Is it okay to proposition a woman for sex after drinks? To initiate a workplace romance? To behave like a Casanova and bed as many partners as possible under the catchall excuse that you’re just “playing the field”? Twenty years ago those questions would have elicited a resounding “Yes! What are you, some sort of neo-Puritan?” Today the answers aren’t so clear. I keep thinking we’ve reached the eye of the #MeToo storm, only for another powerful man to be felled by lurid accusations and another think piece to spot fresh perils of untrammeled male sexuality. The topography of our sexual landscape is changing, with little indication of what it will look like once the winds have died down.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the storm began brewing, when our culture realized its consensus on sex had become untenable. My theory is what I like to call the “Entourage Moment.” Entourage is a since-ended HBO show that followed four witless orangutans, one of whom manages to make it big in Hollywood and the rest of whom spend their time festering like boils on his good fortune. It’s an idiot’s candy land of easy women, consequence-free hedonism, and sub-grunting male gibberish; it’s also annoyingly addictive, especially when you’re home with a high fever. Entourage debuted in 2004 to adulation; by the time the franchise movie was released in 2015, it had become one of the culture’s spikiest pincushions. Vinnie and his bros were scumbags, the critics tardily admitted, misogynists who regarded most women as sexual furniture, a viewpoint the show validated with its relentlessly amoral male gaze.
Somewhere in that 11-year span, a woman publicly flaunting her body for men went from female empowerment to patriarchal indignity. This change was driven by the culturally dominant left, as has been the #MeToo phenomenon, which is best understood as an ideological contradiction being worked out. The deluge of post-1960s sex sluiced through left-wing identity politics had produced a sexist sludge, one that ended up dehumanizing and victimizing women rather than elevating them. One or the other needed to go. Rather than let go of identity politics, progressives decided that sexual manners needed a hard look, and suddenly everything from lad mags to innocuous compliments was up in the air. Animated as always by what Michael McGerr called their “fierce discontent,” the American left set to work overhauling the Harvey Weinstein-era status quo with revolutionary fervor, even if it meant contradicting their sexually liberated forebears. With the bodies still hitting the floor—ostensible choirboy Matt Lauer is the latest casualty—there’s no reason for them to stop now.
Exhibit A of how vertiginously the left’s thinking on sex has shifted is a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Christine Emba titled “Let’s Rethink Sex.” At issue, Emba writes, is nothing less than “America’s prevailing and problematic sexual ethic,” which is predicated on “a fundamental misframing: that there’s some baseline amount of sex that we should be getting or at least should be allow to pursue.” The solution, then, is to “reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love. We might pursue the theory that sex possibly has a deeper significance than just recreation and that ‘consent’—that thin and gameable boundary—might not be the only moral sensibility we need respect.” Yes, yes, and yes. But for another left-wing writer to have published those words in the Washington Post 20 years ago would have been almost unthinkable; at the very least they would have drawn accusations of prudery and suspicions that perhaps the author wasn’t willing to fellate Bill Clinton for keeping abortion legal. That was then. On our mid-2010s political tilt-a-whirl, it’s the left’s turn to go upside-down.
The right’s role in #MeToo has been more complex. Many conservatives have taken a partisan angle, reveling in the abundance of Democrats among the accused (even as many of them hypocritically defend Donald Trump and Roy Moore). Many, too, have demanded that the left finally concede the 1990s culture war by denouncing Bill Clinton and believing his rape accuser Juanita Broaddrick. Others just seem relieved that progressives have finally realized the drawbacks of their espoused libertinism. Feminists still rage against Republicans, but they’ve inadvertently stumbled into consensus with many social conservatives who have been upbraiding Entourage-style trash for years and for many of the same reasons. It’s no coincidence that the two legislators spearheading action against sex pests on Capitol Hill are Jackie Speier, a Democrat, and Barbara Comstock, a Republican. The apparent divide, at least right now, isn’t left versus right but decent versus piggish.
But what if that dichotomy shifts—or already has—to men versus women? And what if the ensuing culture war leaves both the sexes worse off? It’s this fear that’s bred unease among conservatives, expressed here at TAC by Lara Prendergast who worries we’ll end up sacrificing “hard-won freedoms in order to protect women—dear little things that we are,” by D.C. McAllister at The Federalist who frets that traditionally understood masculinity could be on the way out, and by others. Such concerns don’t seek to excuse Weinstein; they’re a logical reaction to the excesses of #MeToo—the farcical tirades against the male libido and laughably comprehensive lists of new rules for men. One oft-retweeted feminist declared that henceforth men must never ask women out on dates more than once. Another pronounced: “It’s not acceptable for any man to touch any woman without their consent.” And certainly not before filling out Form C-120 and taking it to the Ministry of Sex. Enforce those two prohibitions and you’ll destroy the delicate sequence of advances necessary for romance to happen. Therein lies the danger: #MeToo could make our society less exploitive, but done to its extreme it could also make us punctilious and boring. Given a recent poll that found a third of young adults think it’s always or usually sexual harassment to compliment a woman’s looks, we may be headed in that direction already.
Despite the right’s dim view of “free love” and the rest of it, this is a frightful prospect for many young conservatives especially. To understand why, you have to appreciate how drastically our mores on sexuality have shifted. We Millennials grew up in a post-Moral Majority world, one where the culture war had seemingly ended or at least given way to a firm armistice. It was a place of sexual laissez-faire, where colleges were teakettles of carnal experimentation and pornography was only a click away. But it was also our place. We survived it, settled down in it, and even took away good memories from it, some exquisite and others bawdy, but all proof that the aftermath of the Sixties wasn’t quite as apocalyptic as many made it out to be. There is both value and delusion in such nostalgia, but the fact is that almost no one desires to annihilate completely the social order in which he was raised, and least of all conservatives. Michael Oakeshott wrote that to be conservative is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible.” Those boozy dates and flirtaceous encounters were what the young had. Subject them to the fires of revolution and you may lose something you didn’t realize was dear.
We don’t have to accept #MeToo in toto to see that (careful and organic) change to our sexual ethic is needed. Still, why should we believe that the splenetic, overreacting, morally panicky left will leave us with something better than we had before? And why should they escape scot-free for arriving so late at what should have been obvious years ago? If you want a case of cultural whiplash, try growing up with scantily clad pop stars frolicking across MTV, music that slathered sex in catchy beats and bubble gum, the female body used to sell everything from cheeseburgers to animal rights, the president behaving like a slattern—all of it defended as normal in our brave new world of liberation—only for the same cultural arbiters to abruptly do an about-face and declare much of it sexist and taboo. The Entourage moment was nothing if not sudden. It’s enough to make you feel bad for Vinnie and friends…well, not really.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.