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A quick note on The Ballad of Sexual Optimism
Do you remember what it felt like, back then? In 2018 the Me Too movement was exhilarating, or terrifying, or some combination of both, depending on where you stood and who you were. I imagine rapid shifts of power always feel this way, where the intensity of emotion always corresponds with the degree of change made possible. It’s a reflection of our hopes, or fears, for something new. Today, I think, that intensity is gone.
These days our social attention is drawn less often to allegations of sexual misconduct and more often to a rapidly heating climate, or to racial injustice, or to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. As our attention has wandered from sexual politics, many of those early heightened emotions have faded, or might even have been replaced. For some, hope has been swapped either for gratitude or disappointment; for others, fear has made way for relief or resentment. For many, thinking about gendered conflict simply invites fatigue. The reason is simple: when we talk about Me Too, we increasingly do so in the past tense.
How to reckon with a reckoning? That question lurks behind Maggie Nelson’s essay ‘The Ballad of Sexual Optimism’, from her book On Freedom. Sexual optimism: the dream that an embrace of the sexual; the erotic; what has been called ‘sex-positivity’; might lead us finally and permanently to sexual liberation. This is the dominant mode of late feminism; the victor of last century’s feminist sex wars and the variant of feminism most harmonic with the needs of late capitalism. It is a call, according to C.E., the author of “Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism”, that is ‘at once an ideology of patriarchy and of the majority of its opponents... It is the optimism that insistently, cruelly returns us to the work of fucking.’
C.E.’s essay first appeared in 2012 and was, as it itself claims, in the minority view. A decade later, in the wake of Me Too, C.E.’s sexual pessimism is no longer alone. Nelson is careful to note it, chronicling the many recent reactions to our once dominantly sex-positive cultural climate. She quotes Nation writer Joann Wypijewski: ‘What besides backlash happened to the sexual revolution? Capitalism bit down, absorbed the liberationist impulse, mass-produced the sex but everywhere devalued the education...’
And so Nelson is left with the job of adjudicator. She comes to us, a student of queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, ready to queer, to complicate, to add nuance, to look for ambiguity – to wonder what is lost when we too confidently react against, or in favour of, sex and its liberatory potential. ‘Inchoateness is not just a by-product of sexual experience,’ she tells us. ‘It is part of what makes it worthwhile.’
That brings her up against some of the most exhilarated voices of the Me Too moment. Me Too caused a rupture in our norms of testimony; redressing a history of undervaluing female testimony with an absolute vote of confidence in that testimony. For a theorist like Nelson, that overcorrection won’t do. (“Believe women” takes on a peculiar tenor in the United States, where the lies of Carolyn Bryant brought about the lynching of Emmett Till.) At the same time Nelson works hard to return female agency to the (heterosexual, clean, vanilla) picture proffered up by Me Too’s professional liberal feminists. ‘Many girls,’ she writes, ‘are deeply compelled by their desires, but since they don’t have much practice in articulating them, often not even to themselves, they instead become expert at putting themselves in situations in which “trouble” (aka sexual activity) might occur.’
Are we ready for this type of intervention? Not from a bad faith chauvinist suggesting that a victim is “asking for it”, but from a queer woman, a matriarch of the woke left, demanding that we return to the murky business of crediting female desire? Doing so would require seeing women as sexual (not just sexualised) agents. We would need to view each of us, men and women, as enmeshed in complex power relations which are often fiercely unbalanced, yes, but never absolute. We would need to ask if the convenient picture of innocent victim and lecherous predator might itself depend on lazy, harmful, sexist stereotypes. ‘Since it’s the doxa of rape discourse that holds ‘one cannot be a sexual subject and also innocent’, as Jennifer Doyle has put it, ‘somewhere we have to be able to violate this doxa’s terms.’
To give some weight to her view that women are both sexual and have agency, Nelson spends some time reflecting on her coming of age. It’s persuasive testimony, reminding the reader that in that era, in San Francisco, the fear wasn’t rape but HIV. Yet my own coming of age, as a man on the east coast of Australia two decades later, was plagued by nothing but the fear of rape. I wasn’t afraid for my own safety, of course. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2014, five women close to me had shared they’d been the victim of rape while at university. A year later one of them was dead by suicide.
At her funeral I promised myself I’d do something about it. Within a year I found myself sitting in classrooms talking to men about consent and responsibility. The goal wasn’t to scare men into treating women well – that approach has been tried, and it doesn’t work. The goal instead was to create space for men to say the things they feel they aren’t allowed to say, and to lead them to see sex as a place to maximise their moral selves, rather than an arena in which they are expected to do nothing but clear some minimum legal standard.
It was good work, work that I’m proud of, but nearly a decade later I’m still licking my wounds. What I remember most is the sense that no one really wanted me to succeed: not the men who couldn’t see the problem; not the educational institutions that didn’t want to see the problem; not the women who didn’t want men teaching men about consent. Journalists accused me of trying to protect the institutions I was trying to change. I found myself wedged between every interested party. Eventually, when the college I was reforming became embroiled in scandal, my work was made scapegoat and it came to an end.
I take some solace in the realisation that I just got caught between the unreconciled tensions of an immature sexual culture. These tensions include the obvious ones, like the conflict between reactive patriarchy and insurgent feminism, but also, and more importantly, between the many flavours of feminism that were jostling for position at the time. What I want to say here is that the nuanced, problematised, queered feminism of Maggie Nelson was not finding its way into pages of the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015. There was not, accordingly, much room for consent education that sought to credit the moral potential of 19 year old men, or the sexual agency of their female peers. There wasn’t much room to be doing the type of work that might be effective at redressing patriarchy’s most egregious harms.
I’m anxious that you might read this and think I’m making excuses, or think I’m pushing back out of mere reaction. After all, I have neither the talent nor the identity that helps Nelson get away with her diversions from the party line. I really hope and believe that’s not true. Nelson, at least, is remarkably delicate with the subject matter. She is never dogmatic or disdainful, only gentle and insistent. Consider that, in a world where “actually, women want it” and “women lie” are the two most common misogynistic refrains, Nelson finds herself in the position of gently pulling our discourse back towards the view of the 19 year olds I used to mentor. She does all this without a hint of reactivity, just sincere, kind, firm inquisitiveness.
“Ballad” is the type of good faith intervention that was, for some time after Me Too, beyond our collective ability to metabolise. It calls us to hold in mind a moral complexity that challenges us to be better than we are; to credit the testimony of both accuser and accused; to remember that women as well as men are subjects to and subjects of the messy, confused, inchoate realm of desire. Are we ready yet to hear that call? I don’t know. Maybe. But I’m glad it’s there for when we are.