Across the world, this week marked another milestone in #EnoughIsEnough activism.
In Australia, huge rallies on the weekend called for an end to sexual violence. The trigger was claims by Brittany Higgins, a young political staffer in Canberra, that she had been raped in Parliament House and that her complaints had been ignored.
In London, tens of thousands of women rallied to protest the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in a large park near the centre of London – allegedly by a policeman. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is fighting furiously to defend himself against allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment.
In Canberra Ms Higgins set out the complaints of women in an emotional speech. After all these years of struggle to break through the glass ceiling, women are still being abused. After the #MeToo great awakening, nothing seems to have changed. “We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight,” she declared. “There is a confronting sense of banality about sexual violence in our community.”
“It’s time we actually address the problem,” she concluded. “This isn’t OK and they need to do better. We all need to do better. I encourage each and every one of you to set boundaries for yourself and be ruthless in your defence of them.”
Unhappily, her speech, true as it was, stirring at it was, was short on solutions for transforming a culture of misogyny, victim-blaming, abuse and rape. A curfew for all men from 6:00pm, suggested Greens politician in the UK, Baroness Jenny Jones, but that might prove difficult to enforce.
The organisers of the March 4 Justice had lots of ideas, but most of them involved more investigations, more codes of conduct, more detailed consent protocols, more sexual harassment training, more laws, and more law enforcement. An internet petition called for full implementation of the 55 recommendations made by last year’s Sexual Harassment National Inquiry. In short, more paper-shuffling.
These are all bound to fail. As one of America’s founding fathers, and a future president, James Madison, wrote in 1788: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” He was echoing the wisdom of every philosopher since Confucius and Plato: when people agree on morals, most of them obey the laws. When they don’t agree, the laws are ignored.
Brittany Higgins made a perceptive comment in her speech: “This isn’t a political problem. This is a human problem.” This is right on the money. What the women of Australia, the UK and the US face is a cultural crisis. Everyone knows that sexual violence is wrong; almost no one has the moral sophistication to explain why. As a result, politicians make ever more Procrustean laws to regulate aberrant sexual behaviour while the surrounding culture celebrates it. It’s schizophrenic.
Earlier this week, The New York Times, ever a barometer of ethics, illustrated this incoherence. Here was the line-up of editorials and op-eds last weekend:
Exhibit 1. Scroll down to the editorial, “Can Andrew Cuomo Continue to Lead?” The editorial board, the solemn voice of America’s newspaper of record, answers, basically “No way José”. Let’s zoom in on the frenzy over allegations of sexual harassment:
“Undergirding these specific accusations is the widespread description of his administration by many former aides as a toxic workplace in which Mr. Cuomo and others ruled by fear and emotional abuse — and drew women whom Mr. Cuomo saw as attractive closer into his orbit, actively encouraging them to wear heels and dress in tightfitting clothing whenever he was around.”
Not enough on its own to hang Mr Cuomo, perhaps, but he has obligingly provided lots more rope. The personal disgust of the writers of the editorial at this leering and bullying rises in clouds of acrid smoke.
Exhibit 2 is a photo essay about nightclubbing, delicately entitled: “I Just Want To Touch Someone’s Hot And Sweaty Body Again”. This is, let us remember, a New York Times op-ed, an expression of America’s finest and most discriminating thought.
“Remember when we memorialized special occasions in sweat on foreheads, in crevices of the body volcanic with the touch of strangers… Remember the smell of someone’s funk and someone else’s sweat and vomit? The hum of fear and lust and envy and joy stinking up the joint, a thick ether of escape and ecstasy?”
And then there are the accompanying illustrations of groping men and drunken couplings from Jessica Lehrman’s long-term documentary project, “Lust.”
Exhibit 3 is a video and op-ed from Megan Thee Stallion, a popular rapper, “Why I Speak Up for Black Women”. She writes: “Too many men treat all women as objects, which helps them to justify inflicting abuse against us when we choose to exercise our own free will.” Amen to that.
But to illustrate the point, the Times created a video of Megan in tight-fitting clothing and various obscene poses (along with legitimate complaints about misogynistic attitudes).
Now here’s the interesting bit. This op-ed, displayed on March 14, was originally published on October 13, five months ago. The Times is obviously so proud of being a Purveyor of Fine Pornography that it felt justified in the highly unusual step of republishing a stale essay.
So there it is: a classic demonstration of moral schizophrenia about sex. On the one hand, the straitlaced Times holding its nose at the stench of lascivious politicians. On the other, the down-and-dirty Times promoting promiscuity and pornography. On the same day. On the same page.
And that’s why the hashtags and rallies decrying sexual violence are futile. As Brittany Higgins said, what our society needs is a cultural change. Instead, what we are getting from its moral guardians is incoherent blather.