When Bill Clinton survived impeachment, there was a sense among his advocates that they weren’t just defending one philanderer; they were defending sex itself. To be against a president’s dalliances was to be a Comstock, a Babbitt, a pleasure-hating heartland prude. To be for Clinton, as Tara Isabella Burton noted recently in a retrospective piece for Vox, was to be for a dream of sexual sophistication, a Europe-envying vision of perfect zipless adult bliss.
Little of that attitude has survived to our own era of grim sexual revelations. Nobody is defending Harvey Weinstein for being “debonair” or John Conyers for having “heat,” as Tina Brown once did with Clinton. Some politician-gropers may outlast the outrage, but the idea that sexual sophistication requires defending pigs from prudes has largely fallen out of fashion.
But a slightly different fear, that we’re on a path to criminalizing normal relations between the sexes, has surfaced here and there. In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen warned about a “sex panic” that might “criminalize bad sex and trivialize rape.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Cathy Young worried about healthy flirtation disappearing from workplaces entirely. The Matt Lauer revelations inspired Geraldo Rivera to tweet that we might be on our way to “criminalizing courtship.”
Like Gessen, I worry about what’s happening in campus rape courts. But my general response to these fears is similar to one offered by Christine Emba of The Washington Post, who argued that stricter boundaries on how you chase a co-worker are a salutary corrective to the pervasive idea that maximal sexual experience is essential to the good life.
“If you are a decent person,” she wrote, “a clearer, more boundaried sexual ethic should not frighten you. If not, have you considered that you might be part of the problem?” (In the case of Geraldo, whose self-described sexual history is disgusting, the answer is a decisive yes.)
Still, I paused over one line from Emba’s brief: “We won’t die of having less sex … Somehow, people will still find ways to meet, mate and propagate the species.”
People will, it’s true. But as a society we are actually in some serious trouble on the mating-and-propagation front.
When the sexual revolution started, its conservative critics warned it would replace marriage with a divorce-go-round, leave children without fathers, and expose women to more predation than before. Versions of these things happened, but over time various correctives, feminist and conservative, helped mitigate their worst effects. Divorce rates fell, sexual violence diminished, teen sex and pregnancy were reduced. In the last few years, even the out-of-wedlock birthrate has finally stopped climbing.
The cascade of revelations about powerful men is a continuation of this mitigation and correction process. But so far the process has not substituted successful marriages for failing ones, healthy relationships for exploitative ones, new courtship scripts for the ones torn up 50 years ago. Instead as Weinsteinian or Polanskian excesses have been corrected, we’ve increased singlehood, sterility and loneliness. We’ve achieved the goal of fewer divorces by having many fewer marriages. We’ve reduced promiscuity by substituting smartphones and pornography. We’ve leveled off out-of-wedlock births by entering into a major baby bust.
Part of the problem is economic: Everything from student debt to wage stagnation to child-rearing costs has eroded the substructure of the family, and policymakers have been pathetically slow to respond. Last week’s struggle to get the allegedly pro-family Republican Party to include help for parents in its tax reform is a frustrating illustration of the larger problem.
But there is also strong resistance to seeing a failure to unite the sexes and continue the species as a problem. If women are having fewer children, it must be because they want fewer children. (In fact most women want more children than they have.) If there are fewer marriages, they must at least be happier ones. (In fact they aren’t.) If the young are delaying parenthood, it must be that they are pursuing new opportunities and pleasures. (In fact the young seem increasingly medicated and miserable.) If men prefer video games and pornography to relationships, de gustibus non est disputandum (there is no disputing about tastes).
A useful counterpoint to these assumptions was provided this week by my colleague Norimitsu Onishi, who wrote about the extraordinary loneliness of old age in Japan, a country that has lived with collapsed fertility and strained relations between the sexes for a generation. Japan’s aging, dying, atomized present is one version of our future — and a not-so-distant one, already visible in late-middle-age despair and elder exploitation.
I don’t know what new-old mix of mating rituals and expectations and supports could arrest Japanification. I don’t think either feminism or social conservatism at present have the answer. And I’m sure there is nothing worth saving in the predatory sexual culture currently being put to the torch by victims and journalists.
But any moral progress will be limited, any sexual and romantic future darkened, until we can figure out what might be rebuilt in the ashes.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at The Atlantic.