The Consent of the (Un)governed

“Freedom” is just another word for being under the thumb of a powerful white man — for now.

Laurie Penny | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,881 words)

And when you’re a star, they let you do it.
You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy.
You can do anything.
— Donald Trump

What civilization has done to women’s bodies is no different than what
it’s done to the earth, to children, to the sick, to the proletariat;
in short, to everything that isn’t supposed to “talk.”
— Tiqqun, “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” 

Something has snapped. In early autumn, women and men finally began to come forward to speak, in numbers too big to dismiss, about sexual harassment and abuse. It started in Hollywood. It spread, under the #metoo hashtag — first coined 10 years ago by Tarana Burke — across industries, across oceans, to the very heart of politics. Powerful men are losing their jobs. We’re having consent conversations at the highest levels, with varying degrees of retrospective panic.

Something broke, is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks — inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws.

A great many abusers and their allies have begged us to step back and examine the context in which they may or may not have sexually intimidated or physically threatened or forcibly penetrated one or several female irrelevances who have suddenly decided to tell the world their experiences as if they mattered.

Look at the whole picture, these powerful men say. Consider the context. I agree. Context is vital. It is crucial to consider the context in which this all-out uprising against toxic male entitlement is taking place. The context being, of course, a historical moment where it has become obvious that toxic male entitlement is the greatest collective threat to the survival of the species.

There are a lot of questions flying around, and one of the most fascinating is a question that, for once, very few people are asking: Why are all these hysterical women making a fuss about grabby old men instead of fighting bigger, more important enemies, like capitalism, or neo-fascism, or any sort of -ism that doesn’t require individual men to make changes in their lives? The absence of that question is deafening. Usually, progressives and pharisaical conservatives love to ask it. The request that women wait until after the big boys’ revolution to complain about misogyny has been the refrain of my entire political life. Maybe we’re not hearing it now because those concerned are too busy trying to delete their browser histories. But I suspect there’s another reason nobody is asking why we’re not tackling broader issues of power and entitlement, and that’s because any fool can see that we are.

I’m not trying to be flip. I am not simply using the sexual exploitation of women as an analogy for civil and political exploitation. Although they are often comparable at the language level — the government fucks you over, you get screwed by the system — political and sexual consent are not analogous, they are correlative. They feed one another. The search for a more human understanding of power and consent is not simply stage-dressing for a bigger fight. It is the big fight. It’s all about the grabby old men, and it always has been. “What will happen when women everywhere flick on every light in the house, and all the perversions of men no longer have any darkness left to hide in?” asks Caitlin Johnstone. “It is unimaginable. Power structures will be disrupted from the basic family unit all the way up to the highest echelons of influence.”

We know the world doesn’t work the way most of us want it to. We watch a bunch of badly-fitted suits stuffed with self-satisfied swagger frogmarch our nations down the road to economic calamity and climate destruction, and we try to tell ourselves that we chose this, that we have some sort of control, that there is a thing called democracy that is working more or less as it was designed to. We want to believe that some of this is our fault, because if it isn’t, then maybe we can’t do anything to stop it. This is more or less the experience of being a citizen of a notionally liberal, notionally democratic country these days. It is depressing and scary. And if we ever actually speak about it honestly we can count on being dismissed as crazy or bullied into silence, so it’s easier to swallow our rage, to bear up and make the best of things and try not to start drinking before noon every day. Being as furious as we want feels like it might be fatal, so we try not to be too angry. Or we direct our anger elsewhere. Or we turn it inwards. Or we check out altogether.

Sound familiar? That’s about how most women experience sexuality.

* * *

Western neoliberal societies fetishize the tacky stage-props of their own freedom — from the ballot box to the Equality Act — even as they eroticize violence, dominance, and conformity. This is why one of the mantras of anti-rape activism is unhelpfully inaccurate. It is not true to say that “rape is not about sex, it is about power.” It is clearly and consistently about both at once. The more terrible truth is that we live in a world that conflates sex and power. Every desire must become the desire to dominate, at least as far as men are concerned. Power, violence, and authority are eroticized, sex is rendered authoritarian, and this authoritarian tendency is baked into mainstream political culture.

Yes, I’m talking about neoliberalism here, and it’s important that we use that word correctly, because if we don’t, we won’t understand how it slips into outright tyranny. Neoliberalism, quite simply, describes a way of organizing society — from politics to culture and commerce — whereby the needs of the market and the worship of private profit take precedence over everything else. Where nothing is more important than what can be sold, and for how much. Where every human urge is channeled towards greater productivity, and most of us spend most of our time working ourselves to the raw nerves for someone else’s profit. But neoliberalism, like every form of capitalism, is not just about controlling what people do, it is about controlling how they feel — in particular, how they feel about capitalism. When the system produces sufficient misery that it can no longer count on mass compliance, it falls down. Eventually, something is bound to snap.

Right now we’re at a snapping point, and that creates an opening for fascism. Fascism does very similar things, but its violence is overt rather than implicit and its injustices celebrated rather than reasoned away. Fascism largely does not care how most people feel, as long as they stay in line.

The search for a more human understanding of power and consent is not simply stage-dressing for a bigger fight. It is the big fight. It’s all about the grabby old men, and it always has been.

Sexual fascism happens in the same way. It happens when men can no longer count on women’s sexual compliance. Again, I’m not using the routine erosion of women’s sexual agency as a clever metaphor for the suppression of political agency. There is nothing metaphorical about this. Both of these things are real, they are endemic, and they overlap. Both involve powerful men grabbing whatever they feel entitled to, whatever the cost, and gaslighting the hell out of everyone until they get away with it. Which they do, because the laws that ought to hold them accountable were written by and for people just like them.

I have big fights with an older female relative about this. She believes that women have a great deal of responsibility when they are assaulted, and I suspect that the reason she believes this is because it gives her comfort and a sense of control to think that there was choice involved. Because the alternative is worse. The alternative is that there’s nothing she can do to stop it, and by extension, nothing she can do to protect her daughters, her granddaughters, her friends, herself. Feeling complicit in our own harassment allows us to survive trauma, but it also prevents us from confronting it. This is how we get a world where women, for their own safety, are counseled by the people who love them against walking alone at night. It’s our choice, a choice we make for our own good, as independent women, to minimize our risk. But that’s not freedom. That’s something else.

The same is true of both the democratic process and, to some extent, the labor market. Individuals are offered very little choice indeed, but the choices we do have are inflated into much more than they are. Since it allows us to believe that we are free and it suits those in power that we continue to believe this, we cling doggedly to our anemic choices and call it love.

The way we love our jobs and the way we love our country are similar to the way we love abusive partners. This, crucially, is how neoliberal white supremacist patriarchy is different from other power systems like feudalism, or early Protestant capitalism, or direct colonial rule, or theocracy. Rather than claiming that God created human hierarchy and telling people they should be happy with their lot, modern liberal democracies gaslight people into believing that they are already free. But this isn’t freedom either. It’s something else.

The story we’re told about sexuality is very similar to the story we’re told about citizenship: Once upon a time, things were very bad and nobody had any fun. Then there were a series of revolutions, and various oppressed groups threw off their chains, and now we are free, the end. If you’re not living happily ever after, it’s your own damn fault. When, and if, anyone ever does get caught flagrantly abusing their power, we write them off as monsters, lone wolves, bad apples, or any other fairytale monster that allows us to continue the bedtime story in which white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is working well for everyone. Of course, in practice, this is hogwash. That dream of liberty for all, of social and sexual revolution, has been downgraded time and again into grasping demented license for a few while everyone else gets to plaster a rictus smile over their quiet desperation.

* * *

Just as neoliberalism tends towards fascism, faux-sexual liberation is one of the many routes that tend towards violent misogyny. Both depend on unsatisfied desires; satisfaction is antithetical to a society that demands continuous consumption, or continuous conquest.

This is where it’s useful to return to the reeking philosophies of our old friends, the “alt-right.”

Fishing through the sub-intellectual sludge where the taproots of our current political culture fester, you start to notice refrains, and one of the most familiar is violent sexual entitlement. The most poisonous misogyny comes out of the “incel” forums: “involuntary celibates,” often very young men, brought together by a common resentment of womankind for not sleeping with them.

Entry into these communities is often innocuous enough, like the basic impulse to build confidence and pick up tips on how to talk to girls at parties. But it quickly becomes something darker. Much of the rhetoric is inherited from the pickup artist community, the ultimate trend in neoliberal, entrepreneurial, self-facilitating male sexual entitlement. Here, heterosexuality is a game, although it quickly becomes a bloodsport. There are rules, with conditions and a unique language. Young men are taught a mode of bullish, entitled sexual interaction which is meant to lead to measurable success in the form of notches on the bedpost and is one of the most tragically clinical descriptions of human mating I’ve ever encountered, in a post on Return of Kings, a “blog for heterosexual, masculine men.”

Game writers have long used the terminology of economics to discuss relations between the sexes for the simple reason that it is both accurate and relevant. Make no mistake, each of us — men and women — is a product in the market with a value that can go up and down over time, or depending on buyer, location, and a whole host of other factors … when you walk over to a woman to introduce yourself she will determine your value in relation to hers in a matter of seconds. If she decides for whatever reason that your Sexual Market Value is equal or less than hers then she will reject you as a matter of course. It is only when she considers your value higher that she will consider sleeping with you.

The whole thing is about as erotic as an insurance policy, and as ever, the detail is in the small print. The problem with this game is that even if you play it perfectly, most men lose. Of course they do. That’s what happens when modern masculinity is a pyramid scheme. There is vicious entitlement, on these forums, unhappily married to a strain of self-loathing acceptance both that they may never get the sex they feel is their due, and that there exists a species of “alpha males” who can and should get all the women. This is where entitlement becomes resentment, which becomes hatred, which becomes violence. On one now-banned forum, a user complained that “my 14 year old brother brought a girl home while I’m sitting here watching porn.” Commenters immediately suggested rape and murder: “Get her drunk, turn off the lights and pretend to be him. Only way you’re getting laid at this point.” “Also piss on her. If she gets mad just punch her or cut her tongue off her filthy whore mouth.”

It is women who are the targets of hatred and resentment here, not the “alpha males,” just as dispossessed workers are encouraged not to blame hardworking financiers and business moguls for their own insecurity. “Incel” men do not hate other, more sexually successful men — at least, not if they’re white men — but respect them for their prowess. Trump, of course, is the ultimate alpha, the silverback — sexually, economically and politically. He is to be respected, not in spite of the harm he causes, but because of it. He takes what he wants, and he wants the whole world. What else does it mean to be a man?

The rhetoric is inherited from the pickup artist community, the ultimate trend in neoliberal, entrepreneurial, self-facilitating male sexual entitlement. Here, heterosexuality is a game, although it quickly becomes a bloodsport.

Wilhelm Reich was one of the first philosophers to pay attention to the way in which male sexual frustration was whipped up and manipulated by the despots of the 1930s and channeled towards violent imperialist and racist ends, noting in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that “the suppression of natural sexual gratification leads to various kinds of substitute gratifications… Natural aggression, for example, becomes brutal sadism which then is an essential mass-psychological factor in imperialistic wars.”

For today’s Shitler Youth, too, a particular image of sex is the overwhelming obsession, the grail that will deliver them everything missing in their lives: a cure for loneliness, lack of status, depression, self-loathing. Some of these young men have written that they wish they could join ISIS so that they’d be allocated a wife and get to rape Yezidi women, and because most of them are white, they have been able to write this sort of thing without waking up in jail. Nonetheless, they’ve hit on something important: The use of sexual frustration and weaponized misogyny in the radicalization of young men is consistent across ideologies, and the entitlement that underlies it is not exclusive to fascist movements.


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The new conversation around consent has sent ripples through the sex-pest hatchling nurseries. First, they are outraged at the ingratitude of the women involved, the “whores” who took what they needed from a man and cried victim years later. So far, so Breitbart. But there’s more. Many reject the notion that rape is a “big deal,” claiming that being forced not to have sex is an equivalent or greater injustice than being forced to have it — or rather to endure it. Their frigid sexual philosophy is key to their understanding of how the world works: Women have no real sexuality of their own, and exist only to extract the maximum amount of resources from men in exchange for “vaginal access.”

When you’re done dry-heaving, pay attention to the language here, which bears an uncanny family resemblance to that of spin doctors, politicians, and pollsters. The point in each case is to marshal your resources to wear down the target’s resistance until you get what you want. Asking what people actually want and working out a way to give it to them never seems to enter into the equation; it’s an attitude to power which is absolutely proto-fascist, and it is in no way a joke.

* * *

This sort of change does not happen overnight. There’s no magic moment where open fascism emerges out of its neoliberal chrysalis and flaps its swastika-spattered wings. It’s a slow metamorphosis, and at every stage we are encouraged to reason it away, to pretend everything is normal, or bearable if it is not normal, or survivable if it is not bearable. That’s more or less how half the human race learns to survive in a world that hates women and wants to swallow our sexuality whole so it can be spat out and resold to the highest bidder. Or the hardest hitter.

But sometimes there are moments when the pattern reveals itself. When collective resistance is possible. That’s when we have a choice.

This is one of those moments. It started with Harvey Weinstein: The personification of patriarchy gone to rot in a standing pool of self-satisfaction, groping and raping his way through decades of moneyed entitlement, strategizing to silence every one of his sixty-plus victims, fully aware that what he was doing was vile. But we soon learned that Weinstein was not so rare a monster. He was merely the epitome of a culture that has been enabling powerful men to get away with sexually abusing and humiliating women and younger men — not only to get away with it, but to feel fine about themselves afterwards. It’s not a case of whether individuals are more or less at fault than the whole sordid system. It’s both. It’s allowed to be both.

It’s both in the White House, because the President of the United States, like any imperial figure, is more than just a man; he is a symbol of how the country sees itself. The man on the symbolic and practical throne of the world’s biggest superpower has been multiply accused of rape, has been on record countless times talking about women as “pieces of ass,” has boasted about sexual assault. Not only has this been no real impediment to his ascent to power, it is precisely the reason he got there. We can’t know how many more or fewer Americans voted for Trump because he told Billy Bush to just grab women by the pussy. But the statement was entirely consistent with the type of persona that accumulates power in these low, dishonest times: the bull-necked entitlement, the boorish insistence on might and right, the chauvinism dripping from every mangled gobbet of half-sense that comes out of his awful pucker of a mouth.

It cannot be a coincidence that just as America is being asked to see itself in the face of a known sexual predator, a man who has openly boasted about assault and clearly set out to grab the whole world by the pussy — just as the world has to watch the emperor cavort in his unspeakable nakedness — we are going through a vast de-normalization of sexual violence on a scale that nobody quite anticipated.

It’s not a case of whether individuals are more or less at fault than the whole sordid system. It’s both. It’s allowed to be both.

The sense of entitlement to the bodies of younger and more socially disposable individuals runs right through our political culture, right to the very top, and that is not an accident. Trump is not an outlier, he’s just less classy about his chauvinism. America has had sexual predators in the Oval Office before. Britain, too, is treating the “sex pest” scandals sweeping Westminster as if they were some sort of shocking revelation, when the government has been stalling on investigating cases of historic sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse, for years. There is a consistent overlap between administrations that laugh off the concept of sexual consent and administrations that see the consent of the governed, too, as a technicality: to be worked around or worn down until they get what they believe they deserve.

Desire is a dangerous thing. If we actually ask people what they want, we might have to give it to them. Just as men who mouth the language of erotic liberation remain terrified of women’s sexual agency, the political class has always feared mob rule. That fear haunts our popular culture: Fear of the uncontrolled popular id unleashed on the world, the unstoppable horde of shambling mindless hunger that will sweep away everything, the way the truly sexually free woman remains a figure of popular and moral horror. She — we — are the gaping hole that can never be filled. And so it is vital that we control desire, vital that we give the people not what they want, but what we want them to want. All of us, men and women, learn how much hunger we are allowed, and what sort of freedom we are never allowed to ask for. But women learn it earlier, and harder. We learn it in our bones.

Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are not monsters. They are waking nightmares made all-too-human flesh, unscrupulous men whose abuses became unanswerable, not despite the free and tolerant culture that was supposed to stop them, but because of it. Not every powerful man in Hollywood is a Weinstein-level scumbag, but a huge number of them saw the scumbaggery and said nothing. Not every member of the Washington establishment approves of Trump, but a great many of them decided they could work with him, and most continue to do so. A society that enables and facilitates abuse — of women, of children, of citizens — is not a free society. It is something else.

But that’s a hard truth to hang on to. Most people don’t want to know how much freer they might be if they had the energy and audacity to want it. And so we lie to ourselves and allow ourselves to be lied to. We watch the despots warming their tiny grasping hands around the trash fire of civil society, we look at the real extent of rape and abuse being revealed all around us and some of us still try to believe that we somehow choose this. Because the alternative is even worse. The alternative, awful truth is that it doesn’t matter what the vast majority of us choose. That none of the choices on offer are enough to protect us, or our families, or our communities from violence, that the important choices were never ours to begin with, that we are not living in an age of consent.

What happens when enough people stop believing that they ever wanted a world like this? What might happen to us as a society — hell, as a species — if enough of us begin to take consent seriously? What might happen if enough of us stood up together and refused to spend another second watching rich old white men do whatever the fuck they want to our bodies and call it freedom? Well, we might be about to find out. My guess is that it will be exhilarating, but first, it’ll be frightening as hell. Freedom always is.

Previously:
The Horizon of Desire
We’re All Mad Here
The Unforgiving Minute

* * *

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. 

Editor: Michelle Weber