordingly–have consequences. When it comes to the idea of sexual desire, the common belief is that it is a primal drive, determined genetically, or in very early childhood, or through currents outside of the control of the individual, and that the male drive is rooted in vulgar striving for domination and power. Sexual morality has therefore been taught in the manner of Kantian deontological restraint: i.e., to have morally good sexual behavior requires that we quell our desires unless we happen upon a situation wherein there is mutual consent to the actions performed.
Consent, however, it is being seen more and more, is not a simply binary act of yes or no. Simply saying “yes” does not mean that consent has truly happened–and not saying “no” does not mean consent has been given, either. Rather, consent is an action which can happen only after deliberation, given a situation in which autonomous self-determination is a possibility, i.e., in a situation where someone truly has a choice. At times, even when there is the appearance of choice, the options are coercively weighted against the best interests of the one left to choose: as when physical violence, emotional harm, or career prospects are on the line. This raises the more complicated question of what “freedom” is. Very briefly, we can characterize it in a twofold manner: negative freedom, which is the absence of restraint, and positive freedom, the ability to pursue a good. In coercive situations, one may make a choice, but without full or complete negative freedom. Positive freedom can never be taken away by external forces–but it’s success can be hindered by them. Most damning to positive freedom in the realm of sexual morality are not the threats, however, by which the aforementioned predators have preyed upon their victims, but the ignorance about what good is to be pursued through sexual relationships–which ignorance makes deliberation about our options difficult if not impossible–and the habits which we have already formed (which may impede the clarity with which our knowledge is able to make present to us the objects under consideration).
The degree to which someone both knows and is habituated to desire what is good for oneself determines the positive freedom available when it comes time to perform acts of consent. The question which should precede any issue of consent, therefore, in evaluating the good of a sexual encounter, is not, “Do I want this?” but “Should I want this?”–that is: is this actually good for me?
Unfortunately, this brings us to a bigger, and more profound but fundamental moral difficulty; namely, what is the good for a human being? Presuming that the mere exercise of autonomy is the good is an experiment which has been tried, tested, and failed miserably. How often have we gotten exactly what we wanted only to find it is the last thing we needed? How frequently do we satisfy our desires and thereby deepen our unhappiness? What do I, as a human being, really need in my life to make it happy, fulfilling–in a word, good? What is sex actually good for? What can it be good for? Are our desires really beyond our control–or are they just difficult to control, especially when given license to roam unchecked for years or decades, embedding themselves in bad habits?
The recent spate of sexual misconduct by powerful people is an opportunity for us to ask these questions. Unless we do, and unfortunately I am afraid that as a culture we have become almost incapable of such an inquiry, we are condemned to doubling-down on all the wrong principles and fundamental propositions.