Let's Start The Week Off Right, By Explaining Consensual Sex To Ross Douthat
Ross Douthat is an adult human man. He is married with children, so we assume that at some point in his life, he has had sexual intercourse. And yet, the man spilt a gallon of ink this weekend being so utterly clueless about sex and the Left's beliefs about it that one would be forgiven if they thought he had spent the last 20 or so years in a cloistered monastery.
In his Sunday column, titled "Can the Left Regulate Sex?," Douthat made it very clear that the last decade of discussions about consent has been completely lost on him and that he has instead chosen to interpret those discussions as a desire to "regulate" sex. Which they are not.
Douthat starts off this column by, for real, talking about an extremely messed up case of a German psychologist actually placing foster children with pedophiles, attempting to frame this as an outgrowth of the sexual revolution.
All this was part of a wider Western mood, distilled in the slogan of May 1968: It is forbidden to forbid. In those years famous French intellectuals petitioned to decriminalize pedophilia, while America had its own squalid forms of predation, whether in rock-groupie culture or Roman Polanski's Hollywood. But [Rachel] Aviv's story suggests that the Germans, never a culture for half-measures, took these ideas toward a particular extreme.
That today the readers of an impeccably progressive magazine recoil in horror from that extreme is, among other things, proof that revolutions don't move in one direction — you can climb back up a slippery slope, you can break a taboo and partially rebuild it.
But in its retreat from the Polanski era, its concession that sometimes it's OK to forbid, cultural progressivism entered into a long internal struggle over what its goal ought to be — to maximize permissiveness with some minimalist taboos (no rape, no sex with children) or to devise a broader set of sexual regulations that would reflect egalitarian and feminist values rather than religious ones.
Douthat seems to think that everyone in at that time, the Left in particular, was basically okay with Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. I ran this by my mother, who unlike Ross Douthat actually lived through that time, and her response was "Absolutely the hell not." While celebrities would later defend him because "Oh he's such a fabulous artist," the vibe around at that time was certainly not "Oh, that's totally fine." He was, after all, actually arrested and charged with the crime and pleaded guilty.
The only "internal struggle" here is Douthat's, as he very clearly does not really understand ... any of this. The issue isn't about "permissiveness" and "regulations," the only issue is consent.
This tension is visible all over recent history. The mood in which liberals defended Bill Clinton's philandering was an example of the more permissive option. The mood of the #MeToo era, which condemned cads as well as rapists, is an example of the more regulatory approach.
No one was mad at "cads." That was a thing that only happened in the minds of frightened conservatives. It is entirely possible to be a "cad," or any other weirdly outdated term for a man who likes to date around, without doing anything to anyone's body that they do not want.
The temporary alliance between anti-porn feminists and social conservatives in the 1980s was regulatory, while the rise of "sex-positive" feminism was permissive. The way that same-sex marriage was championed as a conservative and bourgeois reform was more regulatory; the shift toward emphasizing the fluidity and individuality of sexual identity was more permissive.
This is a very, very bad thesis, and yet he keeps running with it. There's no conflict at all between people getting married if they want and people being sexually fluid if they want. It's all about people doing what they want so long as everyone involved has informed consent and wants to be doing it. As much as I disagree with them, many of the arguments from the anti-porn feminists were rooted in the belief that the women in porn were not giving meaningful consent. Linda Boreman (formerly Linda Lovelace) said that her abusive husband at the time forced her to do Deep Throat at gunpoint, and that every time someone watched that movie they were watching her being raped. That is not something any of us, sex-positive feminists included, want to have happen to anyone.
But if the tensions are longstanding, how they're worked out is becoming more important, as social conservatism ebbs and progressivism's cultural dominance expands. Progressives are not quite in the cultural position that Christian churches once occupied in this country, but they are close enough that the question "how should the left regulate sex?" increasingly implicates our whole society.
Does it though? I feel like it does not.
But this regulatory mood is contested and unstable. Last month there was an internal progressive debate about whether, now that Pride parades are essentially part of a new civic religion, their kinky side should be sanitized for kids, or whether encountering B.D.S.M. is a healthy part of a queer-affirming childhood. In New York's mayoral race, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Scott Stringer helped derail his campaign but also exposed progressive discomfort with the stricter forms of #MeToo orthodoxy.
The first issue is again about consent, not morality, and the second was people working out whether or not they believed something, which is actually a very normal thing to do. It's not that anything is unstable, it's that Ross Douthat clearly has no idea what the hell is going on here. He wants rules and people are giving him conversations and it is making his head explode.
I don't know how long the current period of progressive cultural power can last. But so long as it does, these debates will continue, because the regulation of sex is an inescapable obligation of power.
No, it isn't. Rape is not sex. Wanting people not to be rapists is not the same thing as wanting to regulate sex.
So progressives will continue to teeter between two anxieties. On the one hand, the fear of turning into the very Puritans and Comstocks they brag of having toppled. On the other, the fear of Helmut Kentler's legacy, and liberation as a path into the abyss.
IN WHAT POSSIBLE WORLD ARE THESE THE ONLY CHOICES? Or even choices at all? I mean, I guess if you're on the Christian right "Either you're a puritan or you're a child molester" might seem like a realistic dichotomy, but the rest of us are fine with those options being entirely off the table.
The Left does not want to regulate sex. The Left wants sex to be consensual. In fact, we want everything to be consensual. Consent is key. Consent is the difference between you inviting people over to your house for a lovely dinner party and some random people breaking into your kitchen and eating your food. It is entirely possible to enjoy the first thing and not want the second, with no internal conflict whatsoever.
While we may have discussions, open discussions, fierce discussions, about consent and what it means to give meaningful consent and who is capable of giving it, no one is trying to regulate consensual sex between adults who want to do whatever it is that they are doing. That is the difference between us and the Right, and it is a pretty goddamned big one. If you will notice, unlike Republicans, we also do not go around passing laws that regulate consensual sexual activity or relationships or behavior of any kind. Because that's none of our business and it's weird.
If Ross Douthat wants someone to regulate his sexual behavior, I suggest he discuss that with his wife. I think I can speak for the entire Left when I say that as long as he's not hurting anyone or doing anything to anyone that they don't want, we would be more than happy to never, ever, have to consider his sex life again.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse