Pleasure and Danger
Linda Hirshman’s new book Reckoning poses a false dichotomy between two kinds of feminism: those fighting for sexual liberation and those fighting for equality. We don’t have to give up one for the sake of the other.
June 27, 2019
Jun 27, 2019
20 Min read time
A new book splits feminism into a wing fighting for sexual liberation and a wing fighting for equality. But we don’t have to give up one for the sake of the other.
Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (cloth)
When #MeToo exploded at the end of 2017, it had been more than four decades since Lin Farley and her Cornell University consciousness-raising group coined the term “sexual harassment” to name the myriad aggressions men subject subordinate women to at work, from dirty talk to forced fellatio, and the threats and reprisals that go with them. Over thirty years had passed, as well, since a Washington, D.C., circuit court recognized harassment as unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark decision Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986). Thousands of individual and corporate perpetrators had been disciplined before the first hashtag dropped, possibly billions paid out in fines and damages.
Why hasn’t the story changed? Why haven’t we defeated sexual harassment?
But sexual harassment appears no less rampant than it ever was. From 1997 to 2018, the number of sex-based discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) barely budged. A president was elected in 2016 in spite—for some voters, because—of his unapologetic appropriations of women’s bodies, and this year the Senate confirmed an alleged rapist to the Supreme Court. At least twenty-five contenders for public office in 2018 faced allegations of sexual harassment and abuse; of those who didn’t drop out, about half won their elections. This year, with their new anti-abortion bills, state legislatures dominated by white men began enacting the most extreme form of sexual coercion: mandatory motherhood.
Why hasn’t the story changed? Why haven’t we defeated sexual harassment?
According to Linda Hirshman’s new book, Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment, it’s my fault. Well, not mine personally, but the feminists among whom I count myself: “pro-sex,” or “sex-positive” feminists, who hold that an essential element of gender equality is the freedom to choose when, how much, with whom, and in what ways we have sex.
Reckoning follows the legal and political events the subtitle promises: the battle between mistreated women and their advocates, on one side, and harassers and their enablers, on the other. But in truth, this is not the story that impassions Hirshman. The contest chronicled here is bigger, between what she identifies as “two visions of feminism—what was called sexual liberation and sexual equality.” And that contest is one front of an even greater culture war, between “easy access to sex and gender equality.” Or, as Hirshman calls the opposing armies, the “libertines” and the “egalitarians.”
The title Reckoning, with its Manichean resonance, is revealing. This book is less opinionated social history than moral polemic, and its judgment is harsh: if women hope ever to live in self-determination, dignity, and safety at home, on the street, and at work, they cannot have both sexual liberation and equality. In a September 2018 episode of the Slate podcast “Slow Burn” about #MeToo, Hirshman made clear which horn of this dilemma women must choose:
What the libertines offer is sex. You’re old enough, you can have it with an older man, you can have it with your thesis adviser. You know, as long as you’re happy and you’re having a wonderful experience, it’s all fine. That is a sexual offer and what we egalitarian feminists have to offer in exchange is not so easily appealing. We’re saying hard things, right? Discipline yourself. Forego the immediate pleasure. Keep an eye on your power relationships. Those are harder sells but in the long run—like not drinking too much and getting into a car or smoking cigarettes—it’s better. But it’s hard.
To Hirshman, sexually free gender equality is an oxymoron, because free access to sex is structurally a male prerogative, synonymous with the subordination of women.
• • •
This idea has a long history. It is the signal assertion of legal scholar Catherine A. MacKinnon, the pioneering theorist of sexual harassment best known for her authorship, with Andrea Dworkin, of two city ordinances defining pornography as a form of violence against women and allowing women to sue pornographers in civil court for sex discrimination. The Indianapolis bill became law in 1984 but was quickly challenged and declared unconstitutional in a federal district court in 1985; the Supreme Court let the ruling stand. The bills were based on the same assumptions that shape MacKinnon’s thinking about sexual harassment. “You cannot separate sex from power,” Hirshman quotes MacKinnon. “The male sexual role . . . centers on aggressive intrusion on those with less power. Such acts of dominance are experienced as sexually arousing, as sex itself. They therefore are. . . . A feminist theory of sexuality based on these data locates sexuality within a theory of gender inequality, meaning the social hierarchy of men over women.” A feminist jurisprudence must do the same.
For Hirshman, if women hope ever to live in self-determination, dignity, and safety at home, on the street, and at work, they cannot have both sexual liberation and equality.
MacKinnon is the governing intellect and patron saint of Reckoning. Her comrades and acolytes are the partisans of the “equality-driven” feminist movement, Hirshman’s “egalitarians”: second-wave anti-porn and anti-violence polemicists such as Robin Morgan and Susan Brownmiller; editors of twenty-first-century zines such as Feministing and Jezebel, with their take-no-prisoners positions on sexual assault, whether proven or not; and the youngest generation of feminists, who read MacKinnon in their gender studies classes and took the fight to Twitter. No doubt Hirshman also applauds the women who, willing to remain chaste until after the revolution, proposed a Lysistratan sex strike in response to a wave of state abortion near-bans.
If sex and abusive masculine power are inextricable, as MacKinnon posits, then sex-positive feminists are not just misguided; they are traitors to their gender. “It would be surprising,” Hirshman writes, “to hear of African Americans who supported separate and unequal schools during the civil rights movement. But the women’s movement includes more than one episode where women calling themselves feminists have gone to bat for powerful men over access to sex.”
The powerful men Hirshman has in mind here are not the ones who have devoted their lives to women’s oppression, however—the likes of Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, and Antonin Scalia. Roy Moore gets a half-sentence. Nor do we hear much about anti-feminist women such as Phyllis Shlafly or the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. For Hirshman, “in the fight for sexual equality, the emerging conservative movement was not feminism’s primary foe.” Beyond the notorious super-abusers Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and the rest, her bad guys are liberal Democrats—male “public feminists” who support abortion or the Equal Rights Amendment but are “womanizers,” philanderers, and adulterers in what used to be called private life.
Chapter 1 thus starts in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts in 1969, where Ted Kennedy—like his brothers before him, a known skirt-chaser—drove a car into a pond and left his companion (not lover), Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. Ten years later, in the feminist 1970s, when he ran in the Democratic presidential primary, the media pressed him on Chappaquiddick, he mumbled an incoherent non-apology, and, says Hirshman, “philandering women’s-policy ally Ted Kennedy lost the primary to the upright Jimmy Carter.”
Wait. Shouldn’t that be “manslaughtering women’s-policy ally”? Are adultery and fatal criminal negligence moral equivalents? In Hirshman’s view, the wrongness of any sexual misdeed trumps any other transgression. Robert Kennedy was “stirring the sex pots with Marilyn Monroe” before the actress committed suicide, she adds. Is woman’s death the wages of man’s sin?
Hirshman calls Ted Kennedy’s defeat “a #MeToo moment” avant la lettre, but admits it came “with a big cost to women’s other interests.” Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, a triumph for the religious right and the beginning of the end for abortion (not to mention economic equality, unions, and the lives of thousands of people with AIDS). Hirshman wagers that Kennedy, an effective advocate for women’s rights, would have beaten Reagan. A dark defeat, no question, but Hirshman sees a silver lining: the womanizers were on the run. So paramount is sexual misbehavior that no good deed can redeem it. Realpolitik—weighing a guy’s public record against his sexual conduct—is therefore corrupt.
Kennedy provides the starting point for Reckoning’s narrative arc, as the moral toxins of each new sexual indiscretion off-gas for decades. In 1987 Gary Hart was forced to drop out of the presidential race after photos emerged of him with a party girl in his lap on a boat called “Monkey Business,” and George H. W. Bush creamed Hart’s replacement, Mike Dukakis. Hirshman’s postscript: “One wonders how different post-1960s American political history would be if John F. Kennedy had kept his fly zipped.” In the 1990s, a similar calculation: Hirshman notes that “adulterous Bill Clinton” put Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court and signed the Violence Against Women Act and laws protecting abortion clinics from hecklers and terrorists. But what, in Hirshman’s final assessment, did women get for standing by their man? “Nothing. Unless it was also something the guys wanted.” Bill Clinton is Reckoning’s Antichrist, in fact, meriting an entire chapter, plus a follow-up chapter called “Life Among the Ruins of the Feminist Collision with Bill Clinton.” Hillary is his Archdemon, and together their marital loyalty helps Trump beat Clinton in 2016. (“Like it or not, Bill Clinton’s spouse did not present a clean choice where sexual misconduct was concerned.”) Gloria Steinem, who also stood up for Bill, comes in for a substantial amount of animus.
If sex and abusive masculine power are inextricable, as MacKinnon posits, then sex-positive feminists are not just misguided; they are traitors to their gender.
In this moral framework, punishment of sexual misbehavior is always priority number one; in comparison, even Constitutional rights shrink to the status of liberal fetishes. In 1988 the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) submitted an amicus brief for the challenge to the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-porn ordinances. It argued that laws targeting the depiction of vaguely defined “degradation” or “subordination” of women authorized a vast expansion of state suppression of sexual speech. Hirshman tosses the authors of the brief a left-handed compliment: “liberalism”—in which she includes FACT—has an “honorable tradition” of “resisting the power of the state, particularly where expression was concerned.” The brief also contended that the laws’ language reinforced stereotypes of feminine fragility and male bestiality that had historically perpetuated inequality and violence against women. When pornography is not expression but weapon, Hirshman suggests, “the familiar arguments that sex [is] private and a matter of personal taste” turn the First Amendment into permission for rape. She sums up the 120-page document with a trivializing smirk: “Let a thousand flowers bloom. Male aggression, subordination, it’s all good.”
The book passes a similar judgment on more recent critiques. In 2014 feminist civil libertarians critiqued new university sexual assault investigative offices—established to avoid violation of Title IX, the equal opportunity guarantee in federal education law—for trampling the due process rights of the accused. Hirshman scoffs at these bleeding hearts: “When colleges tried to tighten the rules about sexual assault on campus, liberals teaching criminal law avidly resisted the effort to shift the balance between victim and accused.” (In fact, due process clauses protect individuals from the awesome power of the state; curtailing the rights of the accused shifts power less to victims than to prosecutors.) This is classic MacKinnonism, which regards liberal democracy as an oppressive construction to the core, in which free speech and due process uphold male supremacy, and supposed equalizers such as sexual consent are a sop or an illusion. A woman faced with male desire might as well be dealing with an armed mugger in a dark alley: she hands him her wallet not because she “consents” but because the alternative is worse. “Overlapping sexual arousal with dominance and intrusion,” Hirshman writes, MacKinnon “fatally weakens the power of consent to legitimate sexual contacts. . . . Consent means, in law, to be rolled by power.”
In this moral framework, punishment of sexual misbehavior is always priority number one; in comparison, even Constitutional rights shrink to the status of liberal fetishes.
It is true that for the less powerful—people of color, the poor, the undocumented, or the “wrong” kinds of rape victim, such as sex workers or transwomen—the criminal “justice” system is not just. Social and economic inequities straiten the liberal “choices” of the same marginalized people outside the courts, including at work, where they are more vulnerable to harassment and, fearing job loss or deportation, reluctant to report it. But recognizing the limitations of consent does not mean ignoring women’s voices when they state clearly that they did consent. It does not call for “protecting” them against their will—for instance, by outlawing their occupation. In anti-porn and anti-trafficking ideology, women who say their work in the commercial sex industry is voluntary are really victims. According to Hirshman, even Monica Lewinsky—who until recently insisted that the seduction in the Oval Office was mutual, the sex fun, and the feelings romantic—was “deluded.”
It is puzzling, to say the least, that Catherine MacKinnon, eviscerating critic of the male supremacist state, has such faith in its satraps to decide what images are good or bad for women, while precluding the possibility that a woman can know—or the law can credibly validate—in what circumstances and with whom she wants to have sex.
• • •
How far the law may, or may not, reach in adjudicating the nature and propriety of sexual relations—on campus, at work, or in a bathhouse or bedroom—is a live question for feminists, queers, and civil libertarians. Much of the debate revolves around the blurry boundaries between the personal and the political, the private and the public. These also were the questions at issue in the early development of sexual harassment law.
In 1977 a District of Columbia circuit court ruled unanimously in favor of plaintiff Paulette Barnes, whose supervisor at the Environmental Protection Agency promised her a promotion in return for sex, then harangued, harassed, and belittled her unceasingly when she declined, and finally eliminated her position. A lower court ruled that he had merely and innocently imported his “personal” erotic interests to the workplace, and she wasn’t interested. It was a case of “inharmonious personal relationships,” not discrimination.
If sexual behaviors, not just coercive or violent ones, are under suspicion, then nothing in private life is exempt from the surveillance of the law.
The appeals court said no: the power differentials and economic stakes of employment make the workplace categorically different from private life. Given those imbalances, an employer’s “request” for sex or an employee’s acquiescence or refusal may imply a quid pro quo, even if it is not explicit. (In Meritor v. Vinson, plaintiff Mechelle Vinson had given into her boss’s pressure and had sex with him numerous times. But the Supreme Court held that a “hostile environment” implies similar threats and may so narrow an employee’s options that her “consent” is not “voluntary” but rather a surrender to “unwelcome” advances, hence, sexual harassment.) And yes, this was sex discrimination, the higher court ruled, because the supervisor had never behaved that way toward a male employee and “but for [Barnes’s] womanhood” he would not have come onto her. The case established sexual harassment as a civil rights violation in federal law.
Hirshman draws inferences about the judges’ thinking to which the ruling’s text holds no clue. The judges did say that the supervisor propositioned Barnes because she was a woman (a heterosexual assumption). But Hirshman suggests that they embraced MacKinnonite theory whole, and reframed “sex in the workplace . . . as a potential abuse of power to which only—and all—women were vulnerable because they were women” (italics mine). In other words, Barnes underscored MacKinnon’s thesis of men’s universal inhumanity to women. #YesAllMen. #YesAllWomen. In fact, in the last thirty years the federal courts have superseded this two-gender definition of sexual harassment, affirming that the Civil Rights Act protects both men and women from same-sex harassment. The EEOC and campus Title IX offices have disciplined women employers who harassed men.
For Hirshman the implications of these early rulings are more global still. “In the brilliance of MacKinnon’s gaze,” she writes, “harassment at work simply revealed the dominance embedded in sexual behaviors everywhere, including in the privacy of the home. Or, put another way, not only is sex at work political, not personal, but sex at home is political, too.”
To recognize domains of desire where power and gender are scrambled is not to maintain a political-analysis-free zone.
Now, “the personal is political” was not MacKinnon’s idea. It was a collective feminist epiphany, circa 1968. But if male supremacy is sex and sex is the enactment of male supremacy everywhere, in all situations, then the personal is never just personal. And if sexual behaviors, not coercive or violent sexual behaviors, are under suspicion, then nothing in private life is exempt from the surveillance of the law. Whether or not a feminist accepts every step of this argument, or sees the personal and the political precisely as MacKinnon does, determines where she stands on Hirshman’s battlefield map. After the Supreme Court overturned the Indianapolis anti-porn ordinance, she says, “equality feminists were pushing to have every aspect of the sexual relationship—like all human relationships—subjected to the lens of politics. Liberal and libertarian feminists were resisting at every level, to maintain a preserve in which some aspects of sex would be veiled from political view.”
The veil thrown over the doings of pornographers would give cover to other enemies of women’s equality, so the argument goes. The next to be acquitted was Clarence Thomas. To portray Anita Hill as a sex-crazed fantasist, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded that all other testimony be excluded, and Democratic Chairman Joe Biden conceded. It was bad enough that Thomas’s other harassment victims were silenced (Hirshman quotes a committee member who says he would have voted against confirmation if he’d heard one of them). Even worse, though—because of moral and political repercussions into the future—was the embargo of testimony from the owner of an adult-film rental near the nominee’s office, who could have attested to Thomas’s “long, extensive, and well-established habit of consuming pornography.” Thanks to the outcome of the porn wars, “for a decade pornography had been classified as a matter of individual choice, simply a way for a person to exercise his or her taste in erotic gratification, sex-positive,” Hirshman writes. Biden took Thomas’s “private” life off the table. “Without explicitly saying so, senators on both sides of the party line conducted themselves as if Thomas’s ‘personal’ behavior was out of bounds.” Porn made him do it, and feminist libertines let him get away with it.
Until I sexually harass someone, my erotic life is nobody’s business—it is private. The “lens of politics” cannot become the surveillance camera of the state.
In spite of the pro-sex side’s victory in the porn wars, Hirshman recounts, “the equality-driven movement to rein in sexual harassment at work continued to gather steam, as if the two issues could be cleanly separated.” But they can be separated, and they must be. This is not to say that Thomas’s taste in porn is exempt from psychological and political analysis, even for sex-positive feminists. To recognize domains of desire where power and gender are scrambled, or to suspend judgment when nighttime fantasies defy daytime reason, is not to maintain a political-analysis-free zone. But I too have a long and extensive, if not independently verifiable, porn-consumption habit. Millions, possibly billions, of other people do too. Until I sexually harass someone, however, my erotic life is nobody’s business—it is private. The “lens of politics” cannot become the surveillance camera of the state.
• • •
What should be done about men who sexually aggress against women? Hirshman does not say so explicitly, but she strongly suggests that the answer is, throw the book at them. She applauds voters’ 2018 recall of California Judge Aaron Persky, deemed by some antiviolence feminists to be too lenient in sentencing Brock Turner, a young white man convicted of sexual assault. She admires Kamala Harris, who made her career as a prosecutor locking up black men. From the anti-porn ordinances to the Violence Against Women Act, this avowed egalitarian is a carceral feminist—and that means her egalitarianism goes only so far. Hirshman notes the perils of “working while black and female.” She rightly lifts up women of color for their courageous, disproportionate role in bringing sexual harassment to light and to court—the book’s most significant contribution.
But she evinces no such concern about the perils of being accused of sexual harm while black and male or the destruction of communities of color by over-policing and hyper-punishment, of which the draconian, ineffective sex offender registries are the cutting edge. Hirshman decries discrimination and violence against women but, just as she trusts the censors to rule on pornography, she has confidence that a racially discriminatory, violent state can be an ally in women’s fight for equality.
Reckoning is a missed opportunity to provide the historical ballast for a thrilling new movement powering forward on women’s militancy and solidarity. The ship of #MeToo has not entirely found its course. Signs point in two directions—toward repressive protectionism, vengeance, and punishment, or toward restorative justice and a feminism that celebrates sexual mutuality and diversity and strives to realize what Nimko Ali, the Somali campaigner against female genital mutilation, calls the human right to pleasure. Such politics do not minimize sexual danger.
Where did Hirshman get the idea that they do? Reckoning makes only passing reference—literally dashed off—to Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, the anthology, edited by Carole S. Vance, of contributions to the Scholar & the Feminist IX conference on sexuality held at Barnard College in 1982. That was the event at which Women Against Pornography (WAP) moved from attacking the adult media industry to attacking other women. The conference ranged over topics from body image to Christian fundamentalist organizing to self-help manuals. Its explorations of the varieties of women’s desires anticipated the evolution of gender theory away from a MacKinnonite model of a unitary and direct link between male (heterosexuality) and female oppression to more protean ideas of the ways that body, desire, identity, culture, and history interact in both love and trouble.
Reckoning is a missed opportunity to provide the historical ballast for a thrilling new movement. The ship of #MeToo has not entirely found its course.
Yet WAP turned out on the first morning of the conference to distribute a leaflet to attendees describing what Vance later called a “phantom conference” focused only on sadomasochism, pornography, and butch-femme lesbianism. The leaflet attacked individuals by name, detailing their alleged sexual perversions and anti-feminist practices. “These tactics were McCarthyist,” Vance writes in a preface penned a decade after the conference: “cowardly, surreptitious, dependent on slander and sexual panic for their power. They were also devastatingly effective, causing lasting pain and real damage to the women named.” Hirshman describes the conference simply as “fractious.”
Pleasure and Danger became the ur-text of the feminism Hirshman holds accountable for blockading women’s march to equality over fifty years’ time. I don’t know if she has read it. She should. Even the first few pages complicate her simplistic binary—you might call it Pleasure or Danger—and offer our reinvigorated feminist movement new possibilities for freedom, equality, and safety. As an antidote to the divisive spirit of Reckoning, I quote from Vance’s preface:
For women to experience autonomous desire and act in ways that give them sexual pleasure in a society that would nurture and protect their delights is our culture’s worst nightmare and feminism’s best fantasy. Best fantasy, because it would mean that feminism had succeeded in empowering women and making the world safe for us. Daily events, however, depressingly filled with violence, punishment, backlash, and male rage that unerringly target women’s sexuality, make clear that this fantasy, although vivid and compelling, remains far from realized. With these pressures on women’s pleasure, developing a politics about sexuality is far from simple. . . .
While an expansive framework to recognize and honor the differences in women’s experiences of sexuality, at the level of theory, the concept [of pleasure and danger] most powerfully speaks to the necessary feminist strategy on sexual matters: simultaneously to reduce the danger women face and to expand the possibilities, opportunities, and permissions for pleasure. Any strategy that focuses exclusively or predominantly on one goal while ignoring the other will fail.
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June 27, 2019
20 Min read time