We are on the verge of some significant cultural change — at least we should be — if we are to effectively confront the deluge of sexual harassment and assault scandals that have swept up dozens of prominent men in news media, government and business.
In some ways, what’s happening is good.
By coming forward, women are unearthing systemic sexism that has permeated some workplaces for years; they are identifying male culprits and corporate cultures that have protected or enabled powerful individuals and bad behavior.
Many employers are responding appropriately, albeit belatedly.
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And it is the first time in decades where there seems to be a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our past acceptance of such transgressions was flawed, and we now need to draw bright lines when it comes to sexual behavior, particularly in the workplace and especially for people in positions of power and public trust.
While the actions of the accused covers a broad spectrum of behavior — rape is a far more serious crime than sending a lewd photo — the fact that many Democrats and Republicans are calling for the heads of their own no matter the degree of the crime, is a positive development. Now is not the time for relativism, and it’s certainly not the time for politics.
In the weeks and months to come, more stories and accusers will surface, and prescriptions for “fixing” things — mandatory harassment training and better support for women — will be implemented. There also should be agreement on moral standards of conduct for people in high-profile jobs in the public and private sectors.
But these remedies will be band-aids only if we fail to understand how we came to a place and time where a man dropping his pants at the office, texting out a photo of his genitals or pretending to grope a colleague’s breasts could go unchecked for so long.
How did we get here?
One compelling theory was touched on briefly by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. She quotes a Catholic priest who says our current cultural crisis was inevitable because sex has lost its seriousness.
The ubiquity of abortion and contraception is in part to blame, she explains. But so is the idea that sex should be free of attachment and consequences.
“Once you separate [sex] from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other,” writes Noonan. “Once they think that, they’ll see sexual violations are less serious, less charged, less full of weight.”
In time, women will too. And here we are.
Indeed, the promotion of “female sexual freedom” has arguably given men greater license to demand more and increasingly inappropriate sex, and it has condemned women who think this is problematic as prudes and embarrassed those who want more boundaries and rules to govern sexual encounters.
This isn’t a novel hypothesis, but it is a controversial one, because it demonstrates that for all its promises of empowerment and equality, the sexual revolution has utterly failed women.
As we consider the revelations of the last several months, how can we deny that this idea has the ring of truth?
Moreover, this thinking is reinforced by a popular culture in which one of the nation’s foremost news publications writes glowingly about open marriages, a popular iPhone app designed for shallow, attachment-free hookups is used by millions, and the most popular programs on TV are brimming with graphic sex, nudity and sexual violence. Sex has no boundaries, and it bears no weight.
And when sex is so casual, so cheap and easy to obtain, is it really a stretch to believe that some men will increasingly treat sexual pleasure in its variant forms and the women who might provide it, willingly or unwillingly, with the same disregard and ambivalence?
We must be willing to acknowledge that our current crisis of sexual misdeeds has a lot to do with how society has come to view sex, and we must seek to change it.
Because all the sexual harassment training in the world isn’t going to bring the kind of cultural transformation we so badly need.