Culture has odd ways of supplying spontaneous correctives, even when the vanguard of a cultural wave or ideology recognizes no bounds of taste or decency. Consider punk rock, a phenomenon that in 1976 erupted spontaneously but independently on both sides of the Atlantic as a back-answer to the self-indulgent tedium of prog-rock.
Something like this is true of the #MeToo movement. It is a quasi-voluntary response to the drift of things, from deep in the conscience of society. It is, fundamentally, a cultural adjustment, necessary and inevitable though not overtly willed. And, although for the moment quite sincerely explaining itself in other terms, it is the bust to end the 1960s boom in sexual permissiveness.
Sixties libertinism is now more problematic for our societies than even ELP’s noodlings were in ’76. Together with its cultural offshoots—industrial abortion, fatherlessness, the evisceration of marriage—it is, beneath the radar of conventional mainstream discourse, the cause of immense damage. And yet, to speak against it publicly is still to announce oneself a puritan. With such double-binds in play, cultures subject to the laws of evolution find roundabout ways of introducing necessary ameliorations.
Rarely has a generation of ideologues been less honest about the consequences of its agenda than the 1960s Peace & Love generation, which sold its prescriptions as the apogee of freedom and attributed all inadequacies and negative side-effects to a surfeit of false shame or overdeveloped user-conscience. Sexual licentiousness was presented as liberty, cost-free fun, the surrogate of the infinite, as though the human body were a complimentary resource, adrift from its situation in the humanity of the ensouled being. The wastages and casualties of this misunderstanding were swept up by psychotherapists and placed in the bin marked “indeterminate symptoms.”
The agenda had been inadequately measured against life’s iron law that the pursuit of selfish desires leads to chaos and grief, first for those misused in the pursuit of reductive desires—and ultimately for the misuser. Privately, individually, the children of the 1960s found that their pursuit of the chimera of freedom did not deliver as promised, but they had invested too much of themselves in the project to admit as much publicly. Thus was the revolution allowed to persist beyond logical limits and appear to render naturalistic a degree of license that was self-evidently unsustainable.
It ought to be clear that a society cannot function long like this, and sure enough the warning signs have been converging. Low fertility, imploding sperm-counts, and falling birth-rates have unleashed an unprecedented demographic crisis that, like other symptoms of 1960s licentiousness before it, is more or less ignored by policy-makers. In such a climate, several kinds of pushback were indicated. It seemed unlikely that conditions could be maintained whereby casual sex remained normative at the drop of a belt-buckle between people who barely knew each other. And hence, the present thesis continues, from some deep unconscious intelligence, emerged #MeToo.
One of the central contentions of Stephen Baskerville’s recent book The New Politics of Sex is that the sexual revolution re-directed leftism from the economic and racial realms to the social and sexual, attacking family, marriage, masculinity, and religion. The mechanisms that developed from “no-fault” divorce—secret hearings, the suspension of normal evidential requirements, and pseudo-principles like “the best interests of the child”—spawned sub-strata within Western law-enforcement and justice systems in which, in effect, law is bypassed. The list of areas into which this quasi-legality has spread includes domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, bullying, hate crimes, hate speech, and sundry others. In each of these areas, “guilt” is increasingly established on the basis of the subjective feelings of the accuser. An unprecedented disintegration of legal process has spread as though by typhoon through Western societies, tearing up long-honored concepts such as due-process, rules of evidence, and innocent-until-proven-guilty.
Of course, by one reading, #MeToo has taken the psychotic element of our sexual culture a stage farther—to the court of the lynch-mob—eliminating all processes and procedures, converting the accusation into the conviction without pause for evidence, and imposing life banishment, unemployability, and permanent disgrace upon the accused without even a call-over.
But that may be summer’s last sting. Sure enough, at first it seemed like the usual stuff about punishing men. But then it became noticeable that mostly the targets of #MeToo were not the stern patriarchs and moralists—but the compliant allies of feminism post-’60s, the luvvies and lackeys who had exploited women’s lib for their own advancement and satisfaction.
What these movements now appear to be demanding—though without saying as much—is the dismantling of 1960s libertinism, which may imply a return to the conditions of the post-war period. If so, #MeToo might be both a new kind of power-push and a deep-seated cry for honesty about the sexual revolution. There’s a sense, too, of feminism pleading “not guilty” and getting out of the game while it’s still ahead—and perhaps beginning the process of rolling up those freedoms it helped to unleash in the 1960s, with a view to carting them away before someone else takes the initiative.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.