Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and plenty of men who aren’t famous enough for me to recognize their names in the articles announcing their transgressions: Over the last month, as women and men have come forward to speak about sexual harassment and assault, their separate portraits of their abusers have added up to a pointillist portrait of sexual sin.
Viewed together, what picture do these men’s faults form? These are men who preyed on the vulnerable, and, when vulnerability wasn’t available, they engineered it. They waited for a woman to fall asleep, for a woman to be alone in a room with them. The one constant: cruel disregard of a woman’s consent and well-being. Ignoring “No” or leaving no space for it.
But doing right by women (and all sexual partners) requires more than simply reversing the logic of abusers. The standard of “affirmative consent” (the much-mocked gradualist approach of Antioch College), and renewed inquiries into how alcohol erases agency (and how a prospective partner can gauge inebriation), are not wrong, but they’re a long way from being fully right.
Sometimes, when the powerful break the rules and use their influence to avoid the consequences, a kind of sympathy rises up: If you could get away it, wouldn’t you want to? But these patterns of predation, especially in the cases of Weinstein and C. K., have a grotesqueness that discourages fantasy. These men exposed and pleasured themselves in front of horrified women. Restate what they did, and it sounds like the worst sex life you could aspire to: frantically trapping people in a room, people who are disgusted to be there, while you engage in the most arid form of sexual pleasure possible.
Lack of consent is only one of the problems with this picture. Solve that any way you please—imagine a woman paid to act the part of a victim—and still it’s impossible not to cry out, “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfies not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness” (Isaiah 55:2).
If C. K. and Weinstein are desperately, absurdly cramming their mouths with dirt and calling it food (and abusing others in order to get ahold of it), the careful consenters still do not seem to occupy the other end of the spectrum, “delighting themselves in richness.”
Consent, as the primary criterion for sexual ethics, thinks too small. The careful, consent-seeking lover seeks to use his own strength correctly and responsibly. If a lover of this type finds that his strength is a little too daunting, a little too hard to wield cautiously, the solution is to find ways to limit his own power.
So we flense away the intimacy that sex serves, promising not to “catch feelings.” We take drugs or interpose rubber walls to prevent sex from bearing its natural fruits. The resident ethicist at the New York Times even offers a guide to fully eunuchizing sex, advising a man who hopes to open his marriage without endangering it: “This may be an argument for the sin of Onan, where there’s only yourself to fall in love with.”
In each of these cases, there is no abuse of another’s power, as when predators trample on consent. But there is an abuse of the power of sex itself, as we try to make sex small enough for two people to use it separately, safely. Alternatively, we have the option to acknowledge that sex has power beyond our own strengths to master, and that it must be approached whole, and with humility.
Admitting that sex has a power greater than the lovers’ combined strengths means admitting risk—but part of that risk is the risk of eucatastrophe. Sex aimed at something greater than consent—aimed, as Elizabeth Bruenig puts it, at the “good [of] the person who has rendered consent”—is a more powerful drive, aiming at a better goal, than simple pleasure. This act, the only one that brings forth new life, is too powerful and beautiful to embrace in half-measures, which starve us of the richness intended for us when sex is sacramental.
We rebuke sexual predators by naming them, preventing them from finding future victims, and praying for their repentance and for healing for them and their victims. We chasten and instruct them by approaching sex with not only responsibility, but reverence.