Laurie Penny | Longreads | January 2018 | 19 minutes (4,764 words)
The problem of sexual violation can not be treated as distinct from the problematic of sexuality itself. The ubiquity of sexual violations is obviously related to what is taken to be routine, everyday sex, the ‘facts’ of pleasure and desire.
— Linda Martin Alcoff, Rape and Resistance
This kind of mania will always at some point exhaust itself.
— Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
Oh, girls, look what we’ve done now. We’ve gone too far. The growing backlash against the MeToo movement has finally settled on a form that can face itself in the mirror. The charge is hysteria, moral panic, hatred of sex, hatred of men. More specifically, as Andrew Sullivan complained in New York magazine this week, “the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” Well, yes. That’s rather the point.
Sullivan is far from the only one to accuse the MeToo movement of becoming a moral panic about sexuality itself, and he joins a chorus of hand-wringers warning that if this continues — well, men will lose their jobs unjustly, and what could be worse than that, really? The story being put about is that women, girls, and a few presumably hoodwinked men are now so carried away by their “anger” and “temporary power” that, according to one piece in the Atlantic, they have become “dangerous.” Of course — what could be more terrifying than an angry, powerful woman, especially if you secretly care a little bit more about being comfortable than you do about justice? This was always how the counter-narrative was going to unfold: It was always going to become a meltdown about castrating feminist hellcats whipping up their followers into a Cybelian frenzy, interpreting any clumsy come-on as an attempted rape and murder. We know what happens when women get out of control, don’t we?
Charges like this are serious. Too serious to dismiss out of hand. I don’t mean to do so, not least because I am a queer person, and I do not take the notion of sex panic lightly. Why, then, are so many people so anxious to believe that this is one? There is at least one simple answer. It is easier — much, much easier — to manufacture an attack on sexuality than it is to imagine an attack on patriarchy.
Sex is not the problem. Sexism is the problem, along with the upsetting multitudes of men and women who seem unable or unwilling to make the distinction. An attack on sexuality, however, will always find recruits from across the political spectrum as well as from armies of amoral keyboard droppers who just want to read about what celebrities get up to in hotel rooms. An attack on patriarchy, male supremacy, and sexual oppression — that is far harder to accept. It is far harder to allow. Easier to transpose it into a key of prurience and wait for the whole thing to stroke itself into exhaustion. But — forgive me — if you think this movement has blown its load already, you’ve no idea how women work, and you’ve no clue what’s coming.
Alright, ladies, you’ve had your fun, and you’ve given us all a fright — but that’s enough now. If we relegate this all-out revolt against male sexual entitlement to the kitchen shelf where it belongs, everyone would be a lot more comfortable — at least, the men in the room would be, and we all know that’s what really matters.
Just look at what happened to poor old Aziz Ansari. They warned us that this sort of thing was coming, and we didn’t listen. A famous and successful man in his 30s goes on a date with an unfamous woman in her 20s, they go home together, he pesters her for a shag, she isn’t strong enough to say no or slap him away like a real woman ought to, like women used to do back in the day, so like the snowflake she is, she gets upset and goes home — and we all know how this one goes. He wins an award, and she decides to take revenge. She goes to the press, the press report the encounter in cringeworthy suck-by-blow detail, the feminazi #MeToo hive-vagina takes over, the hysteria mill rattles into overdrive, and boom — just like that, his career is over. Now everyone’s calling the poor guy a monster and a rapist. He’s blacklisted from every network. He’ll never work again. Another fallen soldier in the sex wars. Predictable. Tragic. Just goes to show how weak modern women really are, how much they hate men and sex, how they always take things too far, how they never miss a chance to play the victim.
At least, that’s what it might’ve gone to show if any of that had actually happened. What actually happened was quite different.
What actually happened was this: A man was rude and sexually entitled, fucked up and hurt somebody, and she told him so. He apologized and took it to heart. An unscrupulous trash publication chased this woman down and got her to tell her story, which it reported in the lurid language of celebrity sex scandal. Babe magazine framed it in a way designed to garner maximum attention, derail important activist work, and humiliate everybody involved. The original piece at Babe magazine is an object lesson in how scummy gutter journalism can be when literally all it cares about is keeping readers salivating. The piece pruriently portrays both parties in the worst possible light: Ansari comes out of it looking like an entitled dick on training-wheels, and “Grace” comes out of it looking not like an honest young person who had an upsetting experience, but like a spiteful child who wanted to hurt a man who hurt her, who wanted to ruin him just like the papers warned us all women do. The reporter makes her look hysterical, which is something she definitely isn’t, because nobody is, because hysteria is a fake disease made up by a sexist medical establishment a hundred and fifty years ago to pathologize women who were traumatized and frustrated and wanted their lives to be different.
Unfortunately for those who were hoping for a crowbar to shove in the wheels of this barrelling machine of social and sexual change, what this moment illustrates is a remorseless and prurient witch hunt failing to happen. Ansari still has his career. He’ll be fine — not because the hand-wringers called time on a movement that went too far, but because this movement is honest. This movement is more than just a ballroom full of fainting maidens who collapse at the sight of their own ankles. It turns out that most women can, in fact, distinguish between sexual assault and a bad date. It turns out that sex is just one more thing we really do not need mansplained to us.
You want to talk about sexual repression? About wanting women to act like fainting Victorian ladies? The idea that it’s women who are the enemies of freedom in a world where, for centuries, the very worst thing you can call a woman has been “loose” or a “slut,” where for a female or queer person to be openly sexual is to incite violence or excuse it after the fact — that would be laughable anywhere, but in America? In a nation where legal abortion is all but impossible to access in all but the most liberal states, where conservative lawmakers in every district are going after not just safe pregnancy termination, but contraception? We have not even begun to have a real conversation about creating the conditions for meaningful sexual liberty that works for most human beings. If you want sexual liberation, make contraception, reproductive health care, and pregnancy termination easy to access and free at the point of use. Then, Mr. Sullivan, we can talk about “defending sex.”
If anyone is confused about the difference between sex and violence, if anyone is operating under the assumption that men are always and only animals who cannot be expected to control their erotic compulsions, it’s not women. It’s men, because they’ve been socialized to understand sex and violence as synonymous, and it’s the mainstream press, because stars, sex, and violence have always sold copy.
It turns out that women, largely, are not the ones who are confused between sex and violence — not when the stakes are this high.
Part of the confusion has arisen from the obvious glee with which the press has sunk its indiscriminate fangs into individual offenders, luridly repeating details of alleged transgressions and sidelining the experiences of victims and survivors, as if sexual activity itself were the so-called scandal rather than whether or not the sucking and fucking and flowerpot-wanking was consensual. There’s always been a ripe news economy of sexual hypocrisy. The same tabloids that sell millions of issues printing pictures of topless teenage girls will gladly jump on any slut-shaming bandwagon that trundles by on its way to the frigid past.
It turns out that women, largely, are not the ones who are confused between sex and violence — not when the stakes are this high. Which is incredible, really, because most of our lives have been spent, especially if we are straight, being gaslit and bullied into believing that sexual violence is normal and fine. We have been socialized to think we need to be reticent and shy about our own desires — that our bodies are for men to desire and own — and yet we are also the ones responsible for setting the boundaries. We have been told that the absolute maximum we can expect, if we are good and quiet and not too provocative or angry, is not to be violently raped.
We are also supposed to put other people’s comfort before our own in every remotely sexual situation. We must not be rude. We must not upset or threaten the man. We must say no when we mean it, but we must take care not to offend him or threaten his masculinity, because heaven knows what will happen then. That’s where this backlash has backfired. Instead of exposing a movement that has overreached itself, instead of proving that MeToo is simply, as a well-reported letter in the French press put it, an attack on men, the Aziz-and-Grace story has opened up a whole new conversation about what we expect from sex, even when it is technically consensual. It turns out that we’re not done here.
We are far from done.
There will always be cowardly and conservative elements in society just desperate to take even one irresponsibly reported story and use it to damn an entire movement, and we must not let them, because this matters too damn much. There’s a reeking double standard in the room. Right now, if a man makes a mistake and hurts someone, it might, just for once, ruin his career — but it seems that if a woman makes a mistake and hurts someone right back, or allows her pain to be twisted to serve someone else’s agenda, she damns not just herself, but all other women by association.
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This is what happens when patriarchy is on the run. It gets nasty. The mind games ramp up. Women are always the first to lose. But I have a word of advice for those who tried and failed to use this flashpoint to condemn the entire movement: Gentlemen, do not test us. Women who love their own freedom are all too used to hearing that we have gone too far — in fact, we’ve been hearing that for centuries, whenever we’ve tried to take a single step. The truth is that we have not gone nearly far enough, and we have very little to lose. Attacking our reputations, calling us liars, trying to humiliate us and drive us apart — we’ve seen all that before. Try it and see. This is not going to go the way you want it to go.
No, really. I have crept across the lines of this messy culture war to give you this advice, so please take it seriously, because it is for everyone’s good.
The terms of this war of sex and power have changed, and so have the weapons. Physical violence and threat won’t work for you here. You are trying to fight against whispers and rumors and inference, against righteous rage, against charges of hypocrisy, exploitation, and crass dehumanization that hit home with career-ending accuracy. And you’re trying to fight this war with an arsenal you don’t know how to use, against an army that has been training with these weapons for generations, because these tools of emotional warfare are the only ones they have ever been allowed, because they are women.
You are going to lose.
You want to fight women over who has been more wronged in the field of sex and power. A lot of people also tried to invade Russia in the winter.
I don’t care that you’re fighting on your home terrain, that you’ve always been told that sex and power belonged to you and you could set the terms. You want to fight women over who has been more wronged in the field of sex and power. A lot of people also tried to invade Russia in the winter.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but women are not out of control here. They are very, very angry. There’s a difference. Turns out that this is not a runaway train, that women are still driving this sexual revolution — for that is what it is — and the pain and rage fueling the engines are far more profound than we wanted to imagine. It turns out that women want more. More than the right simply to go about our working lives without being constantly sexually harassed. More from men than just being able to keep their fool hands to themselves in the office. It turns out that this is also about the bedroom. It always has been. It’s terrifying, I know, but yes — women want more, women expect better, and it’s time we got it.
Back, if you can bear it, to the Aziz Ansari case. If we believe what Ansari himself has confirmed about that night, three things are true about this story:
- Ansari acted in a shitty, entitled way towards a young woman. The way that he behaved was not okay or fine.
- He does not deserve to go to jail or be blacklisted for it, but that doesn’t make it okay and fine.
- Almost every woman I know has had a similar sexual experience — and no, that still doesn’t make it okay and fine.
That last point inflects the first two. The fact that this sort of experience is so goddamn common is precisely why it deserves attention, and should not simply be filed away in a closet marked “women who make too much of a fuss.” Women don’t make enough fuss about how much sex can suck for us even when it is, technically, consensual, even when no crime has been committed. We’re socialized out of making a fuss, just as men are socialized into thinking about sex as something they have to bully and pester out of women. Shitty, dehumanizing sex is not normal, and it is not okay — it’s just very, very common. And because it is so common, because it is a chapter in so many of our stories, it is easier to write this sort of thing off as a “bad date.” The story of the bad date, the bad fuck, and the bad marriage is easy and comforting to tell — almost as easy and comfortable as the story of the young woman who goes hysterical and ruins a man’s life over a bad date. What a pity it isn’t quite so simple.
Asking women if they love sex (implied: with men) is like asking the front-of-house staff how they feel about their work when the boss is listening.
Sex is many things, but it is rarely simple. Contrary to the popular narrative that opponents of the MeToo movement have propagated, most women don’t like to think of themselves as victims. Most of us would prefer the version of the story where we were in control the whole time, where the hurt and disappointment were our fault, because that way it’s easier to own the horrible things that have happened to us and make sense of the way they make us feel about our own bodies, and about sex in general. It’s easier to smile and repeat the lines that are required of us every time we stand up and demand that women be treated with a bare minimum of human decency: We don’t hate men. No, we don’t hate sex. We’re not like those angry, prudish feminists of the frightening fictional past with their burning bras and man-skull necklaces, ready to castrate any passing politician who accidentally brushes the wrong knee. We are not fainting Victorian maidens. We don’t hate sex. We love sex, and we love men, ok? All of us love sex and all of us love men, all men, no matter how badly they behave, because that’s what it means to be a good woman — it means loving what you’re told to love no matter how much it hurts you.
Love is such a huge, strange word, a word that stretches to contain all the silence, pain, and longing that crowd around the corners of your bed. To speak personally, yes, I love sex, but sometimes I also get angry at it — and sometimes wish it did not have to hurt so much. That’s something I’ve heard from a lot of women and girls I am close to, in this rare time where we have been able to talk about this with a little less censure. Maybe you love sex, but you wish it did not come at the cost of your dignity, your livelihood, your self-esteem. You wish you were able to have it on terms that you could bear. You wish you could ask for what you wanted and be heard. You wish you could talk about all those times you didn’t really want it but went along with it anyway to keep him happy, or to keep yourself from harm. Maybe you wish you could remember how to be hungry. Maybe you wish you could still feel the pleasure you used to anticipate before abuse and trauma left their fingerprints all over your body. And maybe people have simply used sex as a weapon against you so many times that you don’t love it anymore, not right now, and you know what, that’s fine too. Asking women if they love sex (implied: with men) is like asking the front-of-house staff how they feel about their work when the boss is listening.
Repurposing an attack on sexual injustice into an attack on sex itself is convenient and easy and wildly, wildly wrong. It also works like a dream. Nobody wants to be called frigid, which is the word for women who aren’t sluts. The actress Catherine Deneuve, along with a hundred other co-signatories to an open letter in Le Monde, condemned the women speaking out about assault as enemies of “sexual freedom.” The problem is that sexual freedom is not something that can be enjoyed in isolation when more than half the human race still fights for the basic freedom to choose when and how and who we fuck.
I resent being ordered to declare my love for sex by milquetoast liberal commentators who think that women routinely lie about rape and by slimeball anti-feminist shock jocks who spend the other half of their time trying to ban contraception because Jesus said so. The entire world hates sex. Yes, we do. If we didn’t hate sex, we wouldn’t talk about it the way we do behind its back.
Those fragile Victorian ladies, with their corsets and their smelling salts, they seem to come up in every banal and predictable condemnation of the MeToo movement — it’s worth asking who they were and what part they play in the long, weird story of human sensuality. Why were those women so apparently frightened of sex? They were frightened because not so long ago, sex was legitimately terrifying if you were a woman — as it still is for many women and girls around the world. Sex was dangerous. It could kill you, or ruin you, and the fact that you probably wanted it made it that much worse — when you crave something that could mean disaster, that doesn’t make the desire go away, it just makes it that much more horrifying.
The fight against sexual violence and the fight against sexual repression are two sides of the same struggle: to divide one from the other is to collapse the whole enterprise.
A lot of men don’t quite understand why women policed sexual morality in the first place: not because they did not have desires, but because they were made to pay such a heavy cost for men’s desires before they even thought about having their own. Because sex was dangerous. Within living memory sex was extremely goddamn treacherous for women — and in many places it still is.
In fact, we do not have to choose between fighting against sexual violence and being sexual. Today still, as it has been for centuries, we are told: one or the other. We could not demand the right to have our bodily autonomy respected and still expect to get to be sexual, to dress like that, to walk like that, to suggest that we might want something good girls don’t. Men could be asked nicely not to attack when provoked, but if we actually showed any scrap of sexual desire ourselves, all bets were off.
The fight against sexual violence and the fight against sexual repression are two sides of the same struggle: to divide one from the other is to collapse the whole enterprise. So-called sexual liberationists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation failed, and failed badly, by thinking they could have sexual freedom without tackling male supremacy and sexist violence, by clinging blindly to the cozy delusion that women aren’t actually sensual beings in the way that men are, that women’s sexual freedom can remain an afterthought, and any woman who acts as if it isn’t can and should be punished.
This is why in so many places where abortion and contraception are strictly controlled, exceptions are made in cases where the person seeking to end a pregnancy has been raped: because the real issue is and always has been sexual control, and the problem is not unborn babies but adult women with the temerity to think they can fuck who they want and get away with it. Only men are allowed to get away with that.
In the real world, nobody has so far been sent into career exile for asking someone out. There’s a difference between a polite invitation and repeated, aggressive pestering or a boss who refuses to keep his hands to himself because he thinks that power and seniority gives him a right to your body. Flirting is still allowed, but judging by the panicked responses to any MeToo narrative that isn’t clear-cut rape, it is not women who are confused about the difference between flirting and aggression, but men. This is, sadly, a predictable consequence of an erotic consensus that constantly associates male sexuality with violence, that tells straight men and boys that their sexuality is dangerous and uncontrollable and that if they fail to persuade women to “take” it, they are not men at all.
Understand that until women’s sexuality is not closed on all sides by a big, ugly wall of violence and intimidation, until we are allowed to actually access our erotic impulses honestly and think about what we want, until our bodies are no longer bargaining chips for the crumbs of power men sweep off the table for us to fight over, women will not be sexually free — which means that nobody will be sexually free. Understand that rape is a tool of sexual repression as well as of sexual oppression, and that a fight against rape culture is a fight for sexual liberation — the foundation without which true sexual liberation is going to fall flat on its face in a pool of its own juices.
The MeToo movement has not gone “too far.” We have not gone far enough. We won’t have gone anywhere near far enough, not until we achieve something like actual sexual liberation — for everyone. I believe that the next stage is going to involve a process of truth and reconciliation. Rape culture and misogynist entitlement are the key in which our current chorus of dissatisfaction is sung. What that means is that a lot of sex that is technically consensual is nonetheless dire and disappointing, especially for the women involved. This is why the demand for better sex — for fewer Cat People and coercive hookups and woke boys taking too long to understand when you’re just not into it — is also revolutionary.
As Ellen Willis notes in her seminal essay, “Towards a sexual revolution,” sexual coercion is “a tool of sexual repression.” We aren’t calling out men and condemning them to career assassination for being shitty, inconsiderate lovers, and a couple dozen humans in the Northern Hemisphere will be glad to hear me say that — but it’s worth asking why they so often are. Turns out that unless you pay attention to the needs and desires of the person opposite you — or however you happen to be angled — you’re going to be a bad lay. She might not say so, because she’s worried that if she upsets you or hurts your pride you’ll hurt her in far more measurable ways, and she might not be wrong. But trust me: Treating women as people, people who have wants and desires and messy, meaty insides, people who have to live in patriarchy just like you, people who can change their minds and get shy and sometimes take all their past traumas to bed with them just like you do — that’s the one position that’s guaranteed to win with almost everyone. The trick is that there’s no trick to it.
Why does the joyless, coercive sex that we so often have to settle for under patriarchy have to be the norm? Can’t we do better?
It’s possible that the best sex of our lives, as my friend Meredith Yayanos told me the other day, does not exist yet. When it does, it will be in a world beyond rape culture. In 10 years of trying to fuck like I lived in the early days of a better nation, I’ve found spaces where it seemed that, for a time, something like real sexual liberation was possible. Usually they were queer spaces, or at least spaces with their own reasons to mistrust received ideas about gender and pleasure. But they were mere cracks in the carapace of violence, little chunks in the brittle social exoskeleton of bitter sexism and shame sealing us off in units of terrified longing, even when the clothes came off. I found myself running up against rape culture over and over again. The retinue of bad and selfish and shitty behavior of grown men in bed. The violent fragility of masculinity that could have been so much more. I wanted more. I still want more. And women who want more are a problem.
I’m not promising that the great consensual anti-sexist revolution to come will mean an end to broken hearts and hurt feelings. I would never lie to you about a thing like that. I would anticipate that it might make the breakage cleaner and the scarring easier, but I have only my own experience to go on there. I have been let down and messed around in my time by a few rare and special snowflakes who managed to find entirely new ways to hurt me — ways that did not involve being sexually violent or at any point treating me as less than human, even though I was female and they were not. You can be anti-sexist in theory and in practice and still be a goddamned brat and a soul-sucking mindfucker, it just takes a lot more work and creative chops. I take my hat off to these rare young men, and I will probably end up taking off other things in the future, because people are fascinating and the flesh is weak.
Only when we consider the possibility that male sexuality might not be inherently violent and exploitative can we ask why so much of it is. Why does the joyless, coercive sex that we so often have to settle for under patriarchy have to be the norm? Can’t we do better?
We can, and we must, for reasons that go way beyond the bedroom. If the main problem with rape culture and sexual repression were the fact that they make sex less satisfying, well, there are simple ways around that, and they plug in at the wall. But the rolling crisis of toxic masculinity does not just kill the mood, it kills human beings. It ruins lives. It is a species-level disaster that causes trauma on a scale most of our tiny minds cannot stretch to comprehend. And it can’t go on like this. There is a bigger and scarier social and sexual revolution on its way, and the fact that it will make fucking a lot more fun in the future is just a bonus.
Note: The original version of this essay has been slightly amended to provide additional context on the Babe magazine story about “Grace” and Aziz Ansari.
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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: Ben Huberman