Last fall, as the first #MeToo scandals scrolled across the cable news chyron, I happened to be reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s superb new biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. As Hagan describes the magazine’s early years in the 1960s, just about everyone on the staff—male and female—was having sex with everyone else, under and on top of desks, on the boss’s sofa, wherever the mood struck them. Hagan quotes one writer claiming that Wenner told him that “he had slept with everyone who had worked for him.” Compared with Wenner and the early Rolling Stone crowd, Harvey Weinstein was a wanker.
Did the women of Rolling Stone consent to the goings-on at what today would be regarded as an illegal den of workplace harassment? They appeared to. In the company’s bathroom, women employees scribbled graffiti ranking male staffers for their sexual performance—not, as they do on college campuses today, the names of rapists in their midst. Jane Wenner, Jann’s wife, was known to judge job seekers by “whether a candidate was attracted to her” and, in some cases, to test the depth of their ardor personally. Photographer Annie Leibovitz, who made her name at Rolling Stone, routinely slept with her subjects and was rumored to have had threesomes with the Wenners.
Different as they seem, there’s a direct line between that revolutionary time and our own enraged, post-Weinstein moment. What started out as a clear-cut protest against workplace harassment has mutated into a far-reaching counterrevolution—a revolt against the combustible contradictions that the sexual revolution set in motion 60-odd years ago.
Exhilarated by the sudden freedom from the restrictive sexual morals of their mid-century childhoods and overflowing with youthful, and often chemically enhanced, animal spirits, countercultural kids like those at Rolling Stone gave little thought to the possible risks of their momentous experiment in sexual liberation. History is filled with social schemes, many cruel, some more lenient, designed to protect women and girls from sexually predatory males, as well as from their own risky but more discriminating desires: everything from codes of chivalry to chaperones, from burkas to single-sex dorms, from courtship rituals to romantic love.
In the quest for what Herbert Marcuse, one of the period’s guiding philosophers, called the “liberation of instinctual needs and satisfactions which have hitherto remained tabooed or repressed,” revolutionaries rejected all forms of “social control” as both oppressive and expendable. Sex was as beneficent and natural as pure mountain spring water; it could be enjoyed with a long-term spouse, a bar pickup, a boss or a flunky, or, for that matter, with a suite mate in the co-ed dorms that soon became the norm on college campuses; mutual consent was the only limiting rule. That this utopian dream had never had a real-world test was part of its appeal.
Adding to the radicalism of the sexual revolution was its egalitarianism. The moral imperative to break free of society’s repressive rules would benefit everyone, male and female. But because so many of the old rules had involved the second sex, women revolutionaries assumed that they would be major beneficiaries of the new permissiveness. The double standard and male dominance would wind up in the dustbin of patriarchal history, leaving women free to roar. “[A]ll the best scientific evidence today unmistakably tends toward the conclusion that the female possesses, biologically and inherently, a far greater capacity for sexuality than the male,” Kate Millet declared in her brilliantly mad 1970 Sexual Politics.
At least, that was the hope. Soon, however, women began to notice a gap between the promise and reality. It seemed that men were having all the orgasms they could ask for, yet women, despite their putative erotic superiority, were unsatisfied. In 1976, amateur researcher Shere Hite published The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, announcing that 70 percent of U.S. women didn’t have orgasms during intercourse. In their consciousness-raising groups, feminists admitted that they had been “faking it.” They blamed their dissatisfaction on the “myth of the vaginal orgasm,” as well as on men, who, they believed, were too chauvinistic or ignorant to see that ancient myth as the male-centered fantasy that it was.
Revolution skeptics also argued that male aggression was preventing women from achieving their sexual potential. A year before the Hite report, Susan Brownmiller’s landmark Against Our Will described the “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Like most feminists, Brownmiller viewed male violence against women as entirely the result of a misogynistic patriarchy, dismissing a considerable anthropological and ethological record pointing to a more nuanced conclusion. Ellen Willis, a “pro-sex” feminist steeped in the rock-and-roll counterculture, had a more Rousseauian vision. Liberation gave men permission to reject “false gentility and euphemistic romanticism” and to act out their erotic fantasies, she believed. Unfortunately, those fantasies had been imbued with misogynistic notions of dominance and “separated sex from relationship.” Patriarchy perverted the “affection and mutuality,” which, Willis and others like her apparently presumed, were the sexes’ natural state.
Natural or not, many women continued to find affection and mutuality elusive in their sexual adventures. In the 1980s, legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon launched a battle against pornography, which was spreading well beyond seedy adult-movie houses after the introduction of the VCR. Porn led to rape, MacKinnon believed; her ally Andrea Dworkin went beyond that, seeing in the very act of sexual intercourse a means of “physiologically making a woman inferior.” It’s worth noting that, in the 1990s, MacKinnon was engaged to celebrity psychiatrist Jeffrey Masson, who had boasted in a New Yorker profile that he had slept with 1,000 women. (In a later interview, he upped the number to 1,300.) Those relationships were presumably consensual, but the incongruous MacKinnon-Masson partnership offered another hint that the sexual revolution was based on some questionable hunches about the nature of male versus female sexuality.
In 1991, Anita Hill’s accusations against her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas broadcast another area of postrevolution female disappointment: workplace sexual harassment. Hill never accused Thomas of violence, but she charged that he had asked her out repeatedly, talked about threesomes and bestiality, and described his private parts. If the revolution had spared women “false gentility and euphemistic romanticism,” as Willis had put it, it seems to have left in their place crude and unwanted male advances that the older system had been designed, however inadequately, to tame.
Despite ardent feminist support for Hill, the episode failed to lead to the #MeToo reckoning that we are witnessing today. On the contrary, for various cultural, political, and technological reasons, the 1990s breathed new life into the reign of sexual permissiveness. As baby boomers aged and became Hollywood big shots and Washington muckety-mucks, they brought their Woodstock memories with them. In his recently published The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido, David Friend chronicles the many sexual innovators of the decade: radio shock jock Howard Stern, Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler, rock singer Courtney Love, hugely pregnant cover girl Demi Moore, the creators of the cultural touchstone Sex and the City, and the inventors and mass purveyors of the thong, the Brazilian wax, vibrators, breast augmentation, Viagra, and of course, Internet porn. Aside from a few college campuses where concepts like “rape culture” and affirmative consent had the attention of a cadre of dissident feminists, sexual boundary-pushing was the order of the decade.
With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Washington, of all places, became the capital of this 1990s sexual revolution. “He’s one of us . . . the first rock and roll president!” a jubilant Jann Wenner said after the Arkansas governor was nominated. Liberal women loved Clinton because he was married to an accomplished feminist and appointed more women cabinet members and high-level staffers than any president before him—sure proof, it was thought, that he fully respected women as equals. Rumors of affairs, harassment, and even rape didn’t faze them; on the contrary. America had a president who was “alive from the waist down,” exulted novelist Erica Jong, mistress of the “zipless fuck” and one of the sexual revolution’s most exuberant female acolytes. Jong was thrilled at the sexualization of the nation’s highest workplace and the president’s later adulterous affair with Monica Lewinsky: “Oh, imagine swallowing the President’s come!” she squealed at a “supergal” lunch arranged by the New York Observer to analyze the White House revels.
How liberal women so effortlessly shifted gears from “I believe Anita Hill!” to sneering at the “trailer trash” making sexual accusations against the president is easy to discern. They were far more invested in fighting their antiabortion enemies on the right than in pondering the continuing unintended consequences of the sexual revolution, now personified by a callow 22-year-old intern. That battle required fealty to sexual freedom, above all. Qualms about Oval Office oral sex between the president of the United States and a young employee were written off as the fussing of retrograde scolds. “When I look at the crucifixion of Clinton I look at the crucifixion of my generation,” poet-singer Patti Smith told Rolling Stone. “They are finally nailing us for introducing new ideas about sexual mores, sexual freedom, personal freedom.” The episode—and American society as a whole—became a Scopes trial–type culture-war zone: the enlightened, sexual sophisticates against the Bible-quoting, sex-hating squares.
And there things stood until the fall of 2017.
The sexual revolution endorsed the value of female sexual desire, autonomy, and consent; this is a genuine moral achievement and, thankfully, a settled part of modern life. But the revolution also helped midwife a number of the nation’s most troubling domestic problems: the soaring number of single-parent families, legions of fatherless children, and the related ills of inequality, poverty, achievement gaps, and men MIA from the workplace and family life.
Now, #MeToo’s counterrevolution is exposing other unintended consequences to the triumph of sexual deregulation. In every human society, powerful males take advantage of their positions to procure sex partners—the younger and prettier, the better. The radically laissez-faire sexual attitudes that Americans set in motion five decades ago didn’t give permission to predators to have their way, but it did help them convince themselves that they weren’t monsters. More modest sinners—stealth kissers, gropers, and flashers—could well have thought, hey, who wouldn’t want to have sex with a pretty young thing and, after all, women are as hot for sex as any guy, aren’t they? Television host Charlie Rose said that he felt “he was pursuing shared feelings” when he strutted around naked under an open bathrobe while his female assistants were in the room. Resistance to the reality that men are more indiscriminate in their urges than women can’t excuse delusions like these, but it can enable them.
With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Washington became the capital of the 1990s sexual revolution.
The revolution’s blindness to la différence also created a little-understood dilemma for young, single women now leading the charge. By ignoring the truth that females across cultures and species are “choosier” than males about sexual partners and by proclaiming sexual self-expression as the primo value for all enlightened people, it weakened social support for those women who weren’t in the mood. The normative stance for any single woman outside evangelical precincts swung wildly from prerevolutionary “I’m not that kind of girl” to postrevolutionary “I’m on the pill and I’ve got a condom in my backpack.” From the viewpoint of the postrevolution educated and hormonal young, to be a feminist is to be a sexual adventurer. “Sex is feminist. And empowered women are supposed to enjoy the hell out of it,” as New York’s Rebecca Traister has described the mind-set.
The problem is that this powerfully seductive ideal confuses personal choice and consent, especially for a young person still struggling to figure out an adult identity. In mid-December, as #MeToo crowded the headlines, Jessica Bennett, the “gender editor” of the New York Times, wrote a piece with the striking title “When Saying Yes Is Easier than Saying No.” Young women, she argued, aren’t always sure what their real desires are. Bennett fails to note that generally men don’t suffer the same uncertainty, at least not when their hormones are on alert. After downing enough alcohol to block remaining doubts, many women acquiesce to their partner’s agenda, one that happens to align with the ideal of female empowerment that they hold dear. No surprise that anger and confusion—and contentious accusations of assault—sometimes follow.
This background helps clarify the #MeToo generational divide, one that offers insight into the course of the current counterrevolution. #MeToo began as a defrocking of exploitative, powerful men like Weinstein, Rose, Matt Lauer, and many others. The revelations shocked much of the American public, but the morality driving them was not especially controversial. In the early months, Second Wave feminists and middle-aged Gen-X-ers were as outraged as their younger Third Wave counterparts by the exposure of so many brutes. Many had their own past traumas to report. More generally, the public largely agreed that these men were swine.
It turned out, however, that the younger set was not willing to end the conversation with the demons in the workplace. With some exceptions, like Bari Weiss at the New York Times, they had a broader agenda: they wanted to dismantle “institutional, systemic sexism,” which they believed explained not just predatory bosses but also self-centered men and unsatisfying sex. Indeed, research by Paula England had shown that the “orgasm gap” continued to haunt the bedroom. Even after vibrators, girl power, protests against “slut shaming,” and Viagra, women were still not getting satisfaction.
The generation gap between the older veterans of the revolution and younger counterrevolutionaries cracked wide open in January, with the publication of an article about a wretched sexual encounter between comedian Aziz Ansari and a 23-year-old aspiring photographer pseudonymously called “Grace.” As Grace described it, after taking her to dinner, Ansari pressured her to have sex despite her “nonverbal” attempts to communicate her discomfort. Few of the article’s many commenters defined the uncomfortable incident as assault, much less rape, but almost immediately it was added to the list of #MeToo offenses. Older women were appalled at the idea that Grace’s “bad date” had any connection with their struggle against workplace harassment. “You have chiseled away at a movement that I along with all of my sisters in the workplace have been dreaming of for decades,” journalist Ashleigh Banfield (aged 50) lectured Grace and her supporters.
An even deeper point of generational disagreement was the question of women’s autonomy. Banfield and her aging sisters saw Grace as party to her own misery. Ansari clearly had one thing on his mind when he paid for dinner and hustled her back to his apartment. Grace may have made some ambiguous attempts to show him that she wasn’t fully on board as he quickly took off her clothes and performed oral sex on her. But she never said no, much less put on her clothes and left. On the contrary, she reciprocated the oral pleasuring. Young women evidently don’t “know how to call a cab,” Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic, drolly.
Younger women blasted their older critics, like Flanagan, for instigating a “backlash . . . the same old oppression asserting itself,” in the words of Sarah Jones, a writer for The New Republic. In their view, Ansari’s callous persistence was on a short continuum with rape and assault. “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction,” Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted. “But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers “normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful,” she continued. These are “gendered patterns of behavior that are incredibly common and deeply in need of change,” another prominent young feminist, Anna North, wrote on Vox.com. Women, she said, should not be placed in the role of “sexual gatekeeper.” Like all #MeToo transgressors, Ansari was failing to see women as human beings, or “objectifying” them. “You guys are all f---ing the same,” Grace says when she finally closes the apartment door on her evening with him.
The contours of the bad-date landscape alluded to here—sex that is “drunk, brief, rough, debatably agreed upon, and not one bit pleasurable,” in Traister’s words—may be hazy to older feminists. Like every generation, they view the present through the lens of their own youthful experience. They had successfully navigated the world of sexual freedom and autonomy they had created. It may have had its problems, but compared with the onerous regime preceding it, from their view, it was the city upon a hill.
What they don’t factor into their judgment is that they benefited from the lingering cultural capital of earlier, more mannerly generations. Long-established courtship norms don’t disappear overnight, after all. During those long-ago days, most middle-class men and women still married by their mid-twenties, a fact that added an element of gravitas to the social life of their postcollegiate years. Today, by contrast, single life stretches a decade or more, marriage is entirely optional, and pornography has taken its place as the primary text of young men’s sentimental education. There has never been a time when women didn’t have to fend off gropers and assaulters, but most of us of a certain age were not limited to a dating pool heavily populated by males in the throes of a porn- and hookup-infected postadolescence. The post-Ansari avalanche of bad-date stories still piling up on the millennial Internet, coming on top of the already-extensive literature about the campus hookup scene, suggests that this is the weekend reality for many younger women.
Still, if young feminists have a genuine beef with the dating culture that they’ve inherited from their boomer and Gen-X mothers, the combination of false assumptions, rage, and self-delusion that they bring to their complaints promises more sorrow to come. Neither their falling-out with Second Wavers nor their catalog of bad dates has made a dent in the feminist certainty that male-female differences in sexual behavior can be entirely chalked up to toxic social messaging. Dismantle the patriarchy—whatever that means, exactly—and men and women will stroll arm in arm back to the garden. There they will find affection, mutuality, and orgasms with any stranger whom they find tempting, just as the original revolutionaries promised.
Like the sexual revolution itself, then, the counterrevolution is utopian and deeply naive about the tangled knot of human motivation. The counterrevolutionaries are no less credulous about their own motives. “[W]omen are so strongly socialized to put others’ comfort ahead of our own that even when we are furiously uncomfortable, it feels paralyzing to assert ourselves,” as Jill Filopovic, another notable thirtysomething voice, wrote in the Guardian. “Women have been taught, by every cultural force imaginable, that we must be ‘nice’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘polite,’ ” writes Rachel Simmons, a widely quoted expert on girls and young women. “That we must protect others’ feelings before our own. That we are there for others’ pleasure.”
Speaking as the mother of two thirtysomething daughters and as a close observer of feminist social media, I feel confident in saying that this is unsorted rubbish. The patriarchal culture provided young women a media diet of “bad-ass” females, from Mulan to Lara Croft, from Buffy to Sara Connor of The Terminator. There’s not a nice and quiet one in the bunch. Educators, marketers, and parents paid daily homage to “girl power,” and over the past months of #MeToo revelations, young women have wielded it aggressively. The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham wants “every single man to be put on notice” and “feel vulnerable,” just the way women do. “Was I worried about the possibility of a man being falsely accused? Not in the least,” Leah Finnegan, a former Gawker editor, wrote in the hipster zine The Outline. “It’s unfortunate, sure, that men who may have sent women ‘creepy DMs’ [direct messages] got lumped in with a bunch of (alleged!) rapists, but I really can’t muster the energy to care. . . . It’s good to make men feel fear.” Nice.
Powerless women suffering at the hands of dominant, abusive males: the description may be apt for Weinstein’s and Lauer’s episodes, but applied more generally to contemporary sexual relations, it is a fairy tale. In press reports, #MeToo heroines frequently project themselves as fragile innocents. NPR honcho Michael Oreskes forcibly kissed a young woman looking for a job when he was working at the New York Times. She wasn’t just angry at this objectionable encounter; she was devastated. “He utterly destroyed my ambition,” she told the Washington Post about the two-decade-old incident. The woman who accused Al Franken of “grabbing a handful of flesh” around her waist during a photo op was similarly ravaged. “Al Franken’s familiarity . . . shrunk me. It’s like I was no longer a person.” “We spend our whole lives afraid,” Jessica Valenti has written. This is sheer demagoguery. Its main purpose is to evoke pity for women and rage at men.
But inflammatory exaggeration and self-dramatization are not the only reasons to doubt that the young women’s reformation will succeed. Above all, the movement lacks a realistic appraisal of our fallen nature—both male and female. Women will always be gatekeepers; the biological mechanics of sex and the facts of reproduction demand it. So does the reality of female choosiness. As Nora Ephron once said, musing about her ex-husband, a lot of men “would have sex with a Venetian blind.”
The sexual revolution stripped young women of the social support they need to play gatekeeper, just as it deprived men of a positive vision, or even a reason, for self-restraint. Recognizing those losses is where any reformation has to start.
Top Photo: What started out as a protest against workplace harassment has transformed into a far-reaching counterrevolution. (FAYE SADOU/MEDIAPUNCH/IPX/AP PHOTO)