The #MeToo movement provides a sobering opportunity for deeper reflection on the meaning of sex and the nature of the sexual revolution. A core question is this: Do the experiences underlying #MeToo reveal the need to carry the sexual revolution still further, or do they reveal fundamental flaws in that revolution?
Some are treating the movement with suspicion, worrying that it is a pretext for promoting identity politics. Others, predictably, are doubling down on the logic of the sexual revolution, rushing to assure us that #MeToo is merely a correction toward kinder, more equitable, more explicitly consensual sexual milieu. But recent efforts by #MeToo activists to take on pornography and shut down brothels in Nevada suggest that both of these approaches are missing what is really going on.
A growing number of people sense, often from painful personal experience, that “something is rotten” in the sexual revolution—something that no regime of affirmative consent codes is likely to fix. And although there have been compelling arguments challenging the basic claims of the sexual revolution, experience may be the most powerful argument of all.
The Personal Experience of Sex
Sometimes the things we most take for granted escape our notice precisely because they lie in plain sight. Start with the experience underlying the #MeToo movement. Large numbers of people, mostly women, report traumatic experiences of being coerced to engage in sexual activity with men.
Although Americans today are deeply divided about many things, the wrongfulness of sexual assault is not one of them. This is encouraging, but there is also something mysterious about it. Why do we treat sexual assault differently from other forms of assault, giving it a special and more serious legal classification? Why is it that some people can require years of therapy after being touched on their genitals without their consent but can quickly forget a much more painful punch to the face? Why is it that if someone touches any other part of our body without our consent it is not usually traumatic, but if they touch our genitals without our consent we feel personally violated?
Or consider sexual shame, a characteristic unique to homo sapiens. Why is it that people do not generally object when pictures of them are circulated in public, but they feel personally violated when naked pictures of them are circulated? Why is covering the genitals in public a universal norm? Why do people—even advocates of radical sexual autonomy—seek some privacy for their sexual activity, and why are public sexual activity and nakedness legally banned in most societies? Pornography is not an exception. Porn is not “public sex” but curious voyeurism that trades on the private fantasy that one is being given a privileged “peek” into the intimacy of others.
The Meaning of Sex
These experiences suggest that human sexuality is somehow bound up with the whole person in a unique way. It has a deeply personal meaning that we cannot simply construct for ourselves. If the meaning of sexuality is wholly conventional—if sex is merely a biological event—then the seriousness of sexual assault and ubiquity of sexual shame make no sense.
In fact, in human experience, the meaning of sexuality is closely connected with a particular desire, the desire for embodied union with another person. (For the best account of the intentionality of sexual desire, and its distortions, see Roger Scruton’s marvelous book by this title). This desire is not simply reducible to biology, although it is certainly inseparable from it. Each of our other organs can fulfill its complete organic function within our own bodies. The genitals alone, as reproductive organs, can be organically actualized only in sexual intercourse, when a man and a woman become a single, complete organism.
This reality suggests that sexual intercourse will always mean a wholly personal union, whatever the partners to that union may intend or think. In other words, sexuality has its own language, which human beings cannot completely change. They can only choose to live the truth of their bodies with integrity or to contradict and falsify that truth with their bodies, damaging their own integrity as well as that of their sexual partners. In sexual intercourse, the body uniquely says “I give my whole self to you, and I receive your whole self, which you are giving me.”
Certain moral norms follow from the personal meaning of sex. In the first place, there is a need for consent. Sexual contact without consent is a direct assault against the whole person. It is deeply depersonalizing. But sexual assault is only the most extreme kind of sexual depersonalization. Every time a person is used for sexual gratification, he or she is depersonalized. This fact accounts for the true meaning of sexual modesty (and shame), not puritanical repression. It is our natural defense against the “objectifying” gaze, against being used for someone else’s gratification.
But not just any kind of consent is adequate to the intrinsic and personal language of sex, and thus to the dignity of the person. Because sex is an embodied union of the whole person, consent to sex without total commitment to the whole person contradicts the meaning and language of the body. It makes an act that speaks love between persons into an act of use of persons.
Sex is thus very different from other human activities. In some contexts, the mutual “use” of persons is morally acceptable. In typical market transactions, for example, the parties “use” one another for their own benefit. When someone purchases bread from the baker, each person is unproblematically looking to his or her own advantage, and (unless the transaction involves force or fraud) neither person feels “used.”
Why is it that “feeling used” is a common experience in sexual intercourse, even when it is consented to? And what conditions for sexual intercourse would prevent that feeling? While “affirmative consent” may at least avoid rape, most people have a sense that consent should be broader, that sex should at least be “a part of a relationship.” But what kind of relationship is sufficient to prevent sex from being depersonalizing? A committed one? How committed? Experience leads us to the following conclusion: Nothing short of comprehensive personal consent—in other words, marriage—is adequate to the intrinsic language of sex or the vulnerability it necessarily entails.
Thus Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, writes that “an actual sexual relationship between a man and a woman demands the institution of marriage as its natural setting, for the institution legitimates the actuality above all in the minds of the partners to the sexual relationship themselves.” The institution of marriage, Wojtyla makes clear, is not a means of legitimating the mutual use of one another’s bodies for sex (as Immanuel Kant describes it) but of expressing and facilitating the full meaning of conjugal love, which is reciprocal, total self-gift.
The Hook-Up Culture and #MeToo reveal the Contradictions of the Sexual Revolution
These reflections help to highlight the deep contradiction at the heart of the sexual revolution, which trivializes sex while at the same time making it the very center of personal identity.
There is a deep tension between the premises of the sexual revolution and those of #MeToo. The sexual revolution promises greater availability and enjoyment of sexual pleasure without commitment or guilt. This promise can only be accomplished by the trivialization of the intrinsically personal meaning of sex. It is very difficult to see how we can simultaneously promote the trivialization of sex and treat sexual assault with the seriousness that it deserves.
But a powerful personal drive like sexual desire cannot really be trivialized, and its personal meaning cannot be completely denied. If sex ceases to be about love, it will necessarily be about war. This is evident in the hook-up culture, which pushes the revolution’s core premise—sex without marital commitment, or “free love”—to its logical conclusion by elevating sex without any commitment at all. In the hook-up culture and its #MeToo reaction, we can see how sex without comprehensive commitment necessarily becomes predatory, thus paving the way for sexual assault.
In a powerful article called “I Thought Casual Sex Would Be Empowering, But It Wasn’t, Jennifer Joyner describes her initial attraction to hooking up: “The idea of the 21st century woman making her own sexual narrative sounded enticing,” she writes. “I wanted to be in control . . . and I didn’t want to be left out.” Joyner then recalls her experience the day after losing her virginity to a stranger in the back of a car:
He was concerned and called the next day to see if I was okay. I didn’t call back. I remember feeling smug about it, as if in successfully caring less than him I had somehow “won” the game. I proceeded to hook up with many more men in short order, chasing an elusive thrill.
As Joyner, Donna Freitas, and others have shown, the primary motive of those who “hook up” is not sexual pleasure, but power, or the achievement of victory over another. Victory is won by having sex without caring, without vulnerability. In other words, hooking up inverts the intrinsic meaning of sex, transforming eros, the desire for intimate embodied union with another person, with its attendant emotional and physical vulnerability, into thumos, the desire for domination, recognition, control, and independence. The #MeToo movement has exposed the ugly and predatory underside of the revolution waged under the banner of radical feminism, and it highlights the ironic result that men have the upper hand in the new sexual marketplace.
This inversion of the personal meaning of sex in the hook-up culture reveals the deeper contradiction at the heart of the sexual revolution itself. Underlying the apparent trivialization of sex for the sake of more “love” or more widely available sexual pleasure is the pursuit of a much more radical personal agenda: sexual autonomy for its own sake. Why sexual autonomy? If sex has a unique connection to our personhood and is also fundamentally erotic, an experience of going out of oneself, of potentially life-altering vulnerability and risk, then our sexuality is the most patent reminder that human beings are not radically autonomous.
This explains the otherwise mysterious fixation of modern liberals on sex. If human vulnerability and dependence are to be vanquished, the decisive battle must take place on the field of sex. It is precisely here that radical autonomy must prove itself, and why modern liberalism has made uncommitted sex the chief “liturgy” of its religion of personal identity (and why inebriation is its chief sacrament). At the heart of the sexual revolution is the dogma that sex is the privileged arena where, in the words of the Supreme Court, I define and express my own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey).
Making War, Not Love
In the harsh light of #MeToo, core assumptions and achievements of the sexual revolution don’t seem quite so attractive. In these latter days of Tinder and hooking up, all pretensions to the “love” part of “free love” have been shed, along with the naïvete of the hippie generation. We are left with just “free”—as in cheap—sex. Perhaps all the sexual revolution can really deliver is a world where sex is a kind of weapon in the never-ending battle to continually create and achieve autonomous personal identity. No wonder asexuality has recently emerged as another strange feature of the modern sexual landscape. If sex is really about making war, not love, there are many who would rather opt out of such a destructive game.
Reflecting on the experiences behind #MeToo and the hook-up culture teaches us that something is deeply broken at the heart of the sexual revolution. The pathetic scramble to shore it up with consent speech codes only casts doubt on its key doctrines, bearing negative witness to the need for a comprehensive form of consent that is worthy of sex between persons—worthy of sexual love.