This #MeToo paranoia isn't all baseless. While some worries should rate only an eye roll, others highlight the precariously gray continuum from annoyance to harassment to assault.
But it's also true that these questions hold something in common. They gesture toward America's prevailing and problematic sexual ethic — one that is in no small part responsible for getting us into this sexual misconduct mess in the first place.
At the bottom of all this confusion sits a fundamental misframing: that there's some baseline amount of sex that we should be getting or at least should be allowed to pursue. Following from that is the assumption that the ability to pursue and satisfy our sexual desires — whether by hitting on that co-worker even if we're at a professional lunch, or by pursuing a sexual encounter even when reciprocity is unclear — is paramount. At best, our sexual freedom should be circumscribed only by the boundary of consent. Any other obstacle is not to be borne.
A recent article by Masha Gessen in the New Yorker illustrates just how pear-shaped our understanding has gone. Cautioning against a "sex panic" after the watershed of abuse revelations, it reported in solemn yet horrified tones: "The policing of sex seems to assume that it's better to have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience."
Er . . . Is it . . . not? Is this no longer an assumption we can agree upon? If so, it's time to acknowledge that there might be something wrong with how we're thinking about sex.
It's not that sex in and of itself is the problem. But the idea that pursuing one's sexual imperatives should take precedence over workplace rules, lines of power or even just appropriate social behavior is what allows predators to justify sexual harassment and assault. And it encourages the not-predators to value their desires above those of others.
A sex-above-all ethic, combined with a power structure that protects and enables men (alas, it's almost always men) is what allows the Charlie Roses of the world to think that it's fine to grope and proposition their subordinates: After all, Rose thought he was pursuing "shared feelings." It's what makes comedian Louis C.K. think that as long as he "asked first" and women didn't say no, it was acceptable to make them watch him masturbate.
So what to do?
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.
But in the meantime, now that the excesses of our current sexual ethic are coming up against their consequences, some uncomfortable readjustment will need to occur. Perhaps the skittish colleague will have to build a rapport with his co-worker before engaging in romantic pursuit, and then do so after hours. Maybe the nervous cad will have to give up a few borderline sexual encounters to make sure he's on the right side of the line.
Adjusting to this new understanding may well mean less sex for some, in the short term, and more anxiety for several. Too bad. If we value access to sex over other people's consent or comfort or basic ability to exist unmolested in their workplace, then we as a society are in the wrong. And in the long term, as norms resettle, it will mean a healthier sexual ethic — and a better society — for us all.
Because here's the thing. We won't die of having less sex (indeed, no one ever has). Somehow, people will still find ways to meet, mate and propagate the species. If you are a decent person, the prospect of a clearer, more boundaried sexual ethic should not frighten you. If not, have you considered that you might be part of the problem?
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