A funny thing happened on the way to sexual liberation: we took a wrong turn back to a new, bizarre, secularized Puritanism. And the leading edge of this Puritanism—not by coincidence—is in the very same dens of louche materialism produced by the Sexual Revolution: the universities.
This turn backward is heralded by a new law passed in California defining what counts as “sexual assault” and can therefore result in expulsion from the California State University system. This has been dubbed the “yes means yes” law, meaning that for a male student to be accused of sexual assault (and it is almost always a man), the young lady does not need to have said “no” to him. Rather, all sexual contact is presumed to be an assault unless the woman gives “affirmative consent”—and such affirmations “must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity,” which presumably means that she has to sign off on every move her lover makes.
Now, part of the purpose of this law was to make it clear that a woman who is incapacitated—by alcohol, of course, since binge drinking is endemic on campus—cannot give consent. Or that a woman who initiates a sexual encounter retains the right to break it off if she changes her mind. But it’s not clear whether such a law would be necessary, given existing statutes and policies, nor does the law restrict itself to those provisions. Instead, it creates a very broad and vague presumption against all physical contact.
Set aside for a moment this statute’s capacity for injustice and abuse, which are covered well here, including the fact that one of the law’s own supporters admitted she has no idea what it means or how to avoid violating it.
What struck me first about this legalistic approach to sex is how unsexy it is. It reduces the act of love to a passionless procedure in which every move has to be negotiated, approved, and signed in triplicate. The article linked to above quotes the reaction of two students at Cal State Long Beach: “‘I feel like their hearts are in the right place, but the implementation is a little too excessive,’ said Henry Mu, a 24-year-old biology major. ‘Are there guidelines? Are we supposed to check every five minutes?’ The remark drew laughter from his friend and fellow 49er, Sue Tang. ‘If you were to do that, it would definitely kill the vibe,’ said Tang, 27.”
There is weird sense of unreality to this law, as if it were drafted by celibate monks. Sex is a physical and spontaneous act, driven by passion rather than legalism. And since I’m stating obvious but politically incorrect truths, I should also point out that a lot of women want a man who is self-confident and assertive. They would find the kind of man who timidly asks, “mother may I?” for every caress to be, well, a little less than masculine. But that’s the kind of man these new rules basically mandate. It all smacks of a prudish neo-Victorianism, in which sexual desire is viewed as suspect and dangerous—but with a modern feminist twist: male sexual desire is suspect and dangerous.
The Sexual Revolution has turned out to be a weird reverse image of Puritanism. The counterculture retained all the same basic premises—that sex is dirty, disgusting, a purely materialistic act with no psychological or spiritual meaning—except that they were for it. So they swept away the old-fashioned codes of chivalry, eliminated the role of the university as a chaperone in loco parentis, and created a campus culture of drunken one-night stands. Now they have discovered that this culture has a dangerous dark side, particularly for young women, and they’re scrambling to create a new, modernized system of prudery.
As one wag put it on Twitter:
Conservatives should be happy about California; they’re just one step away from requiring a marriage license to have sex.
— Frank J. Fleming (@IMAO_) September 29, 2014
I’m all for sexual liberation, by the way. (See what I said elsewhere about happiness being the purpose of life.) But instead of eliminating irrational or outdated taboos—the stigma against premarital sex, for example, made a lot more sense before modern birth control—the cultural left simply knocked flat all rules and standards. And now they’re trying to build a new set of taboos that make even less sense.
Nothing about that looks like “liberation.”