A conversation about liberal versus conservative pigs, structural ways to address sexual harassment, the legacy of the sexual revolution, and why some men feel compelled to behave this way.
Rebecca Traister: Honest to God, what is WRONG with people?
Ross Douthat: Mostly testosterone, apparently.
RT: I thought your recent column on liberal pigs was really interesting. You say, “We’re finally in a moment feminist enough that we can identify the pigs amongst the left,” right? And we’ve seen it happen in recent weeks, not just with regard to Harvey Weinstein, who was the catalyst for that column, but with the conversation around Al Franken — kicked off by the right, but readily taken up by the left — and the public, long-awaited reevaluation of Bill Clinton. But I have to say, this part of the news cycle — where everyone is obsessing over whether Al Franken should resign and whether Bill Clinton should have or not — is wearing on me. I’m sure a cynic could read this as being defensive about fellow liberals. But I promise you it’s not that. I am all for reevaluating Bill and for hearing more about Franken, but I worry that the drive to render sentence is pulling focus from what should be being revealed here, which is the pervasiveness of the behavior, the way that the whole culture tells us that jokes about grabbing women’s breasts are funny, the way that a comedian who builds his career in part on telling those jokes can become a trusted public and political figure to begin with.
Which is not to say that Franken shouldn’t be trusted, and I happen to think he’s a great senator. But you know, Gilda Radner might have also been a great senator, but can we imagine the scenario in which she’d have been granted comparable public authority? That’s the part that I want to examine — not just individual villains and the degree of villainy they may have perpetrated, but rather how entire political and public power structures permit the rise of so many men who, regardless of the degree of their offense, wind up as both enablers of and enabled by their power advantages.
RD: Your weariness is completely understandable. But to defend the focus on specific men for a moment, for us to make social or moral progress there has to be a path to a cultural consensus on some of these questions, and we can’t reach a cultural consensus so long as everyone thinks they have to rally around *their* creeps, and defend behavior on their side that they’re busy condemning if it’s happening on the other side of our cultural civil war. So in that sense I think the consensus that liberals and feminists end up embracing Bill Clinton, and their willingness to decide (or not!) that they made a mistake rallying to him so strongly in the 1990s and treating his relationship with Monica as crucial in the defense of the sexual revolution, is actually quite important for the norms that we end up with going forward. A feminism that can handle its Clintons and Teddy Kennedys and (maybe) Al Frankens differently than in the past will be a more persuasive, coherent, admirable feminism. A feminism that just makes gestures in that direction once people are out of power or in the grave will not persuade many non-feminists or non-liberals that it should be the arbiter of moral norms.
RT: Right, I agree.
RD: Now you can ask me about how conservative Christians are doing when it comes to that kind of consistency, and I’ll shoot myself in the head (metaphorically of course).
RT: Right, I agree that a women’s movement that can be clear in its condemnation of its own side’s creeps-to-criminals (your mileage may vary) is going to be a more coherent and persuasive movement, though I’d add that as long as men continue to have such an unjust share of the political power, those same feminists are also rendered dependent on those creeps-to-criminals, for stuff that really is very crucial to feminism’s success. Which of course was part of what the problem was with Bill Clinton: His court appointments were critical to a feminist future; his presidency came after 12 years of conservative administrations; ceding his position to a Republican Party felt incredibly dangerous. Though there’s a very persuasive argument that the impeachment proceedings themselves, and a feminist incoherence on the subject of his sexual-power abuses, ultimately did long-term damage to both the party and the women’s movement that had just cohered around Anita Hill and her clarity about the material damage done by sexual harassment.
But since you bring it up, yes, I think it’s fair to say that the past few weeks have offered some evidence that the left is way more ready to condemn its own than the right. Though of course, it can also be said that the left is way less strategically sound than the right. Why has no prominent person said (as many of my friends have said conversationally) that Franken should resign at about the same time Donald Trump does?
RD: Well, now you’ve said it! But you’ve also said a version of the exact thing that induced many religious conservatives to hold their nose and vote for Trump. “His court appointments are crucial to protecting our institutions and to the possibility of limiting abortion, the 2016 election came after eight years of liberal aggression, ceding the White House for four more years feels incredibly dangerous, etc.” I listened to people make these arguments, I watched them vote for Trump on those grounds, and now of course they’re being asked to support Roy Moore for similar reasons.
But I want to believe in your counter, your suggestion that feminism did itself long-term damage by being incoherent. I want to believe that when any group that feels like they have to support a villain, whether it’s liberal women or religious conservatives, they actually have things backward, that you actually gain power — cultural power first, maybe, and political power later — insofar as you show a willingness to veto and restrain and punish on your own side. That feminism would have been better off if figures like Steinem and Friedan had used their (limited, but real) power to put Al Gore in the White House. That my fellow Christians would be better off if they used their (limited, but real) power to veto Trump, to veto Moore. But I admit that maybe that’s too hopeful.
RT: I want to push back slightly on the argument that the feminist reasoning behind defending Bill Clinton is precisely analogous to the conservative argument for voting for Trump, or now for Moore. Because the argument for keeping Clinton (which again: I’m not defending, just recalling) was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?
RD: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.
RT: I also think there’s another similarity between our “sides” in this controversy — neither one has figured out exactly what kind of cultural/moral order they want to exist around sex. Religious conservatives can’t decide how much feminism they want to incorporate into a moral perspective that was entangled with patriarchy for centuries — so you have some evangelicals sounding feminist as they condemn Moore, while his defenders have a hard-edged patriarchal “believe the religious pillar of the community, not the silly girls who probably were asking for it” argument. Meanwhile, feminists are struggling, I think, to figure out how to enrich the moral language of “consent,” which seems too thin to handle power imbalances.
But when I go back through 1990s-era arguments, it is very striking how different the moral language used now is from the language feminists used during the Clinton affair, when there was a sense — maybe conditioned by partisanship, but also proceeding from what was then understood to be the logic of the sexual revolution — that being sex-positive meant justifying getting blowjobs from interns. And whatever else happens I do think it’s good if that is changing.
RT: I don’t think your view of feminism’s moral language having changed accounts entirely for the differences between today’s view on Lewinsky and a past view on Lewinsky. We have to remember that at the time — and still — everyone agreed that Monica Lewinsky was an active participant, an enthusiastic consenter, to the situation. And yes, the notion of consent is too thin to cover the gendered inequities around sex, but it makes her case far more complicated, because the harm done to her was less clear-cut, and because there was a (reasonable) feminist investment in the notion of adult women as sexually driven actors and not just passive victims. She is a very different case from Roy Moore’s underage accusers, from the women who claim Donald Trump assaulted them, or even the women who say Franken groped them. Of course, there were women just like Juanita Broaddrick who alleged nonconsensual encounters with Clinton, too, but their claims have only recently been reexamined with any rigor. That was its own category of error, but it’s also true that, as you point out, much of the feminist consideration of Bill Clinton hinged on Lewinsky’s agency. And I think a retroactive examination of the case makes the power imbalances far clearer, in part because we can see the unequal damage done to the people involved, which is of course one of the reasons that sexual power abuses are wrong; not just because the sex act itself might be damaging, but because the unequal parties face unequal risks when entering into them. And we can see that Monica Lewinsky (and in a different direction, Hillary Clinton) wound up paying far steeper prices for Bill Clinton’s trespass than Clinton himself did.
I’d also say that whatever the failures of the Clinton moment, many women on the left have in fact been calling out their side’s own monsters for a long time. In part, the second wave was born out of frustrations with the misogyny of the new left and within the civil-rights movement. There’s the famous story of the women going up on stage at a new left rally and the men saying, “Take her off the stage and fuck her.” But what is making people more receptive to hearing women on this subject right now in a way that they haven’t been?
RD: My mom was in the first class of women at Yale, so I do have some intergenerational familiarity with how progressive men behaved between the years of 1965 and 1980. But to answer your question, I think what’s happening now partially reflects the greater functional political power of feminism right now, as opposed to then. There are specific arguments around rape and sexual harassment that feminists have won since that era. And then on the level of what you could call the political substrate — and this is something you’ve written an entire book about — both the power and the sheer numbers of single women within the liberal political coalition has expanded dramatically. And the role of singleness matters because it means that there are more women who have an identity that is both empowered and vulnerable. By which I mean that there’s still a sense in which having a husband or even a boyfriend confers some protections against certain forms of male aggression, and so singleness both requires and summons up a certain kind of political solidarity, a class identity for professional women.
RT: I disagree with the notion that singlehood confers a special kind of sexual vulnerability in workplaces. Indeed, I was thinking as you were talking, There are lots of stories that I’ve read in the past week of women who had partners who were married, women who immediately got out of a horrible encounter with somebody — and call their husbands.
But structural disadvantages, like lower wages, lack of equal-pay protections and paid-leave policies — those things together work to make women more vulnerable to power abuses. One of the things that’s struck me about the conversation that’s been had in recent weeks is a lot of men saying, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” Including men at workplaces where I’ve worked. I’m reading them saying that they did know that it was a boys’ club. So what does that mean to them? That there were many more men’s bylines than female bylines: What does that mean? That there was, for a long time, no HR department: What does that mean? That there was no maternity policy until a colleague of mine went to argue for it for herself in 2013: What does that mean? They say, “I didn’t know”; but they did know that there were these structural disadvantages that don’t give women the leverage or stability to make claims, that leave them vulnerable to bosses taking certain liberties with the understanding that they don’t have labor protections.
RD: But that economic account is compatible with a “sociology of sex” account, too, right? The single woman in the workplace is seen as more available than if she were married, and she is also more economically vulnerable because she is relying more completely on herself and is therefore more vulnerable to the boss who can control her professional future.
This does even remotely excuse these men’s behavior, but I think there is a way in which a certain kind of liberal idea in our era — namely, the idea that the sexual imperative is so overpoweringly strong and should reasonably be the organizing principle of your life — does help the powerful men themselves justify their inability to control themselves. It creates this sort of all-purpose excuse for a certain kind of oversexed man who we’ve all known and probably not loved to say, “Well, you know, this is what, this is not just my base impulses. My highest good, my telos is to have sex with as many women as possible. So if I’m surrounded by them in the workplace, well, the workplace is a social environment, why shouldn’t I ask lots of them to have sex with me?”
There are obviously conservative elements in that idea, a strong patriarchal element. But there’s also just post–Hugh Hefner attitudes about sex as a good end unto itself, where you’re judged as a man on your ability to bed as many women as possible — to be able to brag that “I was sexually intimate with 50 very attractive females,” in the immortal words of that Ohio Supreme Court justice.
RT: I see two different categories. One thing that I agree is key to a liberal ideology that I view more warmly than you do is an idea of sexual liberation. But it’s true that some of the ways in which that sexual liberation was then immediately reworked to serve especially gendered power dynamics have been very damaging, creating a kind of libertinism that is very closely tied to the kinds of abuses that we’re seeing.
RD: My view is not that it was captured and reworked, my view is that it was that from the start. Basically, men saw an opportunity in the weakening of female-dominated religious culture in the 1950s, and they rebelled against it and created the Playboy and Polanski age in American life, which then, in turn, generated a strong and in certain ways successful feminist critique that accepted the idea that sexual liberation was an end worth seeking but also sought to constrain and eliminate the piggishness. But the heart of the project of sexual liberation is contained in the mix of commercialism and skin in Playboy magazine.
RT: So you are with Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone on this?
RD: Well … not all the way. But I do believe that there are elements in Dworkin-esque feminism that are truer than its rivals …
RT: Like what?
RD: I think neither the darkest possible feminist view of sex nor the most sex-positive view of sex are right. The truth is somewhere in between. But what Dworkin and others get right is that there’s a darkness and a predation inherent in liberation that sex-positivity is never going to allow you to escape.
RT: But that view of sexual liberation leaves out the women’s interests. There was also a very real and very serious investment by many women in sexual liberation and many of the developments that enabled it and were enabled by it, right? Whether it was birth control or legalized abortion or the ability to dress more freely and to talk about female pleasure and advocate for it, and to reconceive of women’s sexuality to begin with as an active and not just a passive force. So I don’t see it as inherently a dark and doomed project just because, even from the start, deep-seated power imbalances meant that men were profiting from it in certain ways and that women were paying for it in certain ways.
One of the reasons that we’re seeing this current predation conversation blow up in the way that it is blowing up with the Shitty Media Men list, the whisper networks —
RD: I still haven’t seen the list. No one has forwarded it to me.
RT: Well, the whole explosive nature of these kinds of lists feel very uncontrolled and radical; and that’s one of the characteristics that people talk about with regard to the campus rape movement: that it feels radical to them. And that’s what this moment feels like to me too.
Perhaps some pent-up frustration gets funneled into the intense conversation about rape and assault; because the thing we can talk about is nonconsensual sex, a criminal act. But we still can’t talk easily about the disgusting sexism that makes our sexual interactions — even the consensual ones —unequal and often ultimately unsatisfying for women.
RD: But the pervasiveness of that problem, as you describe it, also suggests the potential value of rules that try to desexualize everyday life. I think college campuses are a good place to talk about some of these questions because they are a controlled ecosystem involving people who are not yet full adults. And right now, the organization of college social life is highly sexualized, geared towards the idea that a kind of debauched mode of sexual encounter is supposed to be the collegiate norm. Do you think, in our current context, women would be hurt if there was more stigma around randomly hooking up? Is the idea just that any stigma that you implement will inherently judge women more than men?
RT: Yes. Any sexual stigma. Women are unfairly implicated for not hooking up at the moment.
RD: Yes, there are new stigmas to replace the old ones! But it seems striking to me that the post–sexual revolution landscape generates a stigma against what is often a more characteristically female view of sexuality — a view that emphasizes commitment, monogamy, and so forth.
RT: But those stigmas existed in different forms in earlier eras too. If you did have sex you were a total slut and by many measures then unmarriageable. But the alternative, which was to be the good girl with the hetero-coupled early marriage didn’t always produce results that were wonderful for women either.
RD: To be clear, I think that feminism in its third wave as well as in its previous waves has produced a lot of good things for women — and for men, but for women especially the gains are not something that anyone should want to throw away. The question that I try to raise, in my role as reactionary critic, is not: Why shouldn’t we just go back to 1945? Rather, because there are things about the post-sexual revolution landscape that clearly don’t work very well, we shouldn’t assume that everything people thought in 1945 was insane and of no use to us today.
In fact, there is no necessary reason why either chastity or permissiveness needs to be gender inegalitarian.
You can imagine a gender-egalitarian pro–sexual restraint argument as easily as you can imagine a gender-egalitarian pro-permissiveness argument. Either one is intellectually possible, but we’ve ended up in a place where the gender egalitarians think they must argue for sexual permissiveness.
RT: But I am, in fact, aggressively challenging the notion that sex-positivity alone produces the feminist gold standard. This notion that has come up around the college assault conversation that there are two categories: there is the idea that if the sex is consensual, it is something that women are enjoying or enthusiastic about. That’s how I view, at least, the pressures applied by a sex-positive attitude within a contemporary feminist conversation. And then, on the other side of this wall, there’s nonconsensual sex, which is its own category. My solution comes down to: We have to be better about acknowledging inequities on every level, about reengaging a conversation about sexual inequalities that I think we more typically associate with radical feminists of the ’70s. We have shut down that conversation because it’s uncomfortable and it’s one that complicates a notion of sex-positivity that we are politically invested in for all kinds of reasonable reasons.
RD: And I suppose I’m just trying to make a case against a certain kind of sex-positivity — meaning, in my understanding of the term, the view that the healthiest human society is one in which the most sexual desires possible are met. If you said, “What distinguishes sex-positivity from just a basic morality of consent?,” it’s the view that you assess the health of a society and the health of a human life, the sort of psychological social well-being of a person, by whether they are being given, and are seizing, the most possible opportunities to act on their real sexual desires. That’s a view that I’m against and I think is wrong.
RT: I see sex-positivity, at its best, as operating in contrast to a kind of protectionist sex negativity that characterized earlier feminism. It’s about a diversity of paths being open to people who might want to follow them. As long as they do not involve harm and damage to other people, right? Now, of course nothing takes care of the sort of hurt that human beings do to each other, you know, in terms of desire and rejection and attraction and infidelity. So I’m not pretending that sex-positivity is an ideal Utopia where everybody’s happy. Rather that I favor a system in which, structurally, we acknowledge, accept, and then support, to the degree that it’s possible — through laws, through benefits and social and economic policy — the choices made by people pursuing varied romantic and sexual paths.
RD: And I suppose I think a system that places more moral limits on people’s choices might both reduce some of that hurt and reduce some of the explicitly nonconsensual behavior that you condemn as well. And it doesn’t always have to be a formal system. The Shitty Men in Media List is actually an example of something like this. It’s an internet-age manifestation of the mechanisms for policing social life that existed in the world before third-wave feminism as well. Because while it was true that there were terrible double standards for male and female sexual behavior in the pre-1965 world, it was also true that women had real social power in those societies, and had mechanisms for essentially punishing through social exclusion men who misbehaved egregiously.
The problem that you run into is that it can lead to extremes where a man who has only been accused of something, with no definite evidence, isn’t just socially stigmatized but actually gets fired. But there, too, it might be more likely to be abused in a context where it’s an all-or-nothing moral standard — where you can’t talk about men in the “shitty” gray area because the only rule is consent, so it’s like, Well, if the guy did something bad we have to treat him like a rapist.
RT: So you weren’t chilled by the list?
RD: Well, again, I haven’t seen the list. So —
RT: You’re not on it.
RD: Then it’s great! It’s a brilliant social document!
I mean, look, to some extent I can identify with the men who are accused in ambiguous situations, because these guys were told that these were the rules, drunken hookups are normal, and that everybody is cool with sex now. And as we radiate outward from Weinstein, you do get into cases where I read some of the accusations and I think, Well, that’s not something a guy should lose his career over.
But then again in many of these cases there will be a first wave of allegations where you think, Well, some of those things aren’t so bad … but then that will encourage somebody else to come forward with something worse. And to me, that’s partially a vindication of broader norms and rules, because it suggests that the guy who breaks one minor norm is more likely to break another.
When the affirmative consent bill was being debated in California, Ezra Klein wrote a piece for Vox that was basically like, This is a terrible bill but I support it because it will make men afraid to behave badly. And I thought that was a bad argument because I don’t think making men afraid to behave badly is worth the miscarriage of justice involved in totally ruining somebody’s collegiate career over what is a functionally drunken hookup.
But punishing someone socially by having their name appear on an internet list doesn’t seem to me nearly as bad as kicking them out of college and ruining their professional career. Though admittedly if the list circulated really widely and was widely believed it could ruin them.
RT: But what’s remarkable is how many of them get hired anyway.
The history of men with bad reputations, even reported bad reputations, has not been one in which, so far, there has been unjust punishment meted.
I see this as fundamentally linked to the fact that there aren’t those women at the top of the power structure. There aren’t women at the top where the career stall is around childbearing, and, as we can now discern, around women who are chased out of companies and professions in part by patterns of male behavior toward them. We can debate whether or not there are natural impulses that women have towards staying at home or seeking jobs with more flexible schedules, but the fact is we actually just don’t have, for example, a paid-leave protection in this country so we can’t even wholly test that hypothesis here because we just don’t have it, nationally.
RD: And this is a place where we have policy common ground. But of course as a conservative one reason I support pro-family policies is that while I do think they would be better for women in the workforce, I would be also fine with them just encouraging women to have more kids.
RT: This feminist is all for regarding family life, and policy that better supports it, as a good — though crucially, not the only good.
But I would say that one of the other aims of those policies, if they were enacted, must be to also encourage men to pursue family life more.
RD: And that’s also a physiological way — I’m only half-joking here — to mitigate the problem of male predation. There is a fair amount of evidence that the amount of time that men spend with their own children is correlated to how much excess testosterone they have.
RT: Are you surprised by the impact of this moment? I was very cynical based on my memories of last year and Trump. I thought, This isn’t gonna last. But in the second half of October, I was like, Well, actually — First of all, I was startled that so many of these stories seem to include actual assault and rape —
RD: Plus all of the random masturbation in front of women.
RT: Did you know that was a thing?
RD: This is where my reactionary biases might mislead me. I do think porn has had some sort of weird effect on the male imagination. And that masturbation plus a morality of consent convinces some men to think, Okay, I accept that the rules say, I can’t actually rape you but under the rules of consent, I’m just standing over here, you know, doing my own thing.
RT: This is such the Rorschach test, because for me what it hammers home, the masturbatory stuff, is that it’s not about sex or contact or the other person at all —
RD: It’s about power, right?
RT: And humiliation. All of the details of these stories, the ass-grabbing while a photograph is being taken or while your wife is right next to you. The brazenness of some of it. Stuff that you’re like, Okay, it doesn’t rationally comport with desire. It conveys that the thrill is not in the contact, but in getting away with domination or humiliation and thus affirming your power.
RD: I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming.
Saying “It’s power, not sex” excludes too much.
RT: That some sex is about power?
RD: That it’s always about sex. It might be about power in 17 different ways … but there’s still sex there at the heart of it. The masturbation in the plant is just not the same thing as Harvey Weinstein humiliating a male assistant. There’s a sex thing at the bottom of almost every case where someone says, “It’s about power, not sex.”
RT: This may be splitting hairs. I’ve heard that from a lot of men over the past few weeks. But women are saying this is about power. And as the people who don’t have the power, it’s very clear that it’s about power. It suggests to me that maybe a male sexual brain understands sex to be about power to begin with —
RD: Or the male sexual brain understands power to be about sex, to be a means to sex. Like the line from Scarface, the Tony Montana line: “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” That’s not every male sexual brain … but that is a very male sexual brain, a very male way to think. Like with James Toback, where one of his friends said something like, “Oh, he was just doing that thing where if you ask 100 women to have sex with you randomly, one of them will.” That’s not a conversation I’ve heard since college — but it’s certainly a conversation that men have among themselves. And with Weinstein, maybe the idea is that you think you’re so powerful that your ratio isn’t one in a hundred, it’s 50/50 — or that that’s the goal. The goal is to achieve a level of power where you walk out of the bathroom naked and at least 25 percent of the time the woman is like, Well, I gotta go along with it. And so, yes, it’s about power … but the goal is still sex. As disgusting as that may seem.
RT: I’m shocked by the number of memories that have come up in the past few weeks. One of my memories is from an earlier job, at a party where I was talking to an older, married senior writer at an old workplace of mine, who was a friend of mine. I was single and he was like, “You’re gonna get laid tonight.” I made some self-deprecating joke, like, “I’m so bad at it that even if that was my thing I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen,” and he goes, “Don’t you know the rule? All you have to do is go put your hand on ten guys’ dicks and one of them is gonna sleep with you.” So I got the same advice.
RD: So you have heard the line!
RT: I got the same advice! But it’s not just James Toback asking 100 women for sex; it’s asking 100 women for sex by taking out his penis and offering to ejaculate on them. You’re in a weird area.
RD: This is, again, where I think porn makes the already overly literal male imagination that much more literal, by encouraging men to think about sex as something you do on a woman rather than something you do with a woman. And that, again, maybe explains part of the desire to masturbate in front of someone if they won’t have sex with you. It’s like, Well, that’s still sex …
See, this is the trap of doing a conversation with New York Magazine.
You start out with a high-minded conversation and you end up being like, “This is why men whip it out.”