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A Culture That’s Sick About Sex Will Never Be Able to Stop Harassment and Abuse

Among the many stories of sexual boundary-crossing, assault, abuse and harassment in recent weeks, there’s been a difficult cultural revelation, too: No “appropriate” response is available to us. Not for the media. Nor for the court of public opinion. Not for the lawyers, the judges and the mediators. Not for the researchers of “toxic masculinity.” Not for the heart-gathering tweeters. Not even for the general public.

The reason there’s no appropriate response isn’t because we should doubt the victims, or because men are more innocent than we think. Instead, it’s because the one thing we know for certain — and in the light of the many, many disclosures surfacing in recent weeks, we can say it with absolute certainty — is also what makes it so horrible: It’s normal.

But “normal” does not mean, and never has meant, “healthy.”

Our culture is a culture sick with harassment. It’s sick with assault, violated boundaries, repression of all kinds and wounds that cannot heal. I write “sick,” because this isn’t just about what happened with Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Roy Moore or the men on the “Shitty Media Men” list. Their famous names overshadow the truth that all women have at some point experienced a violation of a boundary, and that men — all men — have pushed too far at some point in their lives. If every woman who had a boundary violated called out every man who had done so, there would be few men left un-accused, and few women left unwounded.

As the work to support each survivor is underway, we’re also figuring out which aspects of our culture we desperately need to address. We’re noticing which ones we’ve decided to be silent about and which ones we’ve been vocal about, but gotten wrong. One question that remains consistently unanswered: how can we respond to a sex-related problem in our culture when we have no idea what healthy sexuality is? To put it in another and perhaps more troubling way: What can we do when we don’t even have a language to talk about a sexually healthy culture?

Much was made of the fact that Weinstein attended rehab for sex addiction, and that he left after a week (although he continues to pursue therapy). This was a rich man’s dodge, people pointed out: Weinstein isn’t an addict, but a predator. It’s an interesting switch, trading the word for one compulsive behavior (addict) for another (predator). “Predator” is part of the common language around men who assault women, but it’s imbued with the idea that it’s not their fault, since the word is derived from animals that must kill to eat. When viewed in this way, neither addicts nor predators can really be said to have any agency. (And after Ronan Farrow’s report on Weinstein hiring spies to track his victims, it’s even clearer that he does have agency.)

But whatever Weinstein is, he’s most certainly not a sex addict, because sex addiction doesn’t exist. It’s not recognized as a real diagnosis in the DSM since it’s highly subjective and reported in higher instances in areas where people feel religion-induced sex shame. And the addiction model hasn’t been shown to help those with sex-related compulsions. “Sex addiction” is really just a term used by a public informed by opportunistic therapists who have no training in human sexuality or sexology.

Debating how long Weinstein should stay in therapy for sex addiction, or whether or not he’s a “real” addict shows us how, even when we’re trying to approach a solution to harassment and assault, we’re reinforcing a mass cultural misconception that sex is something one can be addicted to, which only makes matters worse.

Because so many of the allegations are allegations of sexual harassment (that is, sex-related harassment in a professional setting, though the term is being thrown around loosely), some people have declared that sex isn’t their job. This is meant to signal the depth of the violation. “I felt like a prostitute, an utter disappointment to myself, my parents, my friends,” said one of Toback’s victims. The violation, in terms set by our culture, includes feeling like a sex worker.

Actress Brit Marling, who walked away from Weinstein as he began to harass her, echoed this sentiment, calling Hollywood a place of “soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women.” Then she went on to blame art. “If you don’t want to be a part of a culture in which sexual abuse and harassment are rampant, don’t buy a ticket to a film that promotes it… It’s time to imagine films that don’t use exploitation of female bodies or violence against female bodies as their selling points.” It’s a striking posture, considering that some of Marling’s best-known projects feature abducted and abused women.

“Jerk off without porn for a while,” suggested writer Helen Rosner in a popular Twitter thread and subsequent Medium article about how men should respond to the Weinstein scandal, right after a tweet that suggested, “Deprogram your beliefs that your desire matters.” (Later she amended it to say, “Pay for your porn.”)

The point here isn’t to attack the victims of harassment — or the messages of support for them. This needs to be stated explicitly because they’re being subjected to vitriolic, insane responses from men telling them to get over it, threatening them further or using it as a chance to whip out their own obscene ethics.

Whether we’ve been victimized ourselves or are merely supporting victims, it’s important to realize that we’re being subjected to the same daily onslaught of anti-sex, anti-pleasure, slut-shaming, body-controlling messages as everyone else, including the perpetrators.

When a “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet, circulating among women, was leaked to the public, it was found to contain men’s names and their corresponding alleged violations, ranging from bad behavior to rape. The complaints against the men were made anonymously and without context. Some writers questioned the usefulness of this list, saying it lumped perpetrators in with each other and damaged women’s ability to report credibly.

Others defended it. One writer said of the list: “Women don’t need to be told that lists like the media one are “lumping in” the merely inappropriate with the criminal. Anyone who encounters it knows that ‘inappropriate AF’ is not the same thing as ‘violent.’”

But this is precisely the thing that so many of us don’t know.

As a survivor of violent and repeated assault, I can tell you that the aftermath for me was, “That was my fault.” I didn’t know where the lines were between someone just being an asshole to me and someone abusing me. To be honest, I still don’t always know. I only know the shame I feel in not knowing. And unfortunately, many of the women I know who have been assaulted feel that same way, too.

The lines are also blurry for some of the perpetrators. “Men should be wracking their brains about ways they’ve treated women in the past,” Erin Gloria Ryan wrote at The Daily Beast, “and do everything they can to avoid abusive or harassing behavior in the future… I hope they keep thinking. I hope they keep talking.” Of course, many offenders do know where the line is, and that’s why they seek to cross it. But the fact that reviewing past behavior is, indeed, wracking for so many men, is a testament to the fact that they don’t know where the line is. That doesn’t mean they should be readily and happily forgiven — this isn’t a “boys will be boys” argument — it simply means we need to help them better understand these boundaries.

Sex is the elusive center of the problem. The writer defending this spreadsheet was correct in saying women don’t “need to be told.” But that’s because there is a part of this that nobody can tell anyone else. There’s a part of this that is for each of us to understand on our own.

When we respond to crises related to sex, we tend to appeal to the state to tell us what’s wrong, what’s permissible and who should be punished. We long for the power of authority. Someone who can sort it out for us. The state can sometimes handle questions of power and violence, because power and violence are its substance. It’s excellent at demanding its own arbitrary rules be followed. If you’ve sped through a stop sign, for example, you’ve broken the law.

But what about sex, which is about subjectivity and individuality? The state isn’t so good with that. In fact, it’s notoriously inept and inadequate. It tries its best to impose a lawfulness on all sorts of sexual matters, but all of these attempts are bound to the sexual biases and ignorance of police, judges, juries, and legislators. Add in the state’s other prejudices against people of color, women, the LGBT community and more, and these efforts can’t hope to work. There’s a part of this that the authorities can’t explain to us or help us with. So when we turn to the state for help with sexual offenses, we end up reinforcing its power, but not getting much in return.

It’s up to us to find our own way forward. We have to create a better language, one that accurately captures the complexity of the issue. Each sexual encounter is different — meaning each sexual violation will be different, too. What may feel like a violation to one person may not to another who experiences what appears to be the exact same thing. I know, and you may know, too, women who have had experiences that would make us cringe yet who seem not to be bothered by them. And vice versa: Women whose experiences seem like “no big deal” to us, but who have been deeply shaken by them. It’s not up to us to decide what others have experienced. It’s our responsibility to co-create a language that engages with such a variety of experiences.

The paucity of language doesn’t help. We tend to talk in polarities — absolute violation or totally immersive sexual connection — rather than much more typical sexual experiences that are neither. So the discussion is still in its early stages and seeking the proper words. It is, without a doubt, a messy learning. As Kate McDonough put it in her essay about the “Shitty Media Men” list: “This was always going to hurt.”

When it comes to sexual offenses, our language should be one that encourages complexity, not simplicity. It should honor distinction without making enemies of distinct terms or letting anyone off the hook. Differences should be easier to spot: Sexual harassment is different from someone trying to convince you to have sex at a bar; rape is different from statutory rape; and pedophiles are different from child molesters. All of which makes it easier to support victims, encourage healing and deal with perpetrators.

When it comes to our understanding of our sexual selves, we should investigate our own desires first — including our boundaries and why they’re there. We should also allow ourselves to experiment with them. No one has a right to cross our boundaries without our permission. But if we don’t proactively investigate our own boundaries — through our fantasies, conversations, in therapy and spiritual practice, in our sexual encounters and masturbation — we will live with lines that we don’t even know about, instilled by a culture that dictates what we’re “supposed” to think. The less we understand our boundaries, the less able we’re to communicate them, and the more likely they are to be violated.

No one can do this work for us. In fact, if someone does tell you what your boundaries are, that in and of itself can be a violation. Each one of us will have to come up with our own map. This all requires lots and lots of talking with ourselves and our own sexual psyches as much as with others. If we don’t do this work, we’ll lose much of the potential of this moment; the potential not just to apprehend and deal with perpetrators, but also to create a healthier sexual culture.

Sexual harassment and assault are crimes marked by the silence and the silencing of their victims. Part of that silence is created by sexual repression shared and enforced by all of us. The worst thing we can do right now is impede the language we’re forming by allowing everything to blend together. That’s what led us here in the first place.