The toxic default to “yes”

Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion.

(Harvey Weinstein, 2009, via Sean O’Neil, We are witnessing Hollywood’s long-overdue moral reckoning) I think it was C.S. Lewis who faulted flippancy for acting as if the joke had already been made, but sometimes it really has been made.

Another faulty moral compass is that of Masha Gessen:

The policing of sex seems to assume that it’s better to have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience.

Er . . . Is it . . . not? Is this no longer an assumption we can agree upon? If so, it’s time to acknowledge that there might be something wrong with how we’re thinking about sex.

(Christine Emba, Let’s Rethink Sex (reformatted), quoting Masha Gessen’s New Yorker article When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?)

More from Emba:

The backlash to the #MeToo movement has begun. As the parade of post-Weinstein exposés marches on, so do the unhappy reactions to a sexual landscape suddenly turned on its head.

There’s the skittish colleague (“If I ask a woman out at work, am I going to be reported for harassment?”). The nervous cad (“Will one unfortunate hookup land me on a public list of ‘sh*tty men’?”). And the vexing question underneath it all: “If we get so worked up about sexual harassment and assault, what will happen to sex?”

At the bottom of all this confusion sits a fundamental misframing: that there’s some baseline amount of sex that we should be getting or at least should be allowed to pursue. Following from that is the assumption that the ability to pursue and satisfy our sexual desires — whether by hitting on that co-worker even if we’re at a professional lunch, or by pursuing a sexual encounter even when reciprocity is unclear — is paramount. At best, our sexual freedom should be circumscribed only by the boundary of consent. Any other obstacle is not to be borne.

Angela Franks, a professor of theology with a focus on John Paul II (including his “Theology of the Body”) goes a level deeper than Emba’s sensible and accessible treatment of the problems with the novel doctrine of solum consensus. That makes for harder reading, but it gives an even greater reward (other than the psychic award of seeing Emba speak her peace in the Washington Post (yay!), while Angela Frank speaks hers in a relatively obscure blog).

 We swim in a culture marked by what Helen Alvaré has called “sexualityism”the conviction, springing from the sexual revolution, that any sex with anybody is probably a good thing. In this construct, non-procreative sexual expression is a simple necessity intrinsically tied to human fulfillment and personal identity (according to none other than the Supreme Court). This idea was also analyzed and criticized, in a somewhat different way, by Michel Foucault. A culture of sexualityism is not neutral; in it, the good of sexual expression as an end in itself cannot be intellectually challenged. All that is left is the will: do you choose it, or not? Consent carries the day.

If something is a basic human good, it is unreasonable to refuse it. One might consent not to sleep for obscure reasons of one’s own, but the burden of proof would be on the non-sleeper to defend her decision. I call this “the default of the yes”: it is reasonable to choose a good thing, and so it is expected that one will choose it. Thus has the seemingly freedom-friendly principle of the innate goodness of sexual expression become a weapon to attack the persons and institutions who do not agree. The apparent enshrinement of consent actually attacks the very foundations of consent itself: sexualityism puts a thumb on the seemingly impartial scales of choice. As women have observed about the “choice” for abortion, so too here: what begins as a right often turns into a duty.

What clearly emerges from the scenes in Harvey Weinstein’s room is that he did not feel defensive. It is the women who feel the onus put on them. Here we see how the burden of the “default of the yes” complicates the matter of consent. Is it consent to dress provocatively? Or to say no, but to give in? Or to keep saying no, but stop short of physical violence? How much refusal outweighs the default of the yes?

This is the web in which Weinstein’s victims find themselves entangled, at the very moment when they need all their wits about them. “The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” Asia Argento said. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.” The horror of the assault is compounded by the postmortem self-accusation, which reveals that the default of the yes shifts the moral responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim.

Is sexual expression really such an overriding good? If so, what do we make of the women’s unanimous experience of humiliation and anguish in Weinstein’s room? Sexualityism can make no sense of  the reality that sexual crimes reliably cause a trauma that, say, larceny does not.

Sexuality is not simply a matter of something that I have, as though my body is another possession just like my wallet or my car. If, as Gabriel Marcel said, I am my body, then sexuality has to do with my very person, which has a deep value.

(Bold and hyperlink for “basic human good” added)

I will begin believing that we’ve actually crossed a watershed when voices like Emba’s and Franks’ are the buzz instead of drek like Masha Gessen’s.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

About readerjohn

I am a retired lawyer and an Orthodox Christian, living in a collapsing civilization, the modern West. There are things I'll miss when it's gone. There are others I won't. That it is collapsing is partly due to calculated subversion, summarized by the moniker "deathworks." This blog is now dedicated to exposing and warring against those deathwork - without ceasing to spread a little light.
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