Michelle Goldberg was angry. Gone are the days, the New York Times columnist wrote recently, when she “thought there were good guys.” Depending on your definition of good, she may be right about that, but as for the rest of her column, I’m not so sure. Its drift recalled the Roman motto about an ancient enemy: Carthage delenda est. Like Carthage, Al Franken must be destroyed.
True, Goldberg writes, it may be unfair to demand his resignation over a photo that recalled the gross-out antics of Animal House and a record of goosing that Goldberg calls “horrifying” and “disgusting.” But these acts haven’t prevented him from staunchly defending progressive values and women’s rights. Removing Franken from the Senate might be unjust, Goldberg concedes, but what matters is the benefit to women if such behavior is severely punished. “The question isn’t about what’s fair to Franken,” she wrote, “but what’s fair to the rest of us.”
When I read that line, I thought of the Dreyfus affair—an unlikely association, but bear with me. After it became clear that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent, the French military had a curious response. The charges against him, they declared, were “politically true.” In other words, the integrity of the army was more important than justice for someone already suspect because he was a Jew. The question wasn’t about what’s fair to Dreyfus, but what’s fair to France. It isn’t hard to conclude that this reasoning was authoritarian, but Goldberg’s thinking was pretty much the same. Of course, Franken is hardly innocent, but when you privilege group interests over individual rights, you’ve lost the basis of due process.
Where do we draw the line for sexual acts that fall between creepy and criminal? The current answer, to a distressing extent, is—we don’t know. If the pain of being groped or humiliated is real, and clearly it is, then the response is to ruin the aggressor’s life. No matter whether the evidence is less than conclusive or the behavior is less than felonious, the sentence is essentially the same—an old American practice Alexis de Tocqueville, who noticed this during his visit in 1832, called “social death.” That means enforcement by group consensus rather than legal proceeding, and Tocqueville regarded it as a grave threat to personal freedom. Social media—amplified by a press desperate for readers—brings this practice to a whole new level. An act committed when the culture was quite different than it is now exists in the eternal present and can be punished by a wholesale disappearance from public life. Work by such offenders is removed from circulation, so that no one can see it. This attempt to create a virtuous society by policing the culture is all too common now, and it’s nearly as scary as the sexual sins of the men being singled out.
If I sound defensive, I am, because most men my age—and many women, I suspect—have done things over the course of their sex lives that fit today’s expansive definition of degradation. In the current climate, any kinky act or dicey display—such as the nude pics posted by that Republican rep. from Texas—can be fodder for scandalizing. And it won’t end with people who have a movie empire or a seat in Congress. All of us may find ourselves constrained by a concept of abuse that ranges from lewd remarks and unwelcome propositions to violent physical acts. This lack of precision is a very effective instrument of control, because it puts everyone on notice. We’re not to think of sex as complex and contradictory, or memory as selective and ambiguous. It comes down to what’s fair to the organized community in a present that encompasses the distant past as well as the here and now. There’s a danger in all this that’s as real as the anguish of abuse.
But, wait, there’s more. Following the initial demand that Franken resign, a number of women issued statements arguing that he shouldn’t, and in the face of that shifting consensus, Goldberg had second thoughts. “I’d called for the sacrifice of an otherwise decent man to make a political point,” she wrote. Few journalists have the courage to change their minds, so I salute Goldberg for acknowledging that she is “torn by competing impulses. I want to see sexual harassment finally taken seriously, but fear participating in a sex panic.” Her evolving perspective suggests that the real tipping point isn’t clear yet. We may be heading for the kind of purge mentality that gave us the blacklist, or we may be verging on a standard of acceptable sexual conduct that takes into account the realities of erotic life as well as the potential for injury. There’s an opening here for the kind of thinking that feminism inspires at its best, but something is absent from the discourse. The missing voice is that of men talking candidly about their fantasies, their induction into masculinity, and their fears that playing by the new rules will cause women to reject them.
I’ve read many mea-culpas by male writers in the past month, and I’m as sickened by the tone of these pieces as I was back when Norman Mailer beat the literary hustings on behalf of macho. The current orthodoxy, virtually a prerequisite for getting published in a respectable journal, is that men are lining up to check their sexual privilege, and there are all sorts of ways to do so, from forming support groups to banning alcohol from office parties, from confining your aggressive thoughts to masturbation to giving up masturbation entirely. (Don’t believe me? Check out the “No-Fap” website, with 400,000 unique visitors a month.) To judge from all the manifestos of decency, these guys have never had a nasty fantasy. The words of the day for men, especially in show biz, are: Who, me?
What’s missing from this pretense is a frank discussion of men’s desires, and an admission that there’s no magic formula for managing them. What works for a middle-aged husband and father with many satisfactions in life can be useless to a teenager whose testosterone levels rise and fall with every successful or failed sexual attempt. Relying on conditioning through punishment alone, rather than understanding what men feel and how they struggle with those feelings, can only lead to the kind of alienation that ultimately expresses itself in a rejection of the culture that sponsors these restraints. I’m as worried about that as I am about Al Franken’s future. Because, finally, we’re not going to have a generation of men who are content with wanking, and we’re never going to live in a time when men don’t make mistakes. There has to be social control, but also a reckoning with its limits, so that people have the space to explore without fear and guilt as well as confidence that they will live and work in safety.
It may be that, in their determination to repress the culture of rape, some feminists will revive the crusade against pornography. Or it could be that the desire to create a workable sexual standard will lead to insight and reflection. Both are possible—and quite possibly both will occur. So it seems crucial now for everyone to weigh in on where they think the discussion should go. I’m hoping we will find the sweet spot between sexiness and offense. If we don’t talk about what’s acceptable as well as what isn’t, if we feast on scandals that veer further and further from violence, so that making suggestive remarks at work, or even outside the office (see the footnote below), can be a fireable offense, there will likely be a massive backlash. The victory of Donald Trump—and the fact that most women voters chose him over a woman strongly identified with feminism—is a sobering reminder of how sexual resentments can abet reactionary politics, and how slowly the libido actually changes. It’s not a matter of pretending that the pain of abuse isn’t grave or that it’s rare. It’s about addressing how people really think about sex, and that requires the frank input of both sexes.
Bear in mind that women have traditionally been tasked with taming male sexuality, and that this strategy has never prevented violence and rape. It’s an illusion of power very much in keeping with the repressive agenda of the right. If we’re not careful, we could create a modern version of that agenda, with feminists leading a charge against sexual freedom that is as futile as the feminist crusade against alcohol was. At best, a crackdown without boundaries will restore the climate of hypocrisy that my generation grew up with and fought to overcome. At worst…well, the rise of the alt-right is a sign of where young men alienated from liberal society can end up. There’s a consequence here that has to be considered along with the determination to make a safer world. We can start by rejecting the idea that what’s fair to a group is more important than what’s fair to an individual. Justice for the accused is not only justice served—it’s our best protection against the worst instincts of men.
Footnote: According to the Times’s definition, sexual abuse includes “suggestive remarks and gestures or requests for sexual favors…. It does not need to occur inside the office.”