Some women felt that they had lost the ability to reject forms of sexuality that disempowered them, as David Allyn notes in “Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfinished History.” While male rock gods and gurus were celebrated for their sexual prowess, females became either disposable groupies or uptight bitches if they didn’t play along. Access to birth control in 1960 and legal abortion in 1973 gave women (especially affluent women) a means of controlling their reproductive lives. But without real economic, social or political power, the victory was — and remains — hollow.
In the decades since, America has witnessed the scaled-up commercialization of sex, which amplifies the objectification of women; the unchecking of corporate power, with its suppression of worker’s rights; and the flourishing of a political system which leaves women, minorities and anyone who is not rich severely underrepresented. A figure like Weinstein pulls the ugly elements together: a bullying corporate gatekeeper, an influential wealthy man professing liberal values while crushing women’s lives and an exemplar of cultural attitudes that define male success as sexual domination.
In some areas, the generations agree on updates to the status quo. A new poll shows that almost 9 in 10 Americans believe that “a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in our society.”
But there is division on what harassment actually means. Contrary to the popular image, 83 percent of millennials said that showing someone porn at work was sexual harassment, compared to 94 percent of baby boomers. Research has also shown disagreements about sexuality in general: younger generations are less accepting of “pressured sex,” while many boomers question why younger women seem to feel that they lack sexual agency.
As a new script for sexuality emerges, one optimistic revision could ensure that Americans in the workplace are not powerless: from halting forced arbitration and the abuse of nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements, to improving insecure jobs and lack of labor law enforcement. With these changes, both accusers and accused will be more likely to receive due process.
A rewrite will also involve changing norms of behavior beyond the workplace. Just as thoughtful people now consider their words and actions on race, so many will increasingly be asked to be aware of how expressions of their sexual attitudes and behavior are received by others. This process is difficult and the needs of all ages, orientations, genders, races and classes will have to be taken into account.
But rather than pitting one generation against each other, the shakeup will hopefully come to focus more on younger generations dealing with the societal business that older generations left unfinished — business confronted by the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter and now, #MeToo.
Employment laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made workplace gender discrimination illegal but left it rampant in practice (witness the wage gap), are getting a rethink.
More broadly, abstract ideas about consent, power and freedom in the context of sexuality are getting unpacked. How do we rebalance forces that led us from 1960s ideals of universal love to an internet culture which leaves many feeling sexually numb and degraded?
It’s not yet obvious where we’re going, but it’s clear where we’re not. America isn’t going back to the Victorian era, when women and minorities had little power over their economic, social or sexual lives. We also won’t be returning to the 1950s, when heterosexuality was the only acceptable sexual identity and sex outside marriage was taboo.
But we can’t stay stuck in a world in which powerful white men largely control our media and politics, and male-dominated corporations rule brutally over working people who face harassment, sexual and otherwise, as they strive to make a living.
The train has lurched out of the station, reeling and screeching. There will bone-rattling bumps and angry wrestling over whose vision will guide us. Sometimes it will feel as if we’re going off the rails. To arrive at a better place, members of every generation will have to brace themselves for a hell of an uncomfortable ride.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural theorist who studies the intersection between culture and economics. Her work has appeared at Reuters, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, VICE, Huffington Post and others.