16 November 2017

Some Thoughts on Sex Scandals, Politics, Culture and Consent

As I write this, Twitter is a twitter about sex. At least for the accounts I follow, that's unusual.

The two big stories are Roy Moore and Al Franken. The left is appalled that Moore won't drop out of the senate race and is asking Franken to resign.

There is a line of Shakespeare, "First let's kill all the lawyers," that seems to describe what so often happens in political arguments. The point should be to clearly define terms as lawyers would do but instead, on this discussion, we're killing off all efforts at clarity and lumping a lot of  behavior under the heading of "sexual misconduct."

We now know why Roy Moore dresses like Woody from Toy Story
In Roy Moore's mind, sexual misconduct does include consenting adults engaged in homosexual behavior but does not include a 32 year old man groping and touching a 14 year old girl he met at a child custody hearing.

In Donald Trump's mind, sexual misconduct does not include grabbing women's pussies or kissing them because they are so beautiful or regularly having affairs. Sexual misconduct does include whatever it is that Al Franken is doing.

In Al Franken's mind, because he's a conscientious liberal, sexual misconduct is anything guys like Moore and Trump have done AND anything he - Al Franken - may have done that would upset his constituents.


Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore's repeatedly made unwanted advances on girls; in his thirties, he dated, groped and molested girls between 14 and 16 years old. And speaking of repeatedly, I've repeatedly heard people excuse the folks still wanting to vote for Moore as being no different from Bill Clinton supporters, people willing to compartmentalize a man's private life from his policy stances, essentially saying "I like his policies and what he does in his personal time is not my business."

When Trump confessed that he grabbed women by the pussy, I heard the same thing.  Defenders of Trump said, "Well, people still voted for Bill Clinton even though they knew about his misconduct."


What is clear about Bill Clinton was that after marrying Hillary he had sex with other women, at least one of whom he apparently had an affair with. What is less clear is that he actually forced a woman to have sex, something Juanita Broaddrick accused Clinton of doing. Three women accused him of unwanted advances. And most clearly of all, he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment. Lewinsky doesn't describe unwanted advances, though; she refers to it as falling in love. 

What is clear about Donald Trump is that he assaulted women and had sex outside of marriage multiple times (and twice that sex matured into an affair and then marriage). What is also clear is that he readily confessed to assaulting women on tape (a confession so repulsive that it got Billy Bush, who merely chuckled at the confession, fired). What is less clear is how often he did that; about a dozen women have accused him of assault and unwanted advances, which seems to corroborate his own confession.

What is clear about Roy Moore is that when he was in his 30s he dated and propositioned high school girls. He was actually banned from the YMCA and asked not to hang out at the mall because of this behavior and his coworkers thought it strange that he would attend high school football games to pick up girls. He's been accused by multiple women of having made unwanted advances on them when they were girls - 14 to 16.


The first question is whether Roy Moore making sexual advances on a 14 year old girl who he literally met at a child custody hearing who later describes it as intimidating and confusing is the same as Bill Clinton making advances on a 22 year old woman who he literally met at work who later describes it as falling in love.

The second question is whether grabbing a woman's pussy hoping for sex is the same as making an unwanted advance in the hopes of sex.

To say yes to these questions is to say that consent is of no consequence. By law, a child younger than the age of consent cannot give consent. By common sense, anytime you grab a woman by the pussy without invitation it is done without consent. By experience, responding to the flirtations of a woman who describes the experience as falling in love is done with consent.

Consent - something the law states can only occur between adults - seems like a fairly useful way to distinguish between sexual conduct and sexual misconduct.


Example of comedian making a bad joke or threatening advance?
And finally, there is a question as to whether making a sexual joke is the same as sexual misconduct. Going down this path alarms me. If we are going to ask every man who has done something stupid with a woman to resign, we're going to have a lot of job openings. (Going down that route could also take us back to the days when Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges; comedy is about mocking the sacred and making fun of these odd physical forms we're found in, cracking jokes about farts and the sexual impulses that make fools out of us all.)

What is clear about Al Franken is that he thought it was funny to pose for a picture groping the breasts of a woman who was wearing a bulletproof vest. I was a young man. It makes sense to me that a young man's imagination would find it hilarious to mock the guys who clumsily grope women by simulating that with a woman who would be impervious to bullets, much less hands. Such an act is just absurd enough to seem funny to a young man. There is no suggestion that this was done for anything more than a laugh. Franken himself dismisses it as unfunny now, as likely any man over 40 would.

Al Franken has welcomed a hearing on his behavior. It seems like such a hearing should be promised to start the day after the hearing on Trump's misconduct has ended.


Culture plays a role here, obviously.

There is a sensibility about affairs often attributed to the French that winks at flirtation and sex outside of marriage as something understandable. Obviously anyone voting for Bill Clinton or Donald Trump was at least reluctantly in this camp.

There is also a culture of child brides found in communities that see girls as people who would aspire to become mothers rather than people who might aspire to careers, to become equal to men outside the home. In these cultures, physical development that has largely played out by 14 is all that matters and intellectual development that might not play out until 18 to 22 is of less consequence as prelude to a relationship. States like Alabama have an age of consent at 16 and states with higher education levels like California have an age of consent of 18 given their different definitions of what it means to mature. A 14 year old preferred in some cultures because a child is easier to control. 


The goal of going after guys for sexual misconduct should have two dimensions. One, it should further the notion that women are simply people to everyone they interact with and the object of lust for only a chosen partner(s). Two, any expression of interest in a woman should leave a woman feeling safe.

Given how much larger men are than women the culture should be this simple: a man could express interest in a woman through words and then simply say, "You're now in control. If you are interested I will leave it for you to initiate." We don't (yet?) live in this world, though, and in the world we do live in men have made and do make advances. I assure you that any man has expressed interest in a way that they'd be embarrassed to have broadcast. So what makes a difference between embarrassing and offensive? In my mind it is whether the unwanted advance leaves the woman feeling humiliated and unsafe or flattered and desirable, feeling like an object some guy would use to satisfy his lust or as a person some guy delights in. [Note: I'm not a woman. Women may have very different opinions about this.]


Consent seems the anchor point in these discussions. To excuse assault on any woman or advances on a child is to dismiss consent as incidental to moral judgment rather than central to it.

1 comment:

Cara said...

So nice to see you wading in on this, Ron. I particularly appreciate the note of care with respect to consent, and the open acknowledgment of it as not only a personal, legal or political category, but a moral one. My responses are pretty straight forward, in that I've been reading and thinking about consent a lot lately.

What I would like to do, by way of response, is to list changes and responses in the world that I would like to see in practical terms (politically and legally), and then list the reasons why I would like to see these changes occur for personal and moral reasons. I'lll list them as such below, as briefly as possible.


1. creation of a federal guideline for rape penal code (preferably based on that of California)
2. termination of legally binding status and practice of nondisclosure agreements with respect to sexual harassment and assault.
3. termination of statute of limitations for report of sexual abuse, particularly that of children.
4. creation of a federal guideline for age of consent and marriage that is based on medically available and peer reviewed information about social and neurological child development.
5. creation of incentive programs for police departments that tie funding to processing rape kits in the year they are gathered. end practice of destruction and mishandling of evidence in criminal cases.
6. creation of federal agency tasked with ending the sexual exploitation of minors in the US. we currently do not have a federal agency that one can contact to report child pornography or prostitution as seen online. this is a huge problem, unfortunately.
7. levy fines against business that participate in and profit from the sexual exploitation of minors, including backpage.com and online porn platforms. these funds could be used to create programs to assist these kids and to fund the agency tasked with protecting them as identified in item 6.
8. retain title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on university campuses under Obama admin.


1. i would like to see a greater respect for the human dignity of all people, including women and girls.
2. i would like to see a greater clarity about what constitutes consent and sex as opposed to assault.*
3. i would like to see consent clearly defined, as well as sexual assault. in california, we have a robust penal code that clearly defines assault as that which is not only sex procured through violence, but also through coercion, and even (can't believe this is not in all states) in cases where they are unable to make a decision because they are cognitively disabled, or unconscious.
4. i would like to hear men talk openly about how important it is to them that women and girls are valued and feel comfortable as you have done here.
5. i would like to hear men, particularly those with moral authority, disavow any suggestion that girl children and adolescents can and should be seen as sexually available and interested in adult attention.

*for #2. above, I emphasize the need for greater clarity about what constitutes sex as opposed to assault, because (lacking a standard definition of assault) we fall into the trap of conflating an act that has more to do with power and even explicit violence than the medium it chooses, which is opportunistic and, in the case of sexual harassment, assault and sexual abuse of children--uses sex as a cover. if we define, clearly, consent and sexual assault, we are well on our way to being able to address predators for what they are.

Thanks for your post and consideration of all the above-- :)