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The Problem with Panic

Sexual misconduct, affirmative consent, and the dangers of shame and moralism.

We are in the midst of a massive reconnoitering of American sexual culture. At the convergence of the Weinstein watershed, the #MeToo movement, and the rapidly-changing standards of sexual negotiation and consent, it has become clear that we are undergoing a sea change.

Most of the women I talk to are giddy with delight. There is a sense that the feminist movement has finally made it out of classrooms and courthouses, and is entering the intimate spaces of our everyday lives. There is a sense that the chickens are coming home to roost, and that men - who have enjoyed centuries of arbitrary and unmitigated power over us - are being cut down to size. 

But there is also a sense, in some quarters, that this particular reckoning contains within it a kernel of panic, and that the legacy of sex panic in America is long and grotesque. There are those of us, for example, who feel that Al Franken might better serve women by staying in the Senate, attempting to divert the coming wave of fascism, than by sitting at home thinking about what he’s done. There are those who have been victimized not only by men, but by previous moral panics, and the misguided policy decisions that follow in their wake. And there are those of us who worry that while talking about sexual assault is a clear sign of progress, the way we are talking about sexual assault may be setting us up for a dangerous and regressive backlash.

I’ve been reading voraciously for the past couple months, trying to absorb the many competing interpretations of this cultural moment. Much of what I’ve read has been deeply thoughtful, courageous, and gorgeously written. But some of it has been short-sighted and narrow-minded; more concerned with the thrill of the latest accusation, or with regressive, sensationalist theories, than with the broader meaning or direction of the movement. Pieces like these seem to present within them the very weapons that may be pointing back at us when the tide, inevitably, turns.

As an amateur student of sexual culture, history, and law, I can’t help but notice these troubling patterns, and feel obligated to address them. I worry that this will lose me friends and fans, because some of what I’m going to say is decidedly out of fashion; so much so that it may be interpreted as offensive or even immoral.

But I am an artist, not a politician. My obligation is not to fashion, or even to feminism, but to the truth, as I see it.

1) The problem of sexual moralism.

In Christine Emba’s recent opinion piece “Let’s rethink sex”, she makes the following observation:

“It’s unlikely that we’ll return to a society in which sexual encounters outside of marriage are disallowed or even discouraged — that sex train has already left the fornication station, if it was ever properly there to begin with. But now could be the time to reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love. We might pursue the theory that sex possibly has a deeper significance than just recreation and that “consent” — that thin and gameable boundary — might not be the only moral sensibility we need respect.”

 While this seems benign enough on its face (although, spoiler: the sex train was indeed never “properly” confined to marriage), it left me in a cold sweat. Consent may be an imperfect boundary – I’d even agree that it is thin and “gameable” - but it is the only practicable boundary that does not invoke sexual moralism, which is the opposite of sexual liberation.

Moralism thrives on vague, nameless panic, and can only be beaten back with nuance and specificity. When we allow the media to lean on vague, catchall phrases like “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate behavior”, we are inadvertently furthering the cause of sexual moralism, and making room for just such harebrained attempts to “rethink sex”.

Sexual moralism makes two claims:

1. Sex is outstandingly powerful and magical. When it’s “good”, it’s sacred and holy and life-creating, but when it’s “bad” it’s terrible and evil and life-destroying. It’s really important that we protect the power/magic of sex, and don’t allow anybody to treat it with a laissez faire attitude; that’s why birth control and abortion are bad, and love and commitment are necessary.

2. All sex is either “good” or “bad”. And, wow! We happen to have the rulebook right here! We can just look up the sex in question, and determine whether it is of the sacred/holy variety, or the terrible/evil variety. It’s oh, so simple!

But here’s the bad news for the moralists. Sex is rarely magical, sacred, evil, or simple. The magical part (if you ask me), is that humans are so incredibly sexually omnivorous. There is no more a “right way” to have sex than there is a “right way” to eat food. There are plenty of ways to do it, and plenty of reasons for doing it: we do it for fun, to connect, to satisfy hunger, to satisfy curiosity, to make each other happy, to make each other unhappy, to get power and status, to explore our own psychology, to express ourselves, to distract ourselves, and to perpetuate the species. We do it because we are ridiculous, dumb, playful animals.

And as we consider resorting to sexual moralism in a desperate attempt to control sexual assault and violence, here’s the bad news for the rest of us:

Sexual moralism has more often resulted in panic-driven, counterproductive legislation (sodomy lawsSex Offender Registrieslimiting access to birth control and abortioncriminalizing gay marriage and trans use of bathrooms, and jailing teenagers for sexting) than in security or justice.

 And it has never, on the societal level, resulted in “prudence” or “temperance”.

Of course, we are each free to enjoy our own preferred flavor of sexual moralism, in our own sex life. But if we hope to progress, we should avoid imposing it on large groups of strangers.

As we watch hordes of creepy, despotic men being thrown to the lions, it’s easy to enter a Coliseum-like mob mentality. It’s thrilling to see scums-of-the-earth like Weinstein and Moore destroyed, and difficult to see the potential negative fallout of this kind of justice. But as we begin to throw additional creeps into the pit without thoroughly reviewing the evidence, we are allowing ourselves to be seduced by righteous indignation, which is often the precursor to sexual moralism.

Rejecting sexual moralism doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize people for shitty sexual behavior; or fire, prosecute or jail them for harassment or assault. It means that we must remain committed to nuance, complexity, and evidence-based justice as we do so. All of these are necessary for us, as a society, to determine how to prevent sexual assault without surrendering the hard-won victories of the sexual liberation movement. 

One of the reasons sexual moralism strikes me as a clear and present danger in contemporary American society is that any standard other than “consenting adults can have whatever kind of sex they damn well please” is just a short downhill slide from our conventional societal structure, wherein sexual morality is the purview of the Christian right.

The Christian right, in case you’ve forgotten, is allergic to all sex that isn’t straight, married, and potentially reproductive (as is alarmingly foreshadowed in Emba’s widely-shared piece, published not in Christian Living, but in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune).

And before you say “nah, this time is different!”, please cast your mind back to the ancient times of barely one year ago, when the Christian right – using their time-honored, folksy traditions of fear-mongering, nationalism, white supremacy and misogyny – helped to elect a fascist-leaning, fantastically underqualified President.

With this in mind, I think you’ll agree that it’s particularly important for us to keep our heads, and remain committed to evidence, nuance, and real progressive change. Righteous indignation – especially in times of creeping fascism - is a very bad organizing strategy.

“So how about if we avoid turning Sexual Moralism 2.0 into shitty, regressive, life-destroying legislation, and just stick with the public shamings?” You might ask. 

Unfortunately, we already have plenty of evidence that shaming people about their sexual urges and behaviors doesn’t work. Instead, it drives those urges and behaviors deeper into the closet, where they get nastier and uglier and meaner. And then, in order to protect our shameful meanness, we construct whole philosophies and institutions around the denial of said urges and behaviors, until that precious house of cards finally self-destructs under the weight of the lie.

Just ask the Catholic Church!

Or even the Penn State Nittany Lions.

We have run plenty of experiments, and the results are in. Sexual shame and moralism do not serve to prevent sexual abuse; they serve to protect it.

2) The problem of “Sex Offenders” and “Sexual Misconduct”.

On the topic of sexual moralism resulting in shitty, life-destroying legislation: let’s talk about Sex Offender Registries.

In the 1990s, a series of high-profile child sex abuse cases resulted in a cluster of sex offender laws. First, states were required to add all “Sex Offenders” to a registry; then “community reporting” laws required states to make those registries public; then “residency restrictions” were added in many states to bar registered offenders from working or living within a thousand feet of a school, park, swimming pool, or daycare.

The first problem with sex offender registries is that they have a tendency to destroy the lives of registrants. Residency restrictions can significantly impact a registrant’s ability to find legal housing or work, and most states allow potential employers and landlords to deny work or housing on the basis of sex offender status, even when the registrant has managed to meet those restrictions. Community reporting laws in some states require that whenever a registered sex offender moves or changes jobs, their neighbors and coworkers are notified, via flier or bulletin, of their status (for comparison: this does not happen when a convicted murderer moves in).

“So what’s wrong with destroying the lives of rapists and child abusers?” You may ask.

Unfortunately, the registries include large numbers of people whose “crimes” do not come close to qualifying as abuse, many of whom ended up on the list when they were teenagers, or even children themselves (according to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 9 have been placed on the registry, and Juvenile offenders account for 25 percent of the 800,000+ registrants). So even those among us with the deepest faith in punitive justice - and the deepest hatred for sex abuse - may have to admit that the implementation is less than ideal.

The second problem with sex offender registries is that they don’t work. Registry laws were passed based on a pervasive sense of panic, rather than on empirical evidence; and in the decades that have passed since their implementation, statistical data has failed to provide any. 

There is vanishingly little evidence that sex offender registration, mandatory reporting laws, or residency restrictions have any measurable impact on deterring first-time offenders, or reducing recidivism.

Both of these very big problems may relate to the fact that sex offender registries fail to make distinctions between different kinds of “sex offense”. While the registries do include people who have been convicted of rape and child molestation, they also include people like a relative of mine, who was placed on the sex offender registry at the age of nineteen for having consensual sex with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend.

Each state determines what qualifies as a sex offense, and due to the historical popularity of using sexual moralism to determine our sex laws, some states cast a particularly wide net.

Twenty-nine states can require sex offender registration for consensual sex between teenagers. Twelve states can require sex offender registration for urinating in public. In a rash of recent cases, teenagers are being placed on sex offender registries for “distributing child pornography”, after being caught texting pictures of their own genitalia to another teenager.

Sex offender registries also include people who have visited a sex worker, people who “exposed themselves” to children when they were also children, and at least one parent who was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” for letting their fifteen-year-old daughter have sex with her boyfriend.

By calling all of these people “sex offenders”, we have obliterated any possibility of sex offender registries being a useful tool for protecting our families from abuse. Instead, we have succeeded only in depriving a huge and growing number of people - whose “crimes” consist of decidedly normal and innocuous sexual behavior – of the right to fair treatment under the law.

When I read accounts of “sexual misconduct” among famous men, I can’t help but draw a correlation. I worry that we are in the process of conflating rapists and abusers with assholes (people who do mean or obnoxious things, out of thoughtlessness or insensitivity) and fuckwits (people who do dumb things, out of dumbness), and that this conflation is leading us down a dark and familiar road.

Based on my reading of the allegations at hand (with the caveat that published accounts may be incomplete, new information is coming out every day, and accusations are usually true):

- Harvey Weinstein is a rapist.

- Donald Trump is a rapist, as well as a serial sexual-assaulter.

- Kevin Spacey is a serial sexual-assaulter. He also may be attracted to adolescent teenagers, or was when he was in his twenties (not a pedophile, but a hebephile, in the name of specificity).

- Roy Moore is a serial sexual-assaulter of minors, and probably also a hebephile. 

- Louis C.K. abused his professional power to manipulate several women into weird, creepy sexual situations. This may or may not qualify as sexual assault, but it certainly qualifies as assholery. 

- Al Franken is probably more of a fuckwit.

- Garrison Keillor might be an asshole, a fuckwit, or both; but at this point, there is no public evidence to either support or refute that claim. 

Some of these cases constitute harassment or assault, and some of them may not. Some of these men have been sued by their accusers, some have not. That’s partly because it is not a crime to be an asshole, even when the expression of your assholery is sexual. And that is a good thing.

When we conflate assholery with rape and assault, and approach all of them with the same fervor for punitive justice, we are inadvertently downgrading the seriousness of rape and assault. In addition to being an insult to survivors of rape and assault, this puts us at great risk of cultural and political backlash. 

There is a danger of the #MeToo movement creating similar conflations. Although immensely useful in identifying and raising awareness of the problem (huge numbers of women have been coerced into uncomfortable and unwanted sexual situations, at work and elsewhere), the solution will require more from us. It will require lots of frank and specific conversations about what kinds of sexual behavior are dangerous, and should be labeled “criminal”; what kinds of sexual behavior are inappropriate at work, and should be fireable offenses; and what kinds of sexual behavior are socially unacceptable, but should be addressed directly with the asshole in question. 

If the sex offender registry teaches us anything, it’s that a failure to make distinctions like these - when combined with our pre-existing culture of sexual moralism and punitive justice - is itself dangerous.

I must’ve read the phrase “sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power” a thousand times since November. While I don’t dispute the sentiment, it always strikes me as incomplete. Sexual assault is about power; sex works as a method of control because sex and its attendant cultural narratives are so powerful. And the less we understand and examine them, the more powerful they become.

That’s why it seems to me that in order to address sexual assault, we need to abandon catchalls like “sexual misconduct”, and be willing to talk - with honesty and specificity - about sex. We need to confront the confusion, anxiety, messiness, and shame of our sexual culture, and of sexuality itself, and not revert to lazy and dangerous oversimplifications.

As long as we defer that project, no amount of retribution will satisfy us, or protect us.  

3) The problem of consent.

Back in October, I ran a Kickstarter campaign for a card game I created called The F’ing Truth. It’s a talking-about-sex game, and it includes over a hundred questions about players’ sexual experiences and interests. The purpose of the game is to make it fun and easy to talk about sex with the aforementioned honesty and specificity.

Halfway through the campaign, I released a printable version of the game to Kickstarter backers. Some backers reacted negatively to a few of my questions, on the grounds that those questions could be construed as pertaining to nonconsensual sex. Here are the questions they took issue with:

#23: Have you ever had sex while intoxicated, or with a partner who was intoxicated?

#26: Have you ever had sex while asleep, or with a partner who was asleep?

#34: Have you ever lied, withheld, or distorted information to encourage someone to have sex with you?

#34: Have you ever had sex with your employee, subordinate, or student?

While I agree with the fact that any of these questions could pertain to nonconsensual sex, I don’t agree with the assumption that they must. This reaction strikes me as a kind of consent-based sexual idealism, which does not leave room for the complexity, awkwardness, or confusion of actual sex.

Regardless of whether you feel that these questions are referring to “bad” sex or “good” sex: did you answer yes or no?

I, for one, answer “yes” to all of them, as have many of the people I’ve played the game with. All of these kinds of sex are prevalent, and often consensual. I worry that by vilifying them, we are – again – sacrificing a lot of valuable nuance in the name of an unrealistic standard of sexual righteousness.

In other words: this may be sexual moralism in new clothes. In this case, the measuring-stick of righteousness is “affirmative verbal consent”, combined with the belief that people who do not hold equal power (like bosses and employees) are incapable of consent. This is a better standard than, say, “sex is only for procreation”, but like all forms of sexual moralism, it makes one fatal error: it fails to thrive in reality.

The truth is, there are many healthy sexual behaviors besides fully-verbalized, enthusiastic, sober sex, between adults who know each other and enjoy the same socioeconomic status.

There is flirting – which is not only verbal, but also physical – and which by its very nature includes making a sexual overture when you don’t know for sure whether the other party feels the same way. There is the honest-but-awkward attempt to flirt, which often includes making the other party uncomfortable. There is joking, which - since the dawn of time - has included sex as a central theme, because sex is hilarious. There is non-sexual touch, which is sometimes misinterpreted as sexual. There is unwanted touch, and unwanted sex, which we are afraid or ashamed to admit is unwanted, until later. There is consensual sex that is stupid, or drunken, or just bad. There is consensual sex between bosses and employees, actors and directors, and teenagers and adults. There is the sexualization of power imbalances, which is exceedingly common for people of all genders and orientations. There is consensual sex which we regret having consented to. 

There are sexual interactions that make us feel icky, or awkward, or even deeply hurt; and yet, no wrong has been done.

I am not being prescriptive here, I am reporting. All of these kinds of interactions occur, regularly, in the actual world where we live. To chalk them all up to “nonconsensual”, and to then use “nonconsensual” as a bludgeon with which to beat each other, is to deprive ourselves of deeply important distinctions, and to shame ourselves and each other for many of the sexual interactions we have, and will continue having. 

Although “affirmative verbal consent” may be a good policy for institutions (because it removes the burden of proof from the victim), and a good guideline for men (because it treats them as responsible actors), it strikes me as a poor measure of sexual righteousness, and a potentially dangerous interpretation of feminism.

Let’s review the brief history of “affirmative verbal consent”.

In 1991, Antioch College instituted the “Sex Offense Prevention Policy”, or SOPP, which includes the following: 1) all sexual activity at this college must be consensual. 2) “Consent” is defined as verbal. 3) Violations of this policy should be reported to the community standards board. 4) In response to complaints of a violation, the board will hold a hearing in which they interview all parties involved, including witnesses. 5) The board can respond to complaints in a variety of ways, including mediation, “restitution”, therapy, community service, loss of campus privileges (jobs, housing), and finally, suspension or expulsion.

Since Antioch (which was roundly mocked for this policy in the early 90s, including by SNL), more than 1400 colleges have adopted similar policies, and two states (California and New York) have passed legislation requiring colleges to institute their own affirmative consent policies.

A few clarifying notes: 1) Affirmative consent is a policy on college campuses. It is not a law for adults who live in the wild. 2) While the SOPP gives a lot of consideration to “due process” following violations of the consent policy, many of the campus policies that have followed do not. 3) At this point, there is no evidence that affirmative consent policies result in a decline in campus assault or rape. There is, however, some evidence that these policies result in disproportionate disciplinary expulsions of students of color. 

Regardless of our personal feelings or beliefs about verbal consent (which may, rightly, be totally positive): the evidence on whether affirmative consent policies work is conspicuously absent. They may be a triumph for women, or they may be another example of turning panic into law, and waiting a few generations to find out whether it was a good idea.

Aside from law and policy, though, I’d argue that the way we are talking about consent in the media and online is becoming increasingly more ominous, less helpful to women, and further removed from the realities of sex between adult people. The trend seems to be towards a view of women as passive recipients of sex, incapable of communicating desire, preference, or rejection. 

Take, for example, this mindboggling statement recently published in the New York Times

“Most of us understand, or at least we should, that a blackout drunk person cannot consent to sex. On some campuses, that inability to consent applies even if someone has had just a sip or two. But what about a woman who doesn’t feel that she can speak up because of cultural expectations? Should that woman be considered unable to consent, too?”

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say, absofuckinglutely not. I have spent my adult life developing a sense of sexual agency; of familiarity with, and entitlement to, my sexual desires and preferences. If you want to take it from me, you’ll have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

This is Dworkinesque anti-sex feminism, repackaged for the 21st century. It echoes both Victorian feminism and the religious right in its fantasies of female purity, chastity, and helplessness in the face of Big Bad Male Sexuality. While it can make for an interesting philosophical exercise, I find it useless - and potentially dangerous - for those of us who hope to live as women here on planet earth.

Although it is too early to say conclusively, recent research suggests that sexual assault resistance training - unlike campus policies of affirmative consent - may reduce rates of assault and rape by up to 50%. The Canadian pilot program included (as part of a multi-faceted approach) training and education for young women “to explore ways to overcome emotional barriers to resisting the unwanted sexual behaviors of men who were known to them, and practice resisting verbal coercion”. 

In light of this information (and supported by my own personal experience, and that of many of the women in my life), I think we should consider the potential dangers of encouraging women to view themselves as powerless, silent victims.

To my ear, the standard of verbal consent - requested by the male partner, granted by the female partner – seems to further the “women are powerless victims” narrative. It focuses only on the male actor, gives him full responsibility for the sexual interaction, and fails to provide any guidance whatsoever for how we, as women, can have better sex, or avoid traumatic sexual experiences. 

If the conversation ends with “men should get our consent”, we have only succeeded in giving away our sexual agency, and inviting men to treat us as passive recipients of sex. Instead, it should be our goal to enter a sexual interaction as a full participant, which must necessarily include a measure of responsibility for pursuing what feels good, and changing or stopping what feels bad.

By saying this, I absolutely don’t intend to blame or shame women who have been victims of sexual assault, or of otherwise painful or traumatic sexual experiences. Many sexual assaults are physically forced, or perpetrated on a victim who is passed out, or who is a child. Some assaults are coerced in the context of power differentials that make consent complicated (I don’t believe that able-bodied, conscious adults are ever “incapable” of consent, but that does not preclude us from considering the complexities of power).

But still others fall into a gray area. Many of us have had a sexual interactions that felt terrible, but that we did not attempt to stop or change. If something like this has happened to you (as it has to me), have compassion for yourself. 

We have, after all, been socialized to find sex terrifying and confusing, and to surrender our responsibility and agency to whatever random male is available. This combination means that the very act of being approached sexually brings up a fuckton of bullshit for us, which is at times difficult to see through. 

Some of that bullshit includes: 

Sex is dirty and dangerous; you shouldn’t do it at all. Sex is sacred and holy and God cares about how and whether you do it. Sex is your only value as a human, so you should do it well. Sex is something men want, and are in charge of. Wanting or liking sex makes you a filthy slutty whore. Not wanting or liking sex makes you a dull unfuckable prude. Pleasing men is your whole job. No one will ever love you if you don’t do sex correctly.

If any of this sounds familiar, and reminds you of someone in your past, any media you’ve ever consumed, or the inside of your own brain: you may be a lucky recipient of American Female Human Socialization. If you’ve ever found yourself in an uncomfortable sexual situation and become paralyzed with confusion or fear, then congratulations! It worked. 

But in the name of becoming happier, more empowered people: shouldn’t it be our goal to work through the bullshit, and become full participants in our sexual lives? 

And when we focus only on the idea that it’s a man’s job to seek consent, and that consent is some kind of magic incantation that renders us fuckable, are we not perpetuating the same bullshit, in a hip new outfit? 

What’s more: due to the aforementioned bullshit, even if our partners request and receive verbal consent 100% of the time, we will not be saved from the possibility of icky, awkward or hurtful sex. 

We are all just too full of shit. 

To avoid hurtful and traumatizing sexual interactions, we need to approach the problem from both sides of the bed. Men should seek enthusiastic consent, and women should seek to incinerate the bullshit inside us, confront anyone who makes us uncomfortable, and become active co-creators of the sex we have.

The seemingly-innocuous #BelieveAllWomen hashtag strikes me as a similarly infantilizing perversion of feminism. Isn’t the idea that women are immaculate Goddess-creatures, irreproachable and unable to engage in debate or stand up to scrutiny, something feminism has historically been fighting against?  

These narratives of victimization (which I can’t help but notice, have a tendency to come from upper-class, educated, white liberal feminists (like me!)) also seem to lack acknowledgement of the larger power struggles playing out in society. Women like me have, in fact, scraped together a huge amount of cultural, economic, and institutional power and privilege. There are millions of women in this country (and the world) whose social conditioning has been more toxic than ours, and is combined with considerably more economic and institutional obstacles.

The victim narrative seems to imply that until we are free of all negative cultural conditioning, we cannot be expected to take responsibility for our action, or inaction. If we believe this, what does that mean for people who have received more negative cultural conditioning: women of color, men of color, gay and trans people?

By encouraging us to frame ourselves as powerless, the narrative of victimization seems to reduce our responsibility to protect ourselves, and obliterate our responsibility to engage in political struggles with those who have even less access to power. 

It seems to me that in order to further the larger struggle for equal rights, we must reject the narrative that because we are not yet equal, we are powerless.

 4) The problem of shame.

One of the questions the media seems to be doing a poor job of grappling with is that of why this seeming “epidemic” is happening at all. In a stunning display of pseudo-journalistic bullshittery, the New York Times put it this way:

“How are we supposed to create an equal world when male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal?”

Rather than dignifying that regressive, biologically-deterministic, downright stupid question, how about we answer some different ones. Like:

“Why is all of this coming out now?”

This cultural sea change is only possible because of the legal and institutional sea change that has taken place over the past century. The movements for suffrage, civil rights, reproductive rights, and rights and protections for women in the workplace have given us a world that is almost unrecognizable from that of our foremothers. We can vote, own property, enter any college or profession we like, and decide for ourselves whether and how to marry, have sex, or have children. We can even (and this one is fairly recent) sue and collect damages for workplace sexual harassment.

None of those statements would have been true one hundred years ago. 

I say this to point out that we are part of history, and history is still happening. This wave of cultural change is part of the larger story of the struggle for equal rights. The policies and laws we pass have an enormous effect on culture, which plays out over generations; and the culture we create has an enormous effect on future policy and law.

Here’s another good question:

“People are assholes in all kinds of ways. Why is regular assholery different from sexual assholery?”

I’d argue that there are two reasons.

The first reason is that sexual assholery, especially when performed by a male perpetrator upon a female victim, is part of a historical context in which sex (and related issues like birth control, reproductive health, abortion and motherhood) is the primary battleground on which the war on women takes place. Sex has been used to control, devalue and silence women for actual millennia, and we are dealing with the legacy of that tradition every day of our lives. This is the conversation we are beginning to have in the culture at large, which is long-awaited and much-needed.

The second reason is shame.

Sexual assholery strikes us as more serious, dangerous, and shameful than general, everyday assholery, because we have not yet shaken our belief in the inherent danger and shamefulness of sex itself.

How can it possibly be more hurtful to touch someone’s breast than to punch them in the face?

How can it be a resignation-worthy offense for a senator to put his hand on a woman’s butt, but business-as-usual for a senator to go home for Christmas without renewing funding for CHIP (which provides access to basic medical care for 9 million low-income children)?

In part, because when someone commits an act of sexual assholery (and this is also true of sexual assault, harassment, and rape), they are weaponizing the shame that is already inside us.

And shame – especially for women – is so incredibly powerful, deep-seated, and all-encompassing, that we will do almost anything to keep it hidden.

Which is why it is a revolutionary act - and a stride towards ending sexual violence - to become shameless. 

5) The problem of what to do.

When we lose sight of the broader struggles taking place – in this case, the battles for women’s rights AND for sexual freedom and justice for sexual minorities – we risk making the wrong legal and institutional changes, and those changes bring with them a legacy that lasts for many generations (as in the case of sex offender registries).

Laws and policies that are evidence-based, rather than driven by panic and moralism, typically do a better job at improving people’s lives.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of evidence we might use to make laws about sexual behavior:

-Decriminalizing sex work may reduce sexual violence by 30% (and some STDs by 40%).

-“Sexual Assault Resistance Training” for female college students may reduce rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault by almost half.

-Proactive counselling and group therapy for pedophiles seems to prevent child sexual abuse more effectively than mandatory reporting and sex offender registration.

-Comprehensive sex education has been shown repeatedly to reduce unprotected sex, unintended pregnancies, and the spread of STDs.

- Because this is my favorite statistic and everyone should have it on hand: abortion rates are about the same worldwide, regardless of legality (but where abortion is illegal, more women die from botched abortions). The only thing that has been shown to reduce abortion rates is access to free contraception.

I don’t know yet how this will play out, and it’s possible that this sea change is, in fact, entirely healthy, and will result in a greater measure of justice for all involved. But I do know that panic and righteous indignation do not, historically, produce good legislation. So I can’t help but implore us to, first of all, stop panicking. 

Other than that, here are my humble suggestions:

Continue to report, litigate, and speak out about sexual assault and harassment. This will help to improve our legal and institutional processes for handling accusations, which should be our #1 priority if we hope to stop the Weinsteins of the world.

Continue to hire and elect women and sexual minorities into positions of institutional, legal and political power. This will continue to change sexual culture in the workplace and in society, and to dismantle the hierarchies that protect harassers and abusers.

Talk about sex and sexual abuse using precise, shame-free language; continue to normalize and celebrate healthy sex (in all of its myriad forms); and maintain a commitment to evidence and data especially when dealing with sex. This will give us a head start if we hope to outrun our history of using sex panic to inform bad policy.

When dealing with assholes and fuckwits: personal confrontation should be our first line of defense. Although it is scary, I believe this is our best chance at changing sexual culture for the better without furthering the cause of the sexual moralists. As a bonus, it will make us braver, stronger, and less ashamed.

Incinerate the bullshit inside us, and cultivate a sense of sexual and personal power. This will change our relationship to sex and shame, disempower abusers, and allow us to better protect ourselves and each other.

If you ask me: women are ferocious beasts. We have the power not just to say “yes” or “no”, but to uphold or dismantle the patriarchy, capitalism, and perhaps the world as we know it. 

If we think of ourselves not as helpless victims, but as the keepers of a considerable quantity of personal and political power, the question then becomes: what are we going to do with it?

*View this post on my blog*

This piece was inspired by the following works:

Sex Panic and the Punitive State by Roger Lancaster

The Politics of Sexual Harassment by Linda Gordon

When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic? by Masha Gessen  

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Dan Savage’s ongoing refusal to panic.



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Sex, Shame, and Your Ferocious Inner Pleasure Goddess

Since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in sex. I’ve been fascinated by it, titillated by it, amused and inspired by it. I was the kid who pretended her Barbies were prostitutes. I was the kid for whom “playing house” included the Mommy and the Daddy having sex (i.e. making out with my friends under the bed). I was the kid who found the stack of Playboys in my dad’s office, and distributed them.

And as long as I’ve been interested in sex, I’ve understood that my interest was something to be ashamed of. I was the kid who got blamed when J’s brother got suspended for bringing Playboys to school. And when M’s mom caught us making out under the bed - and subsequently activated the Rural Virginia Concerned Moms phone tree - I was the kid whose friends stopped answering my calls; who got disinvited from parties; who got shunned, publicly, in gymnastics class.

Apart from the occasional public shaming, though, I didn’t catch much of the usual anti-sex propaganda. I was raised in a sort of new age Group Therapy Commune, by an atheist and an agnostic/Christian mystic Jew. Nobody ever told me outright that sex was bad, or that I was bad for being interested in it. Of course, this is how shame prefers to operate: covertly, behind-the-scenes, under the cover of night. Nobody had to feed me shame; I breathed it in and absorbed it.

Sex is hip, desire is square.

As a teenager, very little changed. I wanted to try everything, to feel everything, to make out with everyone. I remember the first time my boyfriend went down on me - I was stoned, and the room was dimly lit, and it was like I was seeing the stars for the first time. Pleasure, sweet and bright and fluid, filled my whole body.

But I also remember being called a slut, and “nasty”, and being told repeatedly to “change into something appropriate”. I remember my boyfriend telling me he didn’t want to have sex with me because “sex ruins everything”. I remember a series of drunken hookups, all of them fun at the time, all of them followed by ugly words and dark, shame-infested high school dramas.

And I remember the slow realization that, despite the cultural imperative for every woman to be a recently-shaven, fresh-smelling “down there”, Kegel-squeezing sex bomb for 100% of her life (waking or sleeping), it was not actually cool to want sex, or to enjoy it.

I’m thirty now, and my little perverted heart remains unchanged. Sex is still the central fascination of my life. It is one of my primary sources for joy, inspiration, and connection. Sexual energy, for me, is the same stuff as creative energy; my songs come to me by way of my libido.

But the shame also hasn’t changed. When I’m feeling insecure, sex is the hammer I use to bludgeon myself with. Every hot-cheeked, sweaty-palmed moment comes rushing back, from that humiliating gymnastics class to the other day, when I tried and failed to initiate sex with my husband. “Why do you have to ruin everything?” I think. “Why are you so obsessed? “ “Why can’t you just be cool, like a regular gal?”

And then, in my funk of self-loathing, I’ll turn on the TV. And that is almost always a mistake. Because there, I find an alternate universe where every man is always turned on, and pursuing sex with a goofy, dogged-but-endearing determination. And every woman is the hot and flighty babe-next-door, for whom sex is a sort of side-hustle; the game she plays to win the stuff she really wants: romance, marriage, nail polish. If she does deign to have sex with him, it’s because he said something mushy; in which case she will grab him by the head and suck face like a CPR instructor, then remove exactly one item of clothing, and be primed for penetration in four seconds flat.

Or, maybe she is “troubled”, and thus uses sex to get other stuff she wants: attention, social status, the jealousy of other women. Rarely, if ever, does she want sex because sex is fun - because it inspires her, and fills her with bright and fluid pleasure.

How to Feed Your Pleasure Goddess

So, I am making my own media. I wrote ‘Vim and Vigor’ from the perspective of my righteous, unabashed Id – the Pleasure Goddess who lives deep inside me. She is full of desire and delight, she is ferocious and unashamed.

“I know I got a dirty mind
It’s in the gutter all the time
I don’t believe that it’s a crime
I consider it a service!”

In the video, we find her in her desire mansion, surrounded by men who turn her on, get her off, and feed her cake, according to her whims. She eats burgers by the pool. She has a pair of tap-dancing butlers, and a thousand pairs of pink shoes.

This creature lives in me, and I believe she lives in you, too. Maybe your Pleasure Goddess loves pie, or snowboarding, or women, or fennec foxes. Maybe she lives on a boat, or in a cave. But I’d wager she is down there now, making mischief and getting perma-laid. I’d wager she comes out to play sometimes, when you are truly in your party place.

And the great irony is this: the people who shame us, the so-called Good and Decent People? The gym teachers, and the pastors, and the moms who activate the phone tree? The Pleasure Goddess lives in them, too. She is in there somewhere, on her velvet throne, drinking Sake and watching Patrick Swayze (circa Dirty Dancing) shine her shoes.

But eventually, because they never let her out to play, she becomes a Goddess of Destruction, and starts to eat them up from the inside. So they lash out - they try to beat down their own desires by beating you up for yours. 

And before long, these people are not good and decent, tempered by their love of God and country. These people are bullies.

And bullies do not respond to reason, nor do they back down from intimidation. You can’t fight bullies with bullying. You can only fight them by being good to your own Pleasure Goddess: by living, delightedly and ferociously, right in front of their ugly, stupid faces.    

The ‘Vim & Vigor’ music video comes out next week, on my birthday: July 22nd. 


(Photo by Ben Berry of Mountain Craft.)


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Emotional Affairs Are Not a Real Problem

(Here Are Five Real Problems)

I’ve been coming across a lot of articles about emotional affairs, and they give me the heeby-jeebies. I find the “emotional affair” to be a vague and unhelpful concept, whose primary function seems to be introducing an extra helping of paranoia and guilt into our relationships.

Articles like this one (and this one) remind me of articles on fad diets: they start by convincing you that there’s a problem (“Are you having an emotional affair?”), and then they offer you a solution that is vague, unscientific, and likely to create more problems (“You need to work on your marriage!’”).

So, no. I don’t think emotional affairs are a real problem. If they seem like a problem, I’d wager that you probably have bigger problems – and probably not the problems you’d expect.

What’s It To Me

Let me start by offering some fun facts about my life. I’m married, and have been with my husband for nine years. We’ve gone through periods of monogamy and periods of non-monogamy (the explicit and consensual kind). I’ve had previous long-term relationships too, mostly monogamous.

I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated. Both were revealed, and both hurt like hell. I don’t take infidelity lightly, and I don’t recommend it.

That said, it should be mentioned that I am something of a libertine. I love sex, I fall in love easily and often, and I find both experiences to be major sources of inspiration. I am a professional writer (of songs as well as prose), and I make inspiration a pretty high priority. 

None of this is news to my husband.

Real Problem #1: You can’t ask Vogue whether you’re cheating, you have to ask your partner.

I know, nobody wants to hear this. It’s a lot more comfortable to read articles about relationships than it is to actually have one. But in case you do want to have an adult human relationship, you’ll need to rip the band-aid off and have an uncomfortable conversation. (Helpful tip: you’ll need to do this again later, so you might as well start practicing.)

You need to have this conversation with your partner because there is no universal definition of cheating. Nothing is cheating unless you and your partner agree that it’s cheating.

For example: if I have sex with a man who is not my husband, it’s not cheating, unless I keep it a secret from my husband. Those are the agreements we’ve made, so that’s what cheating is to us.

On the other hand, I’ve heard of relationships in which emailing with a person of the opposite sex was considered cheating. I wouldn’t agree to that definition of cheating (and don’t recommend it), but presumably they did, so that was cheating for them.

It’s important to make these agreements with your partner not only because you don’t want to accidentally betray their trust (or vice versa), but also because you need to be sure that you can consent to playing by each other’s rules. If you can’t come to a mutually satisfying agreement, you should break up.

For example: if I want to be sexually monogamous, but still want to be able to cuddle with my friends, I need to be explicit about that with my partner (ideally before it becomes an issue). Ditto if I have a definition of monogamy that excludes opposite-sex emails. 

And if I want “emotional monogamy”; I need to define those terms with my partner. What do I do if I find myself attracted to someone else? Can we meet in groups? Can we meet alone? Can we hug? Can we text? 

If you consider emotional affairs to be a form of infidelity, their parameters need to be defined and agreed upon by both partners (just like physical infidelity). If you can’t define it and ask for it explicitly, you shouldn’t expect it from your partner.

I realize that most people don’t carry around a bulleted list of their needs and desires. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation early and often. Talk about it when you first start dating, again when you feel jealous, and again when you find yourself attracted to someone other than your partner (yep, that was a when, not an if). Negotiate the terms, and when you get new information, re-negotiate them. That’s your best shot at avoiding betrayal.

But before you get too comfy, take note…

Real Problem #2: You can’t avoid betrayal.

Here’s the stone-cold fact: if you’re in a committed relationship, no matter how compatible and loving and communicative, you are going to hurt each other. You may be able to avoid sexual infidelity (if you’re one of the lucky 25-50%), but there are many kinds of betrayal, and you can’t avoid them all.

You’ll expect something that your partner can’t or won’t provide, you’ll disagree about something that feels like a fundamental value, you’ll leave the milk out (which your partner, apparently, interprets as proof of your black and callous heart). In the best case scenario, you’ll get along famously, until one of you dies, leaving the other cold and alone in the big, scary world.

This is one of those grown-up truths that rom coms don’t like to acknowledge: like condoms, and cellulite, betrayal is part of being an adult person. There’s no escaping it. We are all, at bottom, alone. So let’s all put on our big-kid pants, take a deep breath, and move on to the next problem.

Real Problem #3: You are separate, autonomous people.

Here’s my biggest beef of all with the “emotional affair” narrative. It seems to me that as two grown-ass people, with two distinct sets of feelings and desires, it’s very likely that you will both be happier if you allow each other to seek some intimacy, inspiration, and satisfaction outside of the relationship.

I can almost feel you rolling your eyes, saying, “sure, the nonmonogamist thinks we should be intimate with other people!”, and I’ll admit it, I am probably biased. But bear with me for one more minute.

I have a studio in our backyard. It’s about 8x10’, it’s painted pink, and I call it “The Watermelon”. It’s where I do all of my writing, most of my reading, and a large percentage of my thinking and feeling. If you asked me to name the #1 source of joy in my life – the thing that makes me feel connected and whole and at peace- I wouldn’t choose my husband. I also wouldn’t choose any of my lovers, or friends, or family members. I would choose my watermelon.

Is that a betrayal?

Clearly not. My watermelon makes me happy, and without it I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner. Also, my husband built it for me, so I’m pretty sure he’s OK with it (not just OK, actually, but delighted to support my happiness and well-being. More on that later).

But that’s an easy one, because The Watermelon is not a person.

So how about this: I have several close male friends who are musicians. We spend hours upon hours together talking about music in great detail, listening to records, and going to live shows. These sorts of activities aren’t generally much fun for my husband, and he doesn’t have the kind of musical background that makes them so much fun for me. So, I’m getting something from these male friends, to whom I may sometimes be attracted, that I don’t get from my husband.

Is that a betrayal?

For us, it’s not, because those are the terms we’ve agreed upon. I’m grateful that we’ve come to these terms, because, again, these friendships make me happy, and without them I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner.

But for many couples, I think this is just the sort of relationship that might constitute an “emotional affair”, to one or more of the couple-ees. If you’re part of a couple like that, and you’re down with it, I commend you.

But if you aren’t sure about it, the question is not “are you having an emotional affair?”. That is a stupid, beside-the-point, crazy-making question. Here are some better questions:

  • Are you sacrificing something that makes you really happy in order to be partnered?
  • Are you willing to keep making that sacrifice?
  • Is your partner asking you to make that sacrifice? If so, are they willing to reconsider?

Again, these are not things that Vogue can tell you. They are things that you’ll need to ask yourself, and your partner.

Real Problem #4: Love is not about control.

I think a lot of us could benefit from a more realistic and compassionate view of our partners, and of what we can (and should try to) provide for each other.

In my book, love means looking at a person, understanding who they are, and being willing to support them in becoming the fullest, happiest, and most inspired version of themselves, even if it hurts your feelings.

It’s up to you to decide how much hurt is too much, and whether to renegotiate, or end the partnership. There’s no magic formula. Being partnered means continually trying to balance your own needs with those of your partner. You can’t take too much, and you can’t give too much away.

For my husband and I, getting some of our needs met outside the relationship takes some of the pressure off, so that we can spend less time making demands of each other, and more time enjoying each other’s company.

But in case that sounds scary, let us return to that even scarier fact: you are going to hurt each other. The question is not whether you will be hurt, but how. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we agreed to hurt each other by admitting to our needs, even the scary ones, and negotiating a way to get them met? It’s that, or the usual methods of hurting each other: lying, controlling, martyring ourselves, and resenting each other, slowly and over many years, until we are both hollow shells of our former glory.

Imagine turning to your partner and saying some version of this: “Darling, I love you, and I know you love playing tennis. Because I hate tennis, I hereby grant you permission to have a wonderful time playing tennis with other people.”

For you, “tennis” might be talking about music; or learning to dance; or flirting; or reading historical fiction; or climbing mountains; or yes, having sex. And “hate” might be “don’t have time for”, or “prefer doubles”. And “with other people” might be “by yourself”, or “on the internet”.

Although “tennis” is an excellent euphemism for sex, I’m not advocating for any particular activity, tennis or otherwise. I’m advocating that we acknowledge who we are, and acknowledge who our partners are, and approach our relationships with clarity, candor, and compassion.

Real Problem #5: Your misery will not protect you (so you might as well cut it out)

As you may suspect, there is an inherent danger in these kinds of relationships. There is a danger that I’ll fall in love with one of my music-geekout-partners (not to mention one of my sex partners), and leave my husband for them. Or that I’ll be so happy out here in The Watermelon that I decide never to go back in the house. And, like in any relationship: no matter how careful we are about having scary conversations and making conscious agreements, we might still break them.

But the alternative, if you ask me, is much more dangerous. In so many partnerships, we see two people agreeing - implicitly - to live as a more-miserable versions of themselves, by abnegating needs and desires that they imagine might make their partner uncomfortable. 

And the worst part? The people who make that sacrifice are still not protected from betrayal. Plenty of miserable marriages also end in infidelity. So let’s stop building our relationships on mutual misery, under the false pretense that our misery will protect us.

I don’t know your story, but here’s mine: my husband and I did not become partners to control each other, or to protect each other, or ourselves. We became partners to be accomplices in each other’s pursuit of joy.

It takes courage to find out what that pursuit requires, and to confront it. And as far as I can tell, it takes a continual re-assessment, and a summoning of more courage, over and over, forever.

This kind of partnership is dangerous, and scary, and sometimes hurts. But the alternative is all of those things, too.

And a lot less fun.


This post is inspired by the work of Dan Savage, Esther Perel, and Chris Ryan. Special thanks to my awesome husband. Above photo by Bobby Bonsey.


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