Did the Sexual Revolution Cause the Sexual Misconduct Revealed by #MeToo?

Posted in: Civil Rights

With the recent explosion in sexual misconduct allegations have come proposed solutions to the problem. One that stands out from the rest is a kind of time travel proposal. Those who offer it say that prior to the sexual revolution, men did not prey on women the way they do now. To stop sexual harassment and acquaintance rape, then, would require us to go back to a time when people were less willing to indulge their sexual appetites. We shall consider here whether this suggestion can withstand scrutiny.

The Claim

To fairly assess what I call the “time travel solution,” we must make the strongest case that we can for it. The implicit claim is that promiscuity leads to date rape and sexual predation. But does it?

Some might say that before the sexual revolution, something like chivalry prevailed. Men felt protective over women and knew that only a committed relationship (perhaps marriage) would lead to sex. Dating would be innocent, and because there could be no sex, it followed that there could be no rape.

I am familiar with this argument because I heard it as a child. I attended a religious elementary school, and I learned there that men and women were supposed to have distinct roles from one another and that this differentiation would protect women from male aggression rather than disadvantaging women. Female sexual modesty seems to travel in pairs with an ideology of separate spheres for the sexes. The domestic sphere, in this framework, gives women a place of safety.

This might sound plausible in theory. Dressing modestly could help avoid “triggering” the male sexual desire that results in harassment or rape, while separate spheres could offer women a haven from danger. A look at the law that governed the “good ole days” suggests something different, though. Long before the sexual revolution, before women were even allowed to vote, there was already a dire need for a #MeToo movement. Sir Matthew Hale, a revered British jurist of the Seventeenth Century, said of a rape allegation that it ‘‘is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.’’

Skepticism like this, older than our country, was reflected in laws that made it harder to prove rape than any other crime (except in cases in which the perpetrator was African American and the victim white, where guilt was essentially presumed). Judges had to instruct jurors to be skeptical of a charge of rape. Prosecutors had to offer additional evidence to corroborate the victim’s eye-witness account of what happened. Victims were expected to resist to the utmost or forfeit their right to freedom from rape.

The requirement that a victim resist “to the utmost” reflects a pre-sexual-revolution idea about the importance and utility of female chastity. It is not enough to refuse consent; a woman had to fight, potentially to the death, to be called a rape victim. Such requirements tell us, first, that men were in fact raping women long before the sexual revolution, and second, that rapists were getting away with their crimes with the law’s blessing. Legally mandated skepticism toward rape victims is the exact opposite of what women seek in #MeToo and “Believe Women.”

We have another related indication of the law’s indifference to rape in the good ole days. It is the marital rape exemption. Prior to the sexual revolution (which I identify as taking place between the late 1960s and mid-1970s), state laws defined rape as including one essential element—that the victim not be married to the accused. This meant that if a woman waited until marriage for sexual fulfillment and then found herself married to a rapist, the law would do nothing for her. Unlike her unmarried sister, who probably would not be believed, given the law’s mandated distrust of victims, the married woman who was raped by her own true love would not even have the chance to tell her story to a jury. Taught that sexual fulfillment should go together with love and commitment, the raped married woman had no recourse when her trust proved to have been misplaced. Indeed, the law treated marriage as an irrevocable consent to sex so that only a specific married man’s decency and compassion could prevent him from forcing himself on his spouse.

The reason that chastity might seem like a solution is that if no one is having sex, then no can be getting raped. The problem is that even if women have every intention of remaining chaste until their wedding nights, even if they avoid flirting at work, none of that stops men from preying on them, both before and after they marry. Men are generally more powerful than women, in terms of both status and physical strength. (This is especially true if we relegate women to domestic work and exclude them from the positions of authority held by men). Men accordingly require no invitation and no consent to engage in sexual misconduct or rape, If they choose to do so. The notion that virtuous, “good girls” do not get victimized is part of the false idea that “sluts ask for it” that feeds the rape culture that afflicts college campuses and society more generally. It represents the sort of “blame the victim” thinking that #MeToo narratives are intended to answer.

Sexual Liberation

The sexual revolution was primarily about liberating consenting adults to have sex with one another. Gay men and lesbians could begin to emerge from the stifling closet in which they had been compelled to dwell. And women could begin to feel ownership over their bodies and to honor their own sexual desires, both to say yes without the guilt and shame borne of misogyny and double standards, and to say no when they did not want what a date, a boyfriend, or a husband wanted. Saying “no” in the context of freedom carries an iconoclastic message—the speaker is neither “saving it for marriage” nor “protecting her reputation.” She is, instead, rejecting a sexual advance because she is simply not interested. This may be hard for a man to hear, but hear it he must. His hurt feelings, moreover, do not entitle him to take what he wants by force or to demand that women go back to a time when men could rape their wives with impunity, when grabbing women’s body parts was a job perk, and when “no” was (often incorrectly) read to mean “I would, but what would people think?”

In earlier times, men seeking to rape or otherwise sexually abuse women could tell themselves that they were doing what the women actually wanted but to which they were too modest or virtuous to consent. Or they could just rape their wives. Time travel thus would not solve the problem of sexual misconduct, but #MeToo and “Believe Women” just might. If sexual harassment and rape carry painful consequences for perpetrators, then we can expect some measure of deterrence to follow. The people who ordinarily avoid committing violent crimes might—finally—place rape of an acquaintance in the list of forbidden behavior. Let us remain in the twenty-first century, then, and try to cure what ails us by believing what women say as the words of equal members of the community with no systematic incentive to make false accusations, contrary to the rape myths that go back to long before sexual revolution (partially) destigmatized sex without marriage.