The United States is positively roiling right now with the fallout of what some are calling the second sexual revolution. Finding unlikely empowerment even in a toxic political atmosphere isn’t just an unlikely triumph — it’s also long overdue. The stories of America’s many victims of sexual abuse are now being told.
The several life sentences of Larry Nassar — the American gymnastics doctor who abused as many as 265 girls — are just the latest spoils in this war against impropriety. But they won’t be the last if we don’t learn the right lessons and have the right conversations.
The very space that sex occupies in our waking minds, our politics and our social discourse is up in the air right now. Where the pieces fall and how things look when the dust settles depend very much on our follow-through and our collective maturity. Buckle up for a wild ride.
It’s those same comparisons to the sexual revolution of America circa 1960 that land us in some uncomfortable water. It’s true that the 60s saw the introduction of the first oral contraceptive, thereby empowering women everywhere to discover their sexuality as something more than the means to a biblically ordained procreative end. Sex started to become an expression of love
rather than duty.
But now, we’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the people who benefited most from women’s liberation in the first sexual revolution were powerful white men. Clearly, all the wrong people learned all the wrong lessons.
Who Learned What?
Now that #MeToo has come on like a wave and righteously trashed the careers of scores of abusers, predators and rapists —
including Larry Nassar — we have some important questions to ask. The most crucial of these is what we’re going to learn from the conversation this time around.
It’s clear we settled for half-measures last time. The sexual revolution didn’t bring us a lot closer to legally protected, paid maternity leave in America or pay equity for equal work. It didn’t assure coverage for contraceptives from health insurance companies or even a consensus among members of Congress that raping underage girls disqualifies would-be politicians from holding office.
Back up for a moment and really think about some of the numbers involved. Larry Nassar is guilty of abusing three teenage girls for certain and as many as 250 additional young women beyond that. It should not be possible for a single man to leave so much damage in his wake — not after we’ve spent so long patting ourselves on the back for all of our sexual-social progress. Actually, the illusion of progress is key to this emerging conversation.
The corporate-conservative establishment has made a science of undertaking token warfare against sexual freedoms to get a rise out of their constituency. The most obvious example is the Republican campaign against abortion rights. They obviously don't want abortion to be outlawed wholesale in America since if that happens, roughly half of their proudly “single-issue” voter base evaporates overnight.
No. Abortion — and everything to do with sex, really — has been little more than a political tool for as long as most of us have been drawing breath. Republicans and Democrats were united in their support for a woman’s sexual agency until conservative politicians learned how to weaponize this talking point.
We’re not saying that #MeToo is a political gambit or a witch-hunt. It absolutely is not, and anybody who says so has missed the point. It’s not a random dragnet, and it’s not a liberal conspiracy. Impossibly, #MeToo represents the unlikeliest comingling of nearly all of the Republican and Democratic political-philosophical dogma we’ve endured for the last several decades.
Republicans and libertarians scream to the heavens about self-actualization, rugged individualism and leaving-me-the-hell-alone. Democrats claim to be the party of ecumenism, charity, understanding and empathy. A society-wide crusade for sexual agency and against unwanted sexual advances should be the greatest opportunity for bipartisanship we’ve seen in a generation.
And we’re STILL getting it wrong.
How We’re Still Failing and How to Get It Right
Unhelpful, conservative-minded columnists feel the need to argue that touching a woman’s backside without permission is in a wholly different class of offense than wholesale rape. When faced with the opportunity to walk the walk, Democrats rushed to Al
Franken’s side, at least temporarily, instead of casting him away when his own history of sexual abuse came to light.
Roy Moore received their denunciation immediately, but Franken got to hang around in career limbo until Democrats decided on the degree to which they wanted to damage the integrity of their own ideals. Franken has since left Congress, but the fact that it took as long, or that he served as long as he did, should make you look twice at Democrats and their desire to become America’s moral champions by default.
Now that partisanship has wholly failed this crusade and proved that neither empathy nor cruelty observes party lines, here are the three critical lessons the rest of us still stand a chance of learning from this movement:
· We left the sexual revolution half-finished. It took the physical act of sex into the mainstream but left much to do with sexual ethics behind.
· Politicians and other public figures may argue that there are “degrees” of sexual harm. One congressman’s crimes make him unfit for an office he does not currently hold, while another may remain gainfully employed if he already holds that same office.
· Cynical politicians will always use sex as political leverage until we take it back from them once and for all.
We’re all bystanders now in one of the longest-running hidden crimes against humanity. Those of us who find ourselves in a position to bring these issues to light don’t just have a moral obligation, but increasingly a legal one, too.
In response to this movement, several states are making their application of Title IX laws more robust — including punishments for individuals who knew of sexual misconduct but failed to act. Larry Nassar’s employers were allegedly aware of his proclivities for decades and still let him practice medicine. They let him compound the familiar injuries and harms of playing sports with harm of his own design. The legality of such an extreme lack of judgement wasn’t supposed to be a question after the “improved” see-something-say-something laws that came in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Clearly, we do have to re-learn some of the lessons delivered by the sexual revolution of decades past. Mainstream society understands now that women are beings with desires of their own. What we’ve been slower to realize is that telling ourselves we’re civilized beings is utterly meaningless in a society that simultaneously trusts too much and not at all.