It’s becoming something of a trope on the socially conservative right that the reason for Harvey Weinstein is … the sexual revolution. It’s a critique of Weinstein that echoes his own laughable defense of himself, and ignores one critical thing: Men in power have been preying on women since time immemorial, even — sometimes especially — when conservative sexual ethics ruled the day.
David French offers such an argument over at National Review:
You can sum up the sexual ethic of the sexual revolutionary in one sentence: Except in the most extreme circumstances (such as incest), consenting adults define their own moral norms. One-night stands? Fine, so long as there’s consent. May/December relationships. Fantastic, so long as there’s consent. Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? No problem, with consent. Adultery? Yes, there are tears, but the heart wants what it wants.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but French relies on a concept of consent that’s so one-dimensional that it leads him to produce an error-filled paragraph.
“Consent” these days is more than about saying “yes” or “no” but includes the power dynamics that surround them. So actually: We still cast a wary cultural eye at May-December romances, because we worry that the older person is taking advantage of a younger person’s lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of power, whatever. Workplaces liasons between boss and subordinate? Maybe French hasn’t been through the sexual harassment training videos that I have, but again: The power differential makes this dicey.
As for adultery: Who lionizes the adulterer? He may have consent with the person who shares the affair with him, but he damages the consent shared with his spouse – who operates in such a climate with a deficiency of critical information.
The practical result of consent-focused morality is the sexualization of everything. With the line drawn at desire alone, there is no longer any space that’s sex-free. Work meetings or restaurants can be creative locations for steamy liaisons. Not even marriage or existing relationships stand as a firewall against potential hookups.
One wonders how closely the man has read his own Bible. King David sent Uriah off to die in a war so he could sleep with Bathsheba, we’re told in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He was a man who abused his power to whet his sexual appetites – and remained in God’s good graces enough, we’re told, that his lineage came to include the Savior of All Humankind.
What kind of lesson are we supposed to take from that?
The Sexual Revolution was probably not an unambiguously a good thing. No human developments are! But an ethic of consent was probably one of the better things that has emerged from it — and, as French’s writing indicates, it takes a misunderstanding of that ethic to make it responsible for Harvey Weinstein … whose actions, it must be emphasized, apparently happened entirely without regard to or respect for consent.
There are a lot of villains in this story. “Consent” is not even close to being one of them.