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Is #metoo a moral panic? Not if we’re clear about our values.

Last month, in response to a profile of pornography literacy programs, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed entitled “Let’s Ban Porn.” In it, Douthat argued that banning porn was not just feminist but also the logical conclusion of the #metoo movement’s quest for better sex. After all, Douthat argues, “It was only a generation ago that the unlikely (or was it?) alliance of feminists and religious conservatives made the regulation of pornography a live political debate.”

Douthat was immediately criticized by progressives for his argument, and there is a lot that remains to be written specifically about how his argument perpetuates stigma against sex work. But right now I want to take a closer look at Douthat’s argument that there should be an alliance between the #metoo movement and a conservative position on sexuality. This suggestion reveals a lot about the contradictory attitude toward sexual violence that we’ve seen in debates around #metoo.

Here’s the paradox. While most people will tell you they’re against sexual violence, most people, in practice, condone it. I don’t mean that all people actively support or commit sexual violence. But many of us have excused violations of consent through our words or actions (jokes, comments, dismissals). We’ve watched abuse happen and refuse to intervene. Plenty of people voted for Roy Moore.

This contradiction — that we as a society both deplore sexual violence and, in practice, mostly tolerate it — is one of the central tensions of #metoo and its backlash. I think understanding this contradiction requires getting to the root of why, precisely, we are against sexual violence. Why do we believe sexual violence is wrong? What assumptions are we operating from?

Much of the time, as a society, I don’t think we actually mind violence so much. Instead, I think what really bothers us about sexual violence is sex. Hence Douthat’s argument that #metoo and a conservative anti-pornography position are natural bedmates: Because implicit in our culture’s condemnation of sexual violence isn’t actually a condemnation of violence — it’s a condemnation of sex.

To understand this, let’s delve a little bit into the history of American attitudes towards rape. Historically in American law, rape was never actually considered a violation of someone’s autonomy or an issue of social equality, but a property crime. By taking a woman’s “chastity” without lawful entitlement to it (husbands, as rightful owners of a woman’s sexual labor, weren’t convicted of rape until 1976), a man robbed that woman of her value, thus committing a crime against family and community. Since for much of American history women effectively had no legal identity beyond their father or the husband, a woman’s consent wasn’t the major factor in determining whether sex was ethical or legal (and men legally could not be considered victims of rape).

It wasn’t only who you had sex with that mattered; it was what kind of sex you had. Alongside the notion that women’s sexuality was the rightful property of her husband was a schema for what kinds of sex were acceptable and unacceptable, and even legal and illegal, based on ideas of sexual morality. A whole host of sexual acts — queer sex, anal sex, pedophilia — were grouped together as deviant. Under this framework, it didn’t matter whether particular sex acts were consensual or not; doing them at all was bad, and people who did them would corrupt “moral” society.

For example, anti-sodomy laws, only struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, tended not to make a distinction between consensual anal sex and rape. This reveals an emphasis on what kind of sex you’re having and with whom rather than whether all partners consented. And it’s this thinking that gave us, for example, the longstanding stereotype that gay people molest children; since both sodomy and pedophilia were considered deviant, there was no differentiation between consensual adult queer sex and assaulting a child. Under a feminist framework, on the other hand, the former is okay because it’s consensual, and the latter is wrong because the power imbalance between adult and child makes it inherently non-consensual.

Sodomy laws have been struck down in the United States, and rape is now considered a crime against the victim themself, not their male relatives. But the remnants of this system of thinking about rape, in which sexual deviance and social roles matter more than consent, stubbornly cling to our collective notion of sex and violence.

Douthat’s suggestion that #metoo and a conservative anti-porn stance are natural bedmates comes precisely from this kind of thinking. The notion that we should ban porn is inherently anti-sex because it assumes that sex is more naturally obscene than any other topic and thus deserves to be singled out for censorship. It also suggests that abusive labor conditions should specifically be outlawed in the porn industry, but apparently tolerated in other industries. We can tell, then, that the root of the argument isn’t a problem with violence — it’s a problem with sexual violence. Emphasis on the “sexual.”

I think this confusion between condemning sex and condemning violence explains a lot of our ambivalence toward rape. Even the broad category used by many in the media during the #metoo reckoning — “sexual misconduct” — carries with it the suggestion of sexual impropriety rather than sexual discrimination — implying a harm to good manners rather than a harm to equality.

We can see this thinking lingering in how we as a society talk about different instances of sexual assault. The same man who would explode if someone raped his daughter may joke about someone raping a sex worker. The same woman who is sympathetic toward a friend raped by a stranger may minimize a friend raped by her husband. An “innocent” victim of sexual assault may gain more sympathy than someone assaulted in jail.

In each of these cases, we can see that the values we make decisions about can be based more on our idea of social propriety — who is a worthy victim or a “bad” one, what kinds of sexual violation are acceptable and unacceptable — than on a commitment to justice. If we’re focusing on consent, on the other hand, the above scenarios are all wrong, and violence done to more socially vulnerable people may even be worse.

So: Is #metoo a moral panic? No — but it can easily be hijacked by concerns of sexual morality rather than sexual equality. Making sure it doesn’t requires that we examine our own reactions to news of sexual violence and the reasons and motivations behind these reactions. If we equate sexual violence with sexual perversion, focusing on lurid stories rather than the social harm they cause, #metoo will become a moral panic. If we take some kinds of violence more seriously than others based on a vague notion of the “respectability” of the victim, #metoo will become a moral panic. If politicians declare they’re against sexual violence because they “have a daughter” rather than because all people have a fundamental right to equality and autonomy, then #metoo will become a moral panic.

But if we stick to our ethical guns, examine our own motivations, and prioritize an understanding of power, #metoo is a revolution.

Image Credit: Lilian Gish in The Scarlett Letter (1926), a classic tale of the American obsession with morally policing sexuality.

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