Media has been abuzz with sexual misconduct allegations, denials and resignations. However, sexual politics has been an issue for millennia. The whole issue revolves around the powerful and the powerless, as well as the public perception of which is which. The current focused is on the accusers, talking points range from the accusers “deserve to be believed” to “due process” for the accused. However, to fully understand, debate and address the issues of sexual politics, you must look at the Big Picture.
What is the Big Picture? Well first it goes well beyond the current narrative of defenseless women being victims of powerful and predatory men. Kevin Spacey, Corey Feldman and Terry Crews are just a few current examples of non-female victim cases in the news. However, that does not minimize the fact that women are disproportionately the victims of sexual predatory behavior. The issue here is one of power more than gender though. However, that power is not always wielded by the the person “in power.”
Three members of Congress announced their resignations in a three day period. In each case the severity of accusations differed, ranging from uncomfortable conversations (Rep. Trent Franks) to more serious accusations of groping and kissing (Sen. Al Franken) to sexual harassment and hostile work environment for women (Rep. John Conyers). Three powerful political figures and it could definitely be argued, if the allegations are true, they used that power improperly. Yet, in the end all three are leaving office, so who is more powerful, them or their accusers?
Going back to the beginning of these current scandals, Harvey Weinstein, you see a “powerful” man taken down by allegations. Those allegations were well known in the casting couch culture of Hollywood. The worst kept secret ever, yet there was no “proof,” due process or day in court. Accusations alone, though multiple in nature, and the “court of public opinion” became judge, jury and executioner.
Whether it’s Hollywood, broadcast newsrooms or Capital Hill there is another side of these stories NOT being discussed. Castigating powerful male sexual predators is all the rage, but what about the power women hold? Most men will tell you that in the world of sexual politics, women hold ALL the power. For most men, the prospects of sex are controlled almost exclusively by women. For most men, NO means NO! Some are not willing to take NO for an answer and those men definitely deserve punishment to the fullest extent of the law.
What if there is no – NO? Many in the media and politicians bring up the allegations against President Trump, all of which he has denied. They point to the Access Hollywood tape as “proof” that he admitted to sexually assaulting women, but did he? Everyone is familiar with his “grab them by the p***y” comment, but they fail to address the full context of the comment.
From the New York Times transcript of the tape:
Trump: “…when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Bush: “Whatever you want.”
Trump: “Grab ’em by the p***y. You can do anything.”
Is a woman’s failure to say NO, or correct the behavior, implied consent or at least perceived consent in the man’s mind?
Feminist Gloria Steinem published an op-ed piece in The New York Times in the 90s in defense of Bill Clinton. In it she advanced what has become known as the “one free grope” theory. She argued that some of what Clinton was accused of did not amount to sexual harassment, because he backed off when they said no. Obviously, that standard does not fly today, but therein lies the problem. Defining what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.
What once was considered polite conversation, like complimenting a woman’s dress or hairstyle, is now considered by many to be harassment. What once was considered flirtatious, like “stealing a kiss” is now considered sexual assault. As are many behaviors once dismissed as being “forward,” but not overly aggressive. Some, like the police in the U.K., are even considering making “sexist” or “misogynistic” behaviors a hate crime.
College campuses have begun to institute, what some would consider draconian, requirements for consent throughout “courtship” and sexual relations among college students. To the point where every furtive glance could be a “micro-aggression,” every word a form of harassment and even an incidental touch potentially assault. We won’t even get into the whole gender pronoun discussion resulting from today’s gender fluidity.
The question is, what responsibility do women have in the sexual politics of relationships and procreation? They have the power to say NO. The power to accuse, even without proof. They even have the power to consent and then cry foul afterwards, but what is their responsibility? Sex IS power, which is why prostitution is referred to as the “world’s oldest profession.”
The Kardashians literally built an empire off of a sex tape. Minus a sex tape, these things generally happen in private. This makes accusations a matter of he said, she said with little proof. Unless it is reported immediately and forensic evidence is collected, there is seldom anything more than an accusation to go on.
Obviously, when dealing with people in powerful positions there are risks involved in reporting. When reporting against star athletes, celebrities, politicians or the rich and powerful there are usually repercussions. Most responsibilities have repercussions, but potential fallout does not relieve someone of their responsibility. It becomes an issue of risk versus reward. Unfortunately, the reward seldom outweighs the risk unless public sentiment is on your side, as it is today. One accusation typically emboldens others to speak out, like the #MeToo movement. Part of the problem is, because the FIRST one didn’t speak out, others were put in the position to be harassed or abused.
Then there is the behavior of women themselves. I don’t mean “blaming the victim” for how they dress or things like that. More in the double standard way, as in what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Take the case of Matt Lauer and the allegations against him, specifically the alleged incident during the Sochi Olympics. While the allegations against him are despicable, is there a double standard? After all, his co-hosts Jenna and Hoda were seen “feeling up” a Tongan athlete, Pita Taufatofua, at the Rio Olympics on live TV. There was no crotch grabbing, that I’m aware of, but could Matt and Al have done this with a female athlete?
In order for this conversation to move forward, we must first define the rules. For men especially, the current “rules” are aggravatingly and dangerously fluid in nature. Not only are they ill-defined, but they are subject to change at any given time. So, what are the rules and responsibilities? Obviously men need to be respectful and women need to be able to set boundaries. But then shouldn’t women be respectful as well and shouldn’t men be able to set boundaries? What human interactions are off-limits and what can be tolerated in the name of continued communication between the sexes and procreation of the species? Are we headed towards a world where relationships are governed by waivers and contracts detailing every aspect of intimate conversation and contact?
When confronted with defining pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” That “I know it when I see it” standard seems to apply in all matters related to sex and sexual relations as well. Rather than define right and wrong, we react to what we see or hear. Yet rarely do we see or hear the whole story (like a pornographic movie). We see accusations and denials, occasionally pictures or stained dresses, and society reacts to alleged “sexual misconduct” without context.
While men are most often cast as the sexual aggressor, assaulter or predator, women largely get a pass for the same behaviors. Female teachers who seduce underage boys typically get much lighter sentences than those where the genders are reversed. Men who use their “power” to seduce women are pigs, but what of the “gold diggers” who use their sexuality to seduce powerful men? Men are generally more powerful, physically, and those who abuse that strength difference sexually should rightly be shunned by society. By the same token, women are more powerful sexually. Men, in general, are easily swayed by the sexual advances of a woman and it is a double-edged sword. Women can use their sexuality to gain power, like the Kardashians, in the realm of espionage (pillow talk) or to destroy those in power, like the many powerful heads that have rolled recently.
Which brings me to my final point, “different strokes for different folks.” Men and women are attracted to and repulsed by different things. What is viewed as an “unwanted sexual advance” by one woman may be expected by another. Likewise, men who have had success with a more aggressive approach are likely to continue that approach, which obviously will be viewed negatively by those women who are not receptive to it. The question is one of malicious intent. How aggressive is too aggressive? Can two adults settle it between themselves, chalk it up to personal differences or mixed signals and move on? Or does it reach a level of egregiousness that warrants reporting? If so, shouldn’t there be some responsibility to report it in a timely manner?
How do we define a sexual landscape that allows for differences, yet addresses true predatory behavior? Workplace romances are always problematic, at the very least, yet for many the workplace is their main social interaction with member of the opposite sex. Other settings, like bars or college campuses, where alcohol is prevalent, present potential risk factors around consent and impaired judgement. Dating services and dating apps have their dangers as well, meeting virtual strangers based solely on a dating profile. Really? In short, sexual politics and relationships are fraught with dangers, miscues and differences on all sides. Fumbled flirtations, awkward advances and “he/she is just not that into you” are common, but not necessarily criminal or malicious.
It’s an issue that is as old as humanity itself and an issue that goes much deeper than is being covered on the evening news. The point is that we have an ill-defined sense of right and wrong in the realm of sexual politics. Those who preach equality also seeks exceptions to that equality. Those who focus on power and responsibility on one side, ignore the power and responsibility on the other. As adults, attraction and sex will always be a part of the equation. Adulting is hard, sometimes you have to stand up for yourself and risk losing everything or accept the situation and move on. As a society, moral outrage is easy, but defining societal standards is much harder.