The New York Times now has a “gender editor” and “gender team,” created in the wake of the #MeToo movement to infuse feminist sensibility even further throughout the paper. The gender editor, Jessica Bennett, penned an op-ed last month that serves as a template for the hypocritical state of modern feminism. Bennett had unforced sex with a 30-year-old acquaintance when she was 19 because “saying ‘yes’ [was] easier than saying ‘no,’” as the op-ed’s title puts it. She allowed the encounter to proceed out of “some combination of fear (that I wasn’t as mature as he thought), shame (that I had let it get this far), and guilt (would I hurt his feelings?).” Naturally, Bennett attributes her passivity and embarrassment at that moment to “dangerously outdated gender norms.” It is the patriarchy, she claims, that makes “even seemingly straightforward ideas about sex—such as, you know, whether we want to engage in it or not—feel utterly complex.”

Actually, it is not the patriarchy that makes sexual decisions “utterly complex”; it is sex itself. Sex is the realm of the inarticulate and irrational, inherently fraught with “fear,” “shame,” and “guilt.” Sexual seduction is carried on through ambiguity and indirection; exposing that ambiguity to light, naming what may or may not be going on, is uncomfortable and risks denial and rejection. “Dangerously outdated gender norms” are not what make it difficult to say no to sexual advances; contemporary gender norms have confused these already fraught situations. Traditional mores set the default for premarital sex at “no,” at least for females. This default recognized the different sexual drives of males and females and the difficulties of bargaining with the male libido. The default “no” to premarital sex meant that a female did not have to negotiate the refusal with every opportuning male; it was simply assumed. She could, of course, cast aside the default assumption; that was her power and prerogative. But she did not have to provide reasons for shutting down a sexual advance.

Sexual liberation reversed those default settings. The default is now “yes” to premarital sex; it is a “no” that has to be extricated in media res. No cultural taboos remain around premarital sex; those represented a repressive version of female sexuality, declared the liberationists. Males and females are now assumed to pursue sexual conquest with equal zeal. A contributor to the website Total Sorority Move described an instance of drunken college coitus several years ago that she, like the Times’ Bennett, allowed to happen simply because stopping it would have involved providing reasons. “We have sex with guys, because sometimes it’s just easier to do it than to have the argument about not doing it,” observed Veronica Ruckh. Ruckh quotes other females who have been defeated by the “yes” default for sex: “To be honest, it would have been awkward to say no, so I just did it.” “Sometimes you have to have lunch with girls you don’t want to have lunch with, and sometimes you have to have sex with boys you don’t want to have sex with.”

This state of affairs would have been unthinkable 60 years ago. Then, there was no cultural compulsion to have “sex with boys you didn’t want to have sex with.” The assumption was that of course you would not, and that assumption gave females power to control the outcome. Now, however, females have to go mano a mano with the male libido in a realm filled with indirection, embarrassment, and uncertainty. The male libido will win in many of those cases.

Feminists cannot acknowledge the divide between men and women when it comes to sex and sensibility. Doing so would violate what Steven Pinker calls the blank slate doctrine, a foundation stone of modern liberalism. One of that doctrine’s core tenets is that “differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety,” in Pinker’s words. Ignoring biology, feminists recast difficult sexual interactions in terms of power and politics. Sexual harassment, real or imagined, is portrayed as an effort to subordinate females. Actually, sexual harassment is usually just about sex, even if differential power is used to obtain it. There is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about liberal male icons championing feminist issues like abortion or equal pay while also putting heavy-handed or offensive moves on females. Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein would all undoubtedly be thrilled to have a female president, since they would thereby be routing Red State misogyny. For now, however, they want access to females’ panties. (In today’s installment of the Times’s #MeToo series, male models claim to have been sexually harassed by fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino.  “’I felt helpless,’” reads the front-page headline. According to the feminist interpretation of sexual harassment, these males are themselves victims of the patriarchy, the target of a political power play to subordinate men. The simpler explanation is: they were targets, if their claims are correct, of overreaching sexual desire, like most female victims.)  

Treating the untamed male libido as a political problem calls forth a legal remedy. The sex bureaucracy is exploding on college campuses; college administrators are busily writing highly technical rules for sex, the very domain of the irrational. The unstated goal of those rules is to move the default for premarital sex back to “no” by requiring “affirmative consent.” But law is less effective than informal norms in regulating behavior, especially in a post-liberation environment that has stripped females of the protections of modesty and restraint. Traditional culture tried to civilize the male libido by celebrating the virtues of gentlemanliness and respect. Under a traditional concept of propriety, masturbating in front of a female acquaintance (as Louis C.K. was wont to do) would have been unthinkable, a violation of the lady’s modesty and the gentleman’s dignity. Now, however, with “ladies” and “gentlemen” banished from our social universe, and even from language, such behavior is apparently no longer unthinkable. Most men would not feel themselves harassed if a female acquaintance masturbated in front of them; they might even consider themselves lucky. That women recoil from this same behavior reveals a fundamental divide between male and female experiences of the body and sex.

Feminists’ tic of blaming males for every female behavior that contradicts their ideal of gender equality undercuts that very claim of equality. Naturally, Bennett trots out the feminist trope that it is the patriarchy that makes females want to “attract male desire.” Women are apparently the helpless dupes of the fashion and cosmetics industry, and have been brainwashed into spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year in order to be noticed by men. That brainwashing extends to highly paid movie stars as well. The Times’s gender team is producing an online series called “The New Red Carpet” to combat gender stereotyping and harassment in Hollywood. Before the Golden Globe Awards, team member Bonnie Wertheim informed readers that stars’ dresses during such awards ceremonies “are not a reflection of their own style or their professional achievements.” Rather, the “red carpet industrial complex” forces those gowns on otherwise self-effacing and reclusive actresses in order to reinforce the “widely held perception that women’s bodies are available for public consumption.”  (The “red carpet industrial complex” exerted its dastardly power to the bitter end: though the female stars at the Golden Globes wore black outfits as a #MeToo protest, those outfits just happened to include bare shoulders, plunging necklines, slit skirts, and stiletto heels.) 

But if women are so vulnerable to advertising and manipulation, why should we be bootstrapping them into positions of economic and political authority? In fact, the fashion and cosmetics industry responds to consumer demand; it is women who, irrespective of the alleged patriarchy, try to attract male desire. And they are not averse to exploiting their sex appeal in order to get ahead. An internationally famous opera conductor stopped visiting the dressing rooms of female soloists unaccompanied after two singers made passes, but women in the orchestra and other singers continue to throw themselves at him, according to an assistant. Many of Toscanini’s affairs were instigated by the singers in question, including Geraldine Farrar and Lotte Lehmann; career advancement may not have been an unhoped-for consequence of those liaisons. And regarding Hollywood, today and historically, is it so unimaginable that actresses have used sex as currency to gain access to roles, when an entire body of literature exists documenting the phenomenon?

If the #MeToo movement only eradicates exploitative sexual demands in the workplace, it will have been a force for good. Its likely results, however, are to unleash a new wave of gender quotas throughout the economy, to mystify further the actual differences between males and females, and to make males the guardians of female well-being in the name of feminist empowerment. Pace the feminists, Western culture is in fact the least patriarchal society in human history; rather than being forced to veil, females can parade themselves in as scantily clad a manner as they choose; pop culture stars flaunt their promiscuity. There is not a single mainstream institution that is not trying to hire and promote as many females as possible. And yet females are apparently still so beaten down by sexism that the Times’s gender editor Bennett asks rhetorically if females should even be deemed able to consent to sex, since “cultural expectations” make it awkward to say no. How long will it be before feminists demand the return of chaperones?

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next