The neoliberal sexuality of the left
A former colleague of mine at a small, leftist publication—she now works for a larger one—shared a few sentences on the internet a few days ago that keep aching in me. She wrote that every day lately she has to get up in the morning and report on the latest case of sexual abuse and harassment, but she can barely do it. She keeps feeling anger as she tries to work—anger at the sexual abuse and harassment from men on the left she and others have experienced.
This epidemic has been more visible than usual, thanks (and no thanks) to Harvey Weinstein. Sexual misconduct is hardly unique to the left-leaning—it is Bill O’Reilly and Donald J. Trump and Marcial Maciel as well—but progressives who claim to have achieved some kind of sexual liberation are overdue for some serious introspection. I have been thinking back to behavior I have seen for years as a fellow traveler on the radical ends of the left—behavior that has saddened me and that I have tended to tolerate or let non-male voices bear the burden of calling out.
Progressives who claim to have achieved some kind of sexual liberation are overdue for some serious introspection.
If alien observers were to conduct an analysis of the contemporary left’s sexual politics, I suspect they would find close affinities with a doctrine the left is supposed to be organizing itself against: neoliberalism. This is the ideology by which individual choice and discrete transactions should govern all. Everything is a potential commodity. Shared agreements, shared culture, shared solidarity are regarded as threats to freedom, especially in economic life. Everyone’s job is to get what they can get away with. Neoliberalism neutralizes values and communities by rendering them as merely private concerns. “There is no such thing as society,” as Margaret Thatcher notoriously put it. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
It can feel on the left nowadays that there is no such thing as families, either.
This leftist neoliberalism is less apparent at the level of language, where there are lots of shared norms about the appropriate ways to speak about gender and sex; these rules represent an admirable, though sometimes off-putting, effort to resist exclusion of any kind. But I am more concerned about the language governing acts.
Consent, like any neoliberal choice, is a slippery thing.
A term the alien observers would hear a lot is “consent.” This is the ritual byword that justifies and enables. In lieu of shared judgments about what is or is not proper sexuality, participants must only consent to whatever particular thing they are doing, like a kind of verbal contract. Interestingly, this is almost the same defense that union-busting corporations use to justify paying terrible wages or that banks use to avoid accountability for ruining customers’ lives. It was all in the contractual fine print. Therefore, it is free consent.
Consent, like any neoliberal choice, is a slippery thing. Leftists know better than most that workers do not take lousy jobs because they prefer them to better ones. They do it because they have no real choice.
In the new magazine Logic, an essay by my fellow Occupy Wall Street activist-reporter Natasha Lennard tells of how, during that time of protest, radical sexual consent could stretch and stretch until it became, well, old-fashioned betrayal. Reading her memories made me grateful that, during that same time, I was busy falling in boring old monogamous love.
Leftist men, especially, need to get more leftist about sex—and maybe more conservative, too.
Of course, consent is a basic and necessary thing. But it is not nearly enough. Leftist men, especially, need to get more leftist about sex—and maybe more conservative, too. For instance, commitment and solidarity are expectations for political organizing, but they are rarely to be found in leftist talk of sexuality. This makes it harder to choose fidelity over impulse. Impressive love and commitment happen frequently on the left, as anywhere, but it is rarely celebrated or encouraged, for fear that doing so might come across as backward or even oppressive. But the solidarity of commitment is a good thing. It is something we need. An “I do” can allow space for a depth of choice so much fuller than a last-minute “yes.”
Any commitment requires self-sacrifice. Leftists expect self-control and sacrifice in political organizing, but how will anyone learn to do it if they are not practicing it in their everyday relationships? The left celebrates a protester who endures a night in jail, but someone who persists in keeping a troubled marriage intact can be regarded as deluded and repressed—to say nothing of someone who chooses to be celibate, before marriage or for life.
An “I do” can allow space for a depth of choice so much fuller than a last-minute “yes.”
We are human, and in some circumstances, a bit of repression is for the best. Let us repress. When we choose it, honor it.
If sexuality were more than isolated transactions, I think people on the left would be better positioned to act in genuine solidarity with queer, gay, trans and other varieties of experience. If our sexuality were more than the sum of individual appetites, we might be better at hearing the revelations that our diversity has to offer. The left might also be able to enter a more constructive debate about abortion, one that does not depend on rendering it as yet another morally neutral transaction.
Those are tricky matters to wade into, and men have more to learn than to say on them. But we can at least start with the easy things—easy because they are obvious, not because they are not difficult.
For instance: Help create a culture that celebrates commitment in relationships—not just in politics—and that equips us for self-restraint. Talk about these things, and appreciate them when they happen. Temptations to be abusive toward women will arise among us men; do not pretend they will not. We need each other’s support to resist those forces and to overcome them.
If nothing else, this is simple solidarity with those we work with and love. It is a start.