Of Barbarism, Backlash, and Boundaries

Negotiating the post-Weinstein era.

After reaching a certain age, one is rarely shocked by human behavior; one thinks of oneself as having gotten used to the ways of the world. But I have to admit that the scale of the revelations that began with Rowan Farrow's exposé of Harvey Weinstein genuinely shocked me. Charlie Rose “groping female colleagues and walking around naked in their presence”? Met conductor James Levine molesting a boy of fifteen and continuing to do so for years? Matt Lauer installing a door lock under his desk to facilitate sexual assaults on colleagues? Kevin Spacey trying to rape a 14-year-old boy? 

Two or three stories like this wouldn't have shaken my world. But one after another of them, coming to light day after day? Mind-blowing. I never imagined that so many respected (in some cases beloved) public figures could be such sleazeballs – and creepily creative ones, at that. As an old friend of mine wrote the other day on Facebook, “It's strange to suddenly discover in late middle age that I've always been even more of a straight-arrow type than I knew at the time.” It's even stranger to make this discovery knowing that you were once, long ago, as I was, a white-bread, well-behaved-to-a-fault young gay guy who thought his sexual orientation made him the most aberrant thing in town.  

The reckoning that Weinstein and others of his ilk have faced is necessary and gratifying. But the longer this has gone on, the less it has looked like a righteous round-up of rogues and the more like a witch hunt by people who are determined to take down every man who ever looked at a woman the wrong way. Last Saturday, front and center on the New York Times website was an article claiming that fashion photographer Bruce Weber had subjected male models to “unnecessary nudity and coercive sexual behavior.” One of the models said Weber had grabbed his equipment: “We never had sex or anything, but a lot of things happened. A lot of touching. A lot of molestation.” 

The same article accused another photographer, Mario Testino, of subjecting male models to “sexual advances that in some cases included groping and masturbation.” I don't know anything about Testino, but what I've seen of Weber's oeuvre over the years consists largely of pictures that, oozing eroticism, seem to document the placid interludes in the midst of pansexual orgies. In other words, these models should have had a good idea of what they were getting into. As grown men, in any case, they were perfectly capable of saying no, of pushing away the hand of a photographer two or three times their age (Weber is now 71), and, if necessary, of simply putting on their clothes and walking away.

Clearly, it was time for a backlash. In fact, one had already begun. Back in mid November, Masha Gessen warned in the New Yorker that the unmasking of predators was turning into a “sex panic” that drew no line between rape and rudeness. On January 5, a week before publishing the Weber piece, the Times ran an op-ed in which Daphne Merkin criticized “the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception” and the lack of discrimination that had led the “vague and unspecific” charges against some men to be lumped in with the more serious and substantiated accusations leveled against others. On January 12, Andrew Sullivan chimed in, claiming that a new McCarthyism was underway. Two days later, at City Journal, Heather MacDonald asked: “How long will it be before feminists demand the return of chaperones?” 

But the most headline-grabbing part of the backlash was an open letter published in Le Monde on January 9. Written by five prominent Frenchwomen and signed by over 100 other prominent Frenchwomen, including legendary actress Catherine Deneuve, it began: “Rape is a crime. But trying to pick up someone, however persistently or clumsily, is not – nor is gallantry an attack of machismo.”

While the Weinstein scandal had “sparked a legitimate awakening” about sexual violence, it had now devolved into a “witch hunt.” To make it a crime to “touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about 'intimate' things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest” doesn't “empower” women, they wrote, but reduces them to a protected class. It's one thing to denounce “abuses of power,” another to encourage “a hatred of men and sexuality.” In short: “the freedom to say 'no' to a sexual proposition cannot exist without the freedom to importune.” 

Yes, “importune.” In French, importuner – which, as translated in Cassell's (“To importune, to pester, to trouble, to annoy; to inconvenience, to incommode; to tease, to molest”), seems to embrace both acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Interestingly, the OED's definition of “importune” sounds more to the point: “To trouble...to burden, worry, pester, annoy”; “To press, urge impel”; “To solicit pressingly and persistently; to ply or beset with requests or petitions”; “To ask for (a thing) urgently or persistently; to crave or beg for.” It's wrong to molest; but surely mere persistence, and even a degree of pestering, must be permissible. 

Unsurprisingly, the backlash drew its own backlash. Actress Tatum O'Neal couldn't understand what these “older French women” were thinking. “Why are they doing this?” she asked indignantly. A group of “militant French feminists” responded to the manifesto in Le Monde with their own manifesto. (The French love manifestos.) On January 10, Lauren Collins, writing at the New Yorker website, accused Deneuve & co. of “obliviousness” and of failing to take into account “intersectionality” – the point apparently being that a group of prominent, well-off Frenchwomen, all or most of them presumably white, cannot speak for underprivileged or dark-skinned victims of sexual abuse.  

On Sunday, alas, Deneuve, who after the publication of the Le Monde manifesto had been singled out for attack by the militant feminists, sort-of-apologized for having signed it. Too bad, because her original instinct was right. L'affaire Weinstein had turned into one more weapon in the war on men – an inevitable development in a time when females are encouraged to see themselves as gender victims, when schoolboys are told that they're potential rapists, and when male college students' lives are destroyed by baseless accusations of rape. Gessen, in her New Yorker piece, actually seemed to praise the Trump Administration for having “rescinded the Obama-era interpretation of Title IX,” under which the burden of proof for campus rape had shifted “from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence.” But she lamented the fact that “at the country’s more liberal colleges and universities, the culture of policing sex will almost certainly persist.”

Indeed, it probably will. The third-wave feminists who have a chokehold on those institutions would not allow it otherwise. Their postmodern ideology regards every individual as a member of a group, sees men as a powerful group and women as a powerless group, and hence reduces all male-female encounters to a simplistic dynamic in which men are always holding the cards and women are invariably victims. To view human relations in such black-and-white terms is, of course, to be utterly incapable of recognizing that, short of out-and-out abuse, sexual pursuit – the set of activities that used to go by such now-quaint names as wooing and courtship – is a complex matter, shot through with ambiguity. Just to peruse the various meanings of the French importuner and the English “importune” is to be aware that they cover a gray area in which there is, somewhere, a boundary, though perhaps not an easily discernible one. 

Among the most recent stars to be felled is comedian Aziz Ansari (who, ironically, is one of the most PC celebrities around). On January 13, the Babe website recounted in detail the story of an anonymous young woman's recent date with Ansari that ended up with her leaving his apartment in tears. In reply, Ansari issued a statement saying that everything they'd done was consensual. Examining Babe's account, Caitlin Flanagan pointed out in the Atlantic that the young woman had in fact been the pursuer, had willingly gone home with Ansari, and had willingly, if under pressure, engaged in a range of sexual acts that ultimately upset her. She could have left at any time. She didn't. Instead she went along with everything, only to decide she'd been mistreated. Her parting shot: “You guys are all the fucking same.” 

Flanagan found this “the most significant line in the story.” If the young woman was used to such dates, why did she expect Ansari to be different? She could have left at any time. Why didn't she? Why did she go home with him in the first place? One thing that the proper young ladies of the 1950s and the avatars of free love in the 1970s had in common was that they were expected to take responsibility for how they conducted their romantic or carnal interactions with the opposite sex. Today, many women, like Ansari's date, crave freedom but eschew any responsibility. They step into the danger zone of their own volition but later cry foul, as if they were not free agents. 

Needless to say, I feel terribly sorry for all the young woman who have been subjected to outright defilement by sordid creatures like Harvey Weinstein. By the same token, I don't envy the many decent young straight men nowadays who are terrified to make a move on young women lest they end up in the hoosegow. When I was young I never thought I'd find myself saying such a thing, but nowadays it's a hell of a lot easier to be gay. 


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