One evening in the summer of 1960, while waiting on a rocker-sofa on the porch of a friend’s home to give him a ride to a party, his step-father sat down beside me – and grabbed my cock.
I jumped – and bolted.
I was 18. It did not seem the sort of thing to tell my friend. I did not consider telling my parents, let alone the police or press. It did not spoil my evening. It did not traumatize me by any recognizable measure.
I had shucked off the sexual aspect, through defense or confidence, like a banana peel. The act had become a simple assault; (“Battery,” actually, under Pennsylvania law, since a touching was involved); and I had been hit harder on ball fields or in scuffles. Once I had been KO’d when clobbered by Percy Brown’s bike.
These events seemed parts of life, and sometimes life was unfair and sometimes embarrassing, and sometimes it knocked you flat on the concrete.
But you got up and moved on, even, as with Percy, it took a butterfly bandage to stop the bleeding.
Recently the actor Matt Damon caused a kerfluffle by arguing that there was a “spectrum” of sexual assault, ranging from rape to pats on the behind. He was attacked by, according to The New York Times, “many women” because, as one put it, all these acts “‘connected to a patriarchy intertwined with… misogyny.’” Another, the actress Minnie Driver, said men were basically disqualified from discussing “abuse” with women.
Four days later, the Times columnist Bret Stephens, disregarding Driver’s injunction, spoke in support of Damon, arguing the necessity to make “distinctions between high crimes and misdemeanors, mortal and lesser sins” and extending the argument to say that men who talk dirty to or make passes at women ought not to be treated or regarded the same as those who act violently. But the same day, the Times seemingly overlooked this distinction by providing a half-page to a story by Robin Pogrebin, headlined “Accusations of Sexual Harassment,” which said conduct by the quadriplegic painter and National Medal of Arts awardee Chuck Close had made women feel “exploited and uncomfortable.”
Pogrebin detailed two of these “accusations.” In one, the artist Langdon Graves said that, seven years earlier, Close had invited her to his studio, offered her scotch, asked her to pose nude, described sexual acts he had engaged in, and asked her “intimate” questions. Graves accepted the scotch, declined to pose, felt “profound disappointment,” and left. In the other, the artist Delia Brown said that, five-years before Graves’s invitation, Close had phoned her and invited her to his studio to pose topless. Brown declined to pose, felt “insulted” and “humiliat(ed),” – but asked if she might visit anyway.
Close told Pogrebin he had been speaking “candidly and even crudely” to women for 50 years without a complaint. “Last time I looked,” he said, “discomfort was not a major offense. I never reduced anyone to tears. No one ever ran out of the place,… I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults.” The Times, while giving Close’s age as 77, did not reveal Graves’s or Brown’s; but, according to my Google search, at the time of the complained-of incidents, Graves would have been 30 or 31 and Brown 35 or 36.
Running out of the place, with or without tears, may have been setting the bar a bit high, but I believed Close had a point. This point was not taken by everyone, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington. D.C.., which “indefinitely” postponed a planned exhibition of Close’s work because of the charges, and Holland Cotter, a Times art critic, who argued in support of the National Gallery, perhaps facetiously, that he would be happy if museums removed all male artists – including Picasso and Gaughin – whose behavior he disapproved of and replaced them with “art by almost any woman you can name.”
The way I see it, sexual offenses exist along a continuum.
At one end is physically-coerced rape. Everyone can place their own markers, but, moving left to right, I would go, otherwise-coerced rape, physically harmful sexual battery, indecent exposure with masturbation, indecent exposure without masturbation, incidental battery (hand on shoulder or ass – or cock), unwelcome display of pornography, unwelcome voicing of profanity or vulgarities, unwelcome solicitation of sex, unwelcome winks or leers.
The last five types of behavior – from incidental battery rightward – if we are talking, like Close, adults here – don’t bother me much. I doubt any reasonable D.A. would prosecute such conduct, though it seems employers would – and do – discipline, even fire, employees who engage – or are accused of engaging – in it, especially if continuously, in order to save themselves from civil litigation or unwelcome publicity. Even indecent exposure (with or without masturbation), while gross and unsettling, makes me kind of pity the perp. I mean what kind of schlub gets off on that? I suppose it can be taken as a demonstration of “power” but it strikes me more as a billboard-dimensioned, flashing neon advertisement of yourself as a creepoid loser. These latter acts, like my cock’s grab, seem bumps along life’s road. The appropriate response seems walk away (or, in Brown’s case, slam down the phone), tell the fellow “Shut the fuck up,” slap his face, or insult his willy.
So far, I have been reacting to conduct by the standards of criminal law, where offenses are commonly graded according to the extent of physical injury suffered by victims. I recognize that emotional injury is also real and that it is more often remedied through civil litigation. The appropriate tort is, I believe, the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and, applying that approach, I see two areas of interest: first, the nature of the plaintiff and, second, the definition of the cause of action.
In general, defendants take plaintiffs as they find them. That is, if you hit someone in the head with a baseball bat and their skull is made of cast iron, you are not going to owe them much in the way of non-punitive damages. But if the skull is made of egg shell, and you slap it, you may owe plenty. However, when it comes to the infliction of emotional distress, the complained of conduct must be “extreme,” “outrageous.” It must “shock the conscience of a civilized person.” If, as I suspect, this standard overrides the first concept I enunciated, much of the behavior that I’ve been reading recently about would not be actionable. There seem to be a lot of eggshells out there.
Why the sexual aspect of behavior sometimes supercharges people’s reactions to it is of interest to me. Why is a light pat on the behind more distressing than a hearty slap on the back? Why is an adolescent’s snapped towel in a locker room simple horseplay but a 1st grader’s kiss on the hand grounds for suspension? Why are the words of a senior citizen to a mature woman who has accepted a drink in the privacy of his studio presented as part of a newspaper’s half-page display of outrage? Why, as a recent Gallup Poll shows, are more Americans condemning of adultery than abortion or euthanasia?
I do not claim my own sexual past, littered like a mini-battlefield, with the customary casualties of clumsy advances and cowardly retreats, as a model for anyone; but I suspect a calamitous holdover from a Puritanical past still grips our nation’s homes, hotels, and automobile backseats. As my longtime advisor – and fellow FOTM contributor – Budd Shenkin, a man who has taken upon himself more portfolios of public consequence than Jared Kushner, has written on this very issue: “America has always been batshit crazy about sex.” And I also like Laura Kipnis’s comment in a recent NYRB, that “delicacy about sexual matters is a long-standing attitude of traditional femininity” and that “cowering when a man mentions sex… (is) the internalized submission of a colonial mentality.” If men are to be re-programmed to achieve a more gender-equal society, Kipnis argues, shouldn’t women shape-up too?
Which brings me to politics.
Twenty-five years ago, when Bill Clinton’s predilections, within and without the White House, were an object of interest, writers in the Times were questioning the wisdom of holding “inquisition(s) on politicians’ sexual history” (A.M. Rosenthal) and declaring “the obsession of the press with sex and public officials… (to be) crazy.” (Anthony Lewis). Though the United States may have recently established that accusations of child molestation may (barely) prevent a racist, xenophobe’s election to the senate (but that admitted sexual abuse and voyeurism will not disqualify a racist, xenophobe from the presidency), I am unconvinced that vetting should occur on such a basis. I am at least as eager as the next guy to see Donald Trump ground down into the gutter slime from which he has ascended – and to which he is a discredit – but I would find it more reassuring to have politicians destroyed by their actual policies and programs than the old matter of what-they’re-sticking-into-whom-where. As long as officials may be yanked from public service by their appetites I fear too much good going down with the evil.
Maybe the solution is to work the other way around. Was it Lenny Bruce who posited that the way to liberate language was to voice offensive words until they have lost their power? That approach certainly helped “fuck” replace “fug” in novels of interest and “cocksucker” entry to most clubs from which it had been barred. So the solution may be to open everybody’s closet. Require sexual habits to be disclosed on federal job applications like contacts with foreign nationals. That way the less shocking acts can become ho-hummed, while the nasty stuff will remain to be flayed. The sooner everyone accepts that masturbation doesn’t cause warts, the sooner universal ecstasy will arrive.
My wife, the open-minded-while-not-exactly-scarlet Adele, smiled in toleration. “Bruce was a wonderful madman,” she says. “But what you are asking… We are more likely to get the climate under control.”
1 My friend Marilyn Fabe, a scholar/writer with deeper engagement in this issue than I, to whom I had turned for vetting, emailed “The counter-argument is that growing up male in a patriarchal culture gave you the sense of confidence and empowerment to shake off the assault, an ability that women in our culture might lack… Hence sexual assaults…, taking into account the gap in physical strength between (most) women and men, could realistically be more traumatizing to women than men.”
Valid points, though, speaking for myself at age 18, when it came to sex, “confidence and empowerment” was not my most obvious characteristic. And in the furtherance of full candor, let me note this was not an anecdote I banner-headlined over beers with buddies or on first dates. In fact, I did not begin telling it until this whole “sexual assault” business began commanding media attention. So maybe I was not as cool about it as I am letting on.
2 Cotter had in mind specifically Caroline Schneeman, whose work has included reading, nude, from a scroll of paper withdrawn from her vagina and, “rolling around among piles of newspapers” with other bikini-clad men and women, “slathering each other with blood-red paint, and clutching the bodies of dead fish and raw chickens.” I can see some feminists – and many animal rights activists – being as unhappy with Schneeman as Cotter is with Picasso.
3 I am limiting my discussion to person-to-person causes of action, and not to claims for sexual harassment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I also understand that law may be dismissed as another tool of the patriarchy, but, hey, you have to start somewhere.
5 I’ve respected Kipnis’s thinking since she wrote in Bound and Gagged a defense of Hustler magazine. This attraction did not wane even after she refused to engage with me when I was writing Most Outrageous, saying she was done by then with Larry Flynt et al.
6 I did not retrieve these quotes from micro-fisching the Times but from Joan Didion’s essay “Clinton Agonistes,” which I happened to be re-reading.