“MeToo” and the Liberation of Sex

Only an emancipatory offensive against moralism, sexual abuse, and liberal freethinkers’ abuse of the abuse for their own self-aggrandizement can cut through the false contradictions and discursive confusions of the MeToo debate.

“The professional seducer who deliberately sets out to accomplish it, is an abominable creature, inevitably the enemy of the object on which he has designs. He is a true criminal who, if he has the necessary qualities to seduce, renders himself unworthy of them by abusing them to make a woman wretched.”

— Giacomo Casanova

In passing, #MeToo has torn the liberal mask from the face of a profoundly patriarchal system. The alarming inability to distinguish sexual trespass from pleasurable seduction doesn’t stem solely from the age-old, never to be resolved ambivalence between desire, allure, and coyness but from a sexuality coded by the masculine which prevents both male and female from getting what they really want.

At any rate, how have we gotten to a point where the female rejection of the male entitlement to women as a permanent erogenous zone is associated with puritanism and giving up onsexual liberty? And why do women—who allegedly ceased long ago to be objects in the enlightened West—feel the need to permanently carry pepper spray and stop signs? How come they can be forced into this constant, energy-sapping reactive mode?

Let’s disentangle the knot through methodical simplification. Women defend themselves against being groped by outing the gropers. Patriarchy’s hot sweat of titillation turns cold, yet a segment of spirited liberals bellyaches that the denunciation of the gropers is killing sensuality and sexuality and is   a harbinger of a new puritanism. Just a moment, counter the quick-witted among women, you surely mean that gropers and their groping kill sensuality and sexuality, that unwanted sexual advances are to blame… No, no, you heard right, speaketh Catherine Deneuve, lobbyist for gallants of Romanic extraction: “We libertines defend the right of men to sexually harass us.”

The bizarre logic of these conclusions draws a rather pathetic picture of the state of liberated sexuality. If penalizing unwanted sexual advances as demonstrations of power turns out to be a turn-off, then we are admitting what subtler critics of both sexes have known all along: that, behind the neoliberal narrative of the self-determined and healthy sex-life, the old patriarchal power imbalances are lurking unmolested. Sex as freedom, then, is a hologram whose lustful moaning we are to experience as our own while the system is having its way with us.

The mistrust that #MeToo has encountered in liberal circles was only ostensibly directed at a newly emerging puritanism; the campaign really has no causal relationship whatsoever with puritanism. It aired the bed linens of Western society rather inadvertently and, lo and behold, caught patriarchy and neoliberalism in the vanilla sex act thereunder. It supplied proof that patriarchy is not a demon out of the Orient who uses asylum seekers as vector to illegally enter the Occident in order to defile white female flesh, nor a long-overcome bugbear of hysterical feminists, but a hale and hearty incubus at whose disposal capitalism—even though allegedly liberal—places its penthouse suites.

#MeToo also taught us that patriarchal ecumenism isn’t just extending from Rio to Jakarta but begins in Los Angeles and doesn’t fail to encompass Frankfurt and Stockholm. The extent of the liberal self-deception is best illustrated by the case of the Viennese Green Party politician Peter Pilz, who was whipping up sentiment against gropers from the Lands of the Rising Sun before the nimbleness of his own Occidental fingers became publicly known.

But why drag neoliberalism into this, isn’t that a rather big stretch of the imagination? By no means. The omnipresence of sexualized male power dealt a blow to the myth of the powerful, self-optimized woman who, as we know, is liberated but not a women’s libber and has earned the boys’ respect all by herself, in contrast to the evolutionary weak touch-me-not complainer who believes in bettering her lot through collective action.

#MeToo revealed the illusion of the sexes looking eye to eye to be a lie and exposed a truth that had been repressed at pains: that for so many successful women the path to the top was plastered with so many humiliations. (So much for this whole nonsense about the autonomous market agent.)

That many of these women occasionally experienced more resentment by other women than by men in this rat race is neither proof of the accomplished integration of women into the workworld nor of mankind’s immutable wolfish nature under conditions of competition. It merely shows that patriarchy is a system of several graduated steps of special arrangements in which those women let into power still behold themselves and each other in the mirror of an imaginary male gaze, and that they have carried the structural cruelty of the subaltern up with them into some of the new C-suites specially furnished for them.

Patriarchy is, as we all know, not simply the straightforward dominion of men over women. On many levels, patriarchal power reproduces itself with the aid of women, even recruits motivated females as Praetorian guards, e.g. privileged men whisperers like Deneuve or Millet, or tough activist Muslimahs who, in their spirited defense of a deeply patriarchal religion of sixth century nomads, have, as women of color, as postcolonial subjects, and as discriminated migrants, managed to accrue a veritable jackpot of underprivilege and thus acquire discursive sacrosanctity. Though this is more of a Western phenomenon, in Muslim countries #MeToo was gladly adopted as a metacultural tool for expressing anxiety and rage.

In the end, #MeToo rehabilitated a much maligned and marginalized emancipatory movement: feminism. 

Cocktail Hedonists

How come #MeToo was even accused of being anti-sex? A colossal discoursivemix-up was responsible.

It all began with a general but wholesome discomfiture among men who feared they might for minor transgressions make some shitlist or be sanctioned as abusive merely for trying to flirt. This collective anxiety spoke volumes to what extent men are not just perpetrators but themselves victims of the patriarchal system since they seem to have internalized a power imbalance which pushes them to be sexist against their own inclination. To mistrust women therefore, can be a camouflaged distrust of oneself.

Intellectually, #MeToo was taken in tow by an armada of freethinking cultural critics. The frigate “Adults For Adults” is the mightiest battleship in this fleet, with the cultural theoretician Robert Pfaller at her helm, on her muster roll feature Slavoj Žižek and Yanis Varoufakis. Several countries have their own franchises of this networked discourse. It is foremost attracting emancipated women who are not bra burners. The points against the new puritanism, the nanny state, and identity politics are all valid except in two respects: For one, the crew is an impostor crew, manning vessels they captured from others and showing off as theirs spoils acquired by discourse pirates far more distinguished than they. And their findings are being fired at the wrong targets.

The morally ambivalent cocktail hedonism—let’s call it that to save ourselves further polemics—can afford its cocksureness in prurience only by othering: It has to construct sexual correctness as being joyless. To that end, it can draw on a treasure trove of anecdotes so frequently added to by political correctness regimes at US university campuses where middle class students, via self-victimization, seem to be thoroughly consumed with taking action against all forms of infractions of approved correctness. Not one commentator hasn’t mocked the system of trigger warnings, in which lecturers are required to warn students of potentially incorrect content that might offend certain (essentialized) social groups. The irony therein only marginally dwarfs the simple-mindedness of the PC-police and its foremost function is to also discredit the sensible aspects of PC by focusing on its parodic excesses.

The cocktail-hedonists’ dubious merit lies in having poured the criticism of superstructure adjustments, like the on occasion brilliant critique of left-liberal identity politics and of the substitution of political economy by rules of interpersonal engagement, into ice trays. The intellectual fruits of others, frozen to opinion cubes they then serve at their parties for guests who—just like they themselves—have been conspicuously absent for the last decades at emancipatory struggles or on the battleground of critical thinking.

As always, they rail against the left. With these new argumentative hors d’oeuvres, they can for once do this out of left corner and accuse the left of having nothing better to do than perform grammatical gender-reassignment surgery rather than deconstruct capitalism or insufferable oafs like themselves. He who has fought left moralism for decades from a left perspective—and now has to witness every neoliberal secondhand intellectual (and their uncle) take his insights and reconfect them for the op-ed market, thinking themselves superior to political correctness—would love nothing better than to team up with the targets of this criticism against those intellectual hangers-on.

In newspapers and on blogs, the professional abandonment of thinking can now easily be pinpointed to wherever PC politics at U.S. university campuses is causally hot-wired with #MeToo.

Puritanism and Regimentation.

There is a true core to the thoughtless equation of #MeToo and anti-sex sentiments. Some correctness block wardens certainly wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to push their pathetic need for orderliness and control of desire onto the organized resistance to sexual violence.

For the moralist, the revulsion against the morally objectionable is not of primary importance. He needs that, after all, for his own reassurance as the firefighter needs the one-alarm fire. The true enemy is the morally ambiguous, which is to be defeated for good. Just as the positivist rationalist neurotic classifies every instance of ambiguity as a systemic error, as the control freak perceives asymmetries and odd angles as existential threats, so does the puritan strike to subject imponderabilities, grey areas, and vaguenesses to strict rules. He wants to raise a personal shortcoming to the norm.

The difference between #MeToo and puritanism is as simple as it is complex. #MeToo wants to purge from sexuality societal power, puritanism wants to cleanse sexuality of sex.

A fulfilled sexuality means ego-dissolution, self-abandonment, letting oneself fall. The labile, compulsively narcissistic personality type of our time, on the other hand, can’t help putting up boundary lines which wire the disparate parts of his ego together. He works constantly to not let go and thus totally precludes a satisfying sexuality. This moving fortress is a neoliberal substitute for a personality. Asexuality carrying pretty much the most unattractive of all stigmas in our wellness and self-improvement dictatorship, this fragile ego is wallpapering his cell with the usual merchantable emblems of self-pornographization.

The strict telling apart of sexual puritanism from a struggle against power is complicated by circumstances in which people were forced to experience sex as abuse, objectification, and denigration. The subjective positioning as victim is only too objective then. And if such women (but also men) then demand a somewhat tame sexual correctness and seek to impose hyper-respectful cuddle sex on the world as the only standard guaranteeing mutual pleasure, the reason lies in their difficulty in, due to personal experience, associating animalistic sex with anything but male primitivism.

The diabolical quality of political correctness lies, after all, in the fact that the rightful struggle against discrimination and violence in its concrete or systemic form attracts puritanically inclined personalities like humidity does mold.

In their narcissism, the sexual abuser and the puritan actually complement each other. Both feel threatened by sexuality and its identity dissolving potential. Gender inequality is a means for the narcissist male to shore up his tottering ego and compensate his profoundly existential impotence through sexist power and the denigration of women. The prudish may experience any sexual act as threatening and as a violation of boundaries, which is why they at times try to push their anti-sex stance to become hegemonic within emancipatory movements like feminism.

To ward off their own ego-dissolution, they seek to turn this whole forbidding and ungrasped sexuality which surrounds them all over into a minefield of ordinances and commandments. Since spontaneity and creative power have gone out of them, they also want to wring them out of the sexus, down to the last drop of precum. The prudish profit from patriarchal power because it shores up their phantasm of sexuality being fundamentally about power from which they want to protect themselves and everybody else through relentless self-victimization. As long as they can enlist enough sisters-in-arms who code all that is bawdy, animal, and orgiastic as masculine primitivism, it won’t be noticed that they would also decry those qualities were complete gender equality and gender pluralism accomplished.

The open desire to only approve a holding-hands, emotionally invested soft-focus sexuality is governed by the secret desire to suffocate sexuality altogether. Every discourse that helps them rationalize their aversion to the immediately carnal is welcome, be it a refined arrogance towards disinhibition, be it a vulgar-feminism which posits the male as the perpetual rapist merely by virtue of his physical attributes, the female as constant victim who doesn’t want to and if she does, simply has internalized patriarchal appetites.

And even more so than the harassers, the prudish must loathe the overwhelming majority of the more current feminists who demand an extremely hedonist, “sex-positive” life. Those, after all, destroy the myth that the female who wants it is always the naive bimbo and the willing tool of male lechery.

In short, puritans, regimentationists, and PC-flying squads are not about punishing misconduct but want to drain all aspects of life which defy their orderliness and remain beyond their moral certitude. Ambitions like these most often spring from a deeply bourgeois consciousness, steeped in identity politics, that believes it can cure society’s ills with rules of societal etiquette. Starry-eyed idealists of a truly emancipatory persuasion won’t just fight for respect and recognition. They will, above all, combat institutional and material violence and foster in sexuality and all other spheres of life joy that is nurtured from the dissolution, not the erection of boundaries, which grows out of a passion to surrender oneself and not out of self-restriction.

Utopian Prognoses

Recap: Puritans and intercourse traffic cops—frequently disguised as the perpetually aggrieved anti-grievance inquisition—exploit emancipatory initiatives like #MeToo to impose their own order on them. In turn, the cocktail-hedonists exploit this puritanism to use it as a foil for showing off their rad discourse acrobatics and to help restore patriarchal hetero standards with their intellectual libertinage.

Patriarchy, which didn’t mind being paraded about as a tame and ancient turtle by a neoliberalism with a women’s rights face-lift, now sees its deep state exposed and has no other recourse than to run sniveling to Catherine Deneuve for help.

Nothing less than a war on three fronts will do:

1. To keep the pressure on patriarchy till it can’t get it up any longer.

2. To expel the puritans and intercourse cops from the realm of desire; with the destruction of patriarchal power their pretext for the erection of a thousand year Reich of erotic decency will simply disappear.

3. To drive the cocktail-hedonists from their supposedly liberated boudoirs with true orgies of the mind and the body. Which shouldn’t be hard, since as synanthropes of puritanism they couldn’t exist without it and will follow the puritans thither whatever new world they are setting out.

The world will breathe a sigh of relief once there are no more trigger warnings at US universities and once sanctimonious columnist windbags cease to preach about the Decline of the West due to trigger warnings.

In a Utopia worthy of a Herbert Marcuse, respectful tenderness won’t look down on gorilla sex which, in turn, won’t disparage games of submission….

All the same, in the realm of sexual freedom, pride of place shall be reserved for the asexual; his/her freedom from want is a sign of estimable individuality and his unease true revolt against false sexualization. Romantic lovers, meanwhile, shall be admired as apostles of non-reified life. Still, their sex won’t count for more than that of lechers, one-night standers, those fucking happily without being in love, the cuddling or the cunnilinguing.

Objecting that with sexuality, desire, and seduction the dialectics of power and powerlessness will always manifest, confounds a deeply-rooted societal power imbalance with an erotic game that can’t and shan’t make do without manipulation and submission. A game, though, where the actors negotiate the rules among themselves. Gropers and puritans alike despise the game. Dallying means spontaneity, experience, and curiosity. The groper invokes the rigid privileges of his gender, the puritan craves rigid orderliness above all.

#MeToo harbors the potential not only to rehabilitate the art of seduction but to push it to new heights. In an evolutionary step forward, seducer and seduced would deepen their empathy, allowing them to understand what is wanted and what not, sense when no means no or when it is meant as a merely performative obstacle in need of overcoming. Flirts could become more imaginative, strategies of seduction more ambitious.

The PC demand for proscribing any manipulativeness whatsoever is infinitely naive, is proof of an almost quaint ignorance about the nature of human relations, and deludes itself about the innumerable unconscious manipulative modes in all everyday behavior.

The play of seduction can’t make do without transgression, requires a pinch of chutzpa and a dash of sass. But such kind of seduction feels no need to hide behind institutional might; everybody could tap into it, with role-changes optional.

To that end, the Neanderthal symbolic order of the male-female game must be abandoned, ditto the erotic predator-prey system of male activity and the tight-hanging, DNA-of-potential-sires-collating passivity of the female.

Binary gender roles will become exotic museum artifacts, being the man or the woman during sex mere role-play like domina, girl scout, and bachelor party stripper. To behave within the endlessly varied role repertoire of the sexual carnival as traditional man or woman once the repressive gender duality is overcome, will be of similar significance as dressing up as knight or fortune teller on Halloween.

The defeat of sexism is a precondition for the sexualization of society beyond the sign of the market. And I shall at any time play my part in this never ending orgy—unless I’d have to put aside a good book.

(Translated from the German by Johannes Weinkirn & Steve Seaward.)

Johannes Weinkirn is a translator living and working in New York City. Stephen Seaward is an editor living and working in Budapest.

Richard Schuberth lives and writes mostly in Vienna. His last publication in English was a sample from his aphoristic lexicon, The New Devil’s Dictionary, in Wordpeace, Issue 2.2, Winter-Spring 2018. In the fall of 2018, his book-length essay “Narcissism and Conformity” will be published by Matthes & Seitz.