But the Jewish law was, characteristically, interested in women’s motivations and self-determination. They could be victims or they could be agents. Their value didn’t consist wholly in their female bodies and instincts; they were people. In the story of David’s kingship, Tamara’s helpless suffering in the aftermath of an unpunished, publicly humiliating rape was a highly consequential issue in itself. As to the written law, if women tried to resist a rape they were supposed to be held blameless, so that their future would not be forfeit to someone else’s crime.
The Apostle Paul is often condemned for harshness concerning sex, but in fact he was deeply committed to leaving room around each person’s sexual nature, allowing for self-direction that suited one’s knowledge of one’s own capacities while respecting the integrity of others. Celibacy was invented as a right, not an imposition. The rule of marital faithfulness was affirmed for both men and women as a provision for peace and order in the community—not as a property right.
Modern U.S. culture is a feckless inheritor of these ideals. It doesn’t (as a rule) forcibly exploit women for labor, sex, and breeding, but the media aid an array of commercial-type abuses. Here’s one minor example from my own experience. The year I first faced interviews for academic jobs, standard skirt heights had just gone up to mid-thigh, and female PhD candidates at Harvard were directed to a Boston boutique, where we were to drop $800 each for a tight wool and silk “business suit.” Heels were also required, despite the risk that women who had never worn them before might sprawl onto the floor of the interview room.
But that was a festival of respect compared with the female dress code for “visible” jobs now. Why should an ambitious girl staring at a TV screen not think, “Yikes! I have to tone my upper arms, maybe save for implants,” instead of, “Yikes! I have to study up on the history of the Middle East.” What’s for sale, and at what price, is simply on display. And what qualifies a woman to be an anchor is obviously not what qualifies a man. This is infamously true at Fox News, but it is also true nearly everywhere else. The commerce in bodies goes back and forth endlessly, fostering a feral, sterile defensiveness and aggression.
A useful thought exercise, to make the discussion less emotional and yet link it to long-accepted human rights, might be to set sex aside from the stories pouring in. If something else were at issue, say, tenant protections or general bodily integrity or the ownership of some irreplaceable object, would the acts be felonies or misdemeanors? Criminal or civil matters, or not actionable at all?
This is naturally a wobbly argumentative structure; what makes the problem so urgent and yet so difficult is the particularly intimate nature of sex, and at the same time its special power to violate and damage. But maybe just the effort to get beyond the stilted, passionate language now prevailing will have some benefit.
Roy Moore allegedly shoved one girl out of his car and left her lying bruised on the pavement, because she resisted him; subtract anything erotic in the encounter, and it would still be assault. Harvey Weinstein apparently committed conspiracy and obstruction of justice when he invoked a powerful network to keep his victims silent and without redress. His cornering of women in the first place appears conspiratorial, a well-tended pipeline of young actresses to be left alone with a menacing sexual thug. He did deals to get at bodies he particularly wanted and keep them under his control, almost like a human trafficker.
What is classic sexual harassment but a form of extortion? Make me happy or lose your job, or get a dangerous or dead-end assignment, or forget about the promotion you’ve earned. If a job and all its normal rewards and opportunities is something you’re entitled to, you shouldn’t have to buy it with something else you’re entitled to—your physical autonomy—any more than the restaurant owner should have to hand over part of his takings to the mob to keep his premises intact.
All this suggests something that may startle anyone wondering what reforms could be sweeping enough to make women feel safe and comfortable in the workplace. We already have a robust array of felony charges to bring against people who violate the sanctity of the person, and that is how we ought to understand many of the sexual offenses that have come to light. Rigorously applying standards we’re already used to might take care of many of the problems. For the police to caution a boss might work in many cases.
The power of bosses is indeed distorting and daunting, particularly in a society with a widening economic divide and a flimsy and sagging safety net. But something else needs saying here. The situation is made worse not just by real intimidation, real fear, and rational self-preservation. If you give someone something to which he’s not entitled, to secure something to which you’re not entitled, and which might fairly go to someone else, that’s called bribery, and the giver and the receiver are both (though not necessarily equally) guilty. But some of the #MeToo denunciations are in essence complaints by disappointed bribe-givers. The New York Times of December 7 reports on one boss-dooming scandal:
One of the women who complained to the Paris Review lawyers, a writer whose work Mr. Stein published in the review, told the Times he had initiated a sexual relationship with her a few years ago, and had sex with her in the magazine’s office, while he was her editor. While she said that the relationship with the editor was consensual, she said that it had ended badly, and afterward, when the magazine rejected three submissions she made, she thought the outcome was tied to the souring of their romance.
If there’s a purge dynamic in the #MeToo movement, that dynamic will inevitably weaken when the “conversation” threatens to becomes an infinite regress of unenforceable entitlements. I have submitted poems to the Paris Review but never had one accepted. Was that because I didn’t have sex with the editor? Am I entitled to justice, and if so, how exactly do I pursue it? And if I can pursue it, what about the girl who might have missed the part of Cordelia in King Lear forty years ago in the Black Swamp Players in Ohio, because I was the one who flirted with the director and let him give me a lift from the theater to my family’s house on his motorcycle once?
If women are crime victims, then we need to testify—not from an electronic distance, but in a trusted forum where the accused can confront us in public. The plea-bargain imperative that prevails now is no good: it urges horse-trading and equivocation in important cases, and encourages trivial complaints because it can “resolve” them so easily. Sealed civil settlements are also out of control, and very destructive; in harassment cases settled with non-disclosure agreements, one woman typically rents to a man the chance to torment others.
And in criminal matters, traditional statutes of limitation exist for good reasons besides preventing old cases from swamping the courts. Evidence naturally weakens and warps over time; the credibility of due process is at stake. Finally, women will face a terrible backlash if they insist on a standard of “Women don’t lie!” and try to place themselves above the law and not on a par with men.
Women need the courtroom to vindicate a new area of rights. We are, after all, major beneficiaries of the purely transactional society’s demise; we’re no longer objects over which people stab each other, or for whose wrongful loss of value they merely have to fork over. Our value can’t be diminished, because, like all human value, it’s spiritual rather than just material. But neither can this value be vindicated except through the kind of courage that states, “I will do what is necessary, within the law, to see that I am the last woman you terrorize.” It’s going to cost us—in time and effort, in embarrassment, in fear, sometimes in a lasting loss of well-being. But if it doesn’t merit sacrifice, we can’t insist that it’s important.
All this doesn’t mean we should shrug off the misconduct that falls short of crimes. In fact, the same basic standard—react, cry out, defend yourself, assert your dignity and the dignity of other women at the same time—is useful in dealing informally but effectively with whatever isn’t worth making a legal case of. My Quaker friend Sadie, even in the culture of forty years ago, wasn’t intimidated, didn’t blame herself, didn’t calculate based on her materially weaker position and relative lack of authority, but simply said out loud during a dinner party, “What is your hand doing on my knee?” We have to stick up for ourselves forthrightly, whatever the consequences.
Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.