It’s been a bad month for perverts.
We started with the death of Hugh Hefner, an elderly pimp with an affinity for bathrobes who spent six decades sexually exploiting young, desperate women. A couple of weeks later we saw the professional death of Harvey Weinstein, a slightly younger pimp with an affinity for bathrobes who spent three decades sexually exploiting young, desperate women. But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the reaction to these two men has been drastically different.
For just one illustration, take a look at how The Daily Beast has reported on the physical and professional demise of Hefner and Weinstein, respectively. They’ve published many blaring headlines rightfully calling Weinstein a “predator” whose “reign of terror” left countless victims in its wake. As for Hefner, they lauded his “civil rights legacy” and credited him with “bringing sex out of the shadows.” The fact that he “brought sex out of the shadows” by objectifying thousands of women, while keeping a harem of teenage girls who performed sexual acts on his elderly, decrepit body because they thought it was the best way to advance their softcore porn careers, is apparently irrelevant.
We seem to have a very confused notion of sexual morality. Mostly because we have no notion of it. We’re making it up as we go along. One minute we’re calling a creepy 90-year-old man a hero because he coerced a bunch of girls to get naked for him, the next we’re crucifying a creepy 65-year-old man because he did something quite similar.
These kinds of glaring inconsistencies are par for the course in our culture. We celebrate the porn industry even as we decry the sex trafficking that fuels it. We mock Mike Pence for respecting boundaries even as we panic over the sexual harassment that Pence’s policy is meant to avoid. We encourage guys and girls in college to get together for booze-fueled coed parties even as we wring our hands over the supposed “rape epidemic” these parties cause. None of this makes any sense at all.
Now, I’ll be told that one important word separates and distinguishes the acceptable from the unacceptable in the examples listed above: consent. But how so? Even consent is defined haphazardly. Are we supposed to believe that Hefner’s concubines had orgies with him because they found his decaying husk irresistible? Are we supposed to believe that the playmates in the magazine had true feelings of joy and personal fulfillment in becoming masturbatory material for millions of lonely men? If so, then I suppose we have to believe that the young Hollywood starlets gave Weinstein naked massages because they were really into it. And if the 19-year-old blonde “consented” to prostituting herself for Hefner, then we must in that case believe that the actresses who slept with Weinstein for film roles did the same.
Of course, Weinstein is accused of assault and rape as well as coercion. We can all agree that it’s even worse to rape someone than to tell them they must sleep with you in order to advance in their field. Yet in the case of Weinstein, those two things are painted as evils not that far removed from one another. And I think that’s the right way of looking at it. But then why does Hefner get a pass for, at the very least, coercing women into becoming faceless vessels for the sexual satisfaction of men? Why do all pornographers get a pass on that front? And why do we say that we must respect a woman’s right to consent to becoming vomitously drunk around a bunch of frat boys, but we shouldn’t respect her right to consent to having sex with them afterward — a result that, by the way, is the main point of college parties? And why do we say that a man automatically rapes a drunk woman when he has sex with her, but a woman doesn’t automatically rape a drunk man when she has sex with him?
If “consent” is the one single sexual ethic left in our society, we may want to come up with a more consistent definition of it.
Or, alternatively, we could finally admit that consent is only one moral law that ought to govern our sex lives. It is not the only one.
It’s clear that Weinstein and Hefner and other pornographers and oversexed college students all represent basically the same point of view: sex is inherently selfish and transactional, and the other person’s body is an object to be exploited for your own pleasure. It’s not that any of these people are categorically opposed to consent — it’s just that they see consent as a sort of irrelevant technicality. If the whole point of sex is simply for me to get mine, then why does it matter if the other person says yes or no? If I can get her to say yes by dangling some promise or threat over her head, even better.
She’s just a body to me anyway. A mechanism for my sexual gratification. I’m having sex with her for pleasure, she with me for career advancement — there’s consent enough in that arrangement, isn’t there? Well, who cares if there isn’t? I’ve already started from the premise of not recognizing the human dignity of the other person and rejecting the sacredness of the sexual act. Whatever kind of sex I have from that starting point — consenting or not or somewhere in between — is going to be exploitative and objectifying by definition.
If “consent” is all that matters, then it’s hard to explain why it matters at all, or at least why it matters all that much. If sex is something intimate and holy, if it should always be loving and committed, if the human body has inherent dignity, then I know why it is repulsive and evil to have sex without consent, or with pseudo-consent or coerced consent or purchased consent. But if sex is just a game, just about having a bit of selfish fun and nothing more, and the human body just an empty shell to be enjoyed by the masses — if sex is “just sex,” as people like to say nowadays — then sex for professional favors is perfectly fine and outright raping someone isn’t much worse than punching them in the face. If Hefner is a hero, then Weinstein may not be a hero but he certainly can’t be as bad as he’s presented.
But Weinstein is that bad. He’s worse, really. He’s a wicked, despicable man. He treats his fellow human beings like objects to be used and thrown away. He treats them just as Hefner did, just as a lot of people do. Indeed, the scariest thing about Harvey Weinstein isn’t that he’s a unique monstrosity — it’s that, in our culture, he isn’t very unique at all.