How #MeToo undermines sexual morality

by josieappleton

imagesOne of the defining aspects of the #MeToo movement has been the refusal to make a distinction between acts of different nature, intent, or gravity.

Everything is placed in the same category of ‘harassment’, including come-ons, chat-ups, even acts of tenderness, and acts of violation or violence.

When Matt Damon said that ‘there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation’, he sparked a twitter storm:

‘It’s the micro that makes the macro.’

‘How about: it’s all f****** wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalise or judge what is worse and what is not’

The attempt to distinguish between degrees of severity, or differences of intent, is considered to be offensive. There is an ethical imperative to think of varied events as being substantially ‘the same’, requiring the same words, the same response, the same punishment.

Yet there cannot be a sexual morality, or a legal judgement, unless we make distinctions. Relations cannot be guided, checked, punished, approved or disapproved, unless we weigh the gravity of acts, and judge the intent of those who carried them out.

After all, precise distinctions are at the very basis of legal codes, and the means by which offenses can be defined and prosecuted. Primitive law had only very vague notions of crime, and punishment was ‘fitful, governed by chance and personal passion’ (1).

The first criminal codes (at the time of the city states in ancient Mesopotamia) laid out for the first time what, precisely, should be considered a criminal act, and what should be the punishment.

Ancient legal codes calibrated degree, the grades of severity of an offence. If someone had been hit on the head, for example, ancient Germanic codes gave different punishments according to whether there was no blood, blood ‘falls to the floor’, or if the brain appears (2).

There is a difference between a strike that produces no blood and blood that falls to the floor. The wound is different, and so is the crime, the degree of violation committed. Criminal law is built on this objectivity – this standing aside from the act, and asking does the blood fall to the floor or does the brain appear.

Later criminal codes established the grades of intent, making distinctions between: a pure accident, an intentional violent act, an act done in self-defence, and an accident that should have been foreseeable and was therefore negligent.

The first developed sexual moralities were equally concerned to make distinctions between different kinds of acts.

(A sexual morality guides how free people pursue the game of love: it is concerned only with free relations, and not with arranged marriage, customary sexual obligations, etc.)

Arguably the first sexual morality developed in ancient Greece, governing love relations between adult men and youths. People subjected their conduct to scrutiny and discussion, and developed a finely tuned framework through which acts could be weighed and judged.

How should the lover pursue the boy? Which gifts and inducements were acceptable, and which were not? For the boy, at what point should he yield, and how often, and in what manner? What should be the relation between lover and beloved?

Another sexual morality developed in the Middle Ages, in the times of chivalrous love. ‘Courts of Love’ passed judgements on cases, pronouncing on what love was, how one should go about it, and the rights and wrongs of conduct.

Should a knight, having been rejected by his lady, be free to go off and attach himself to another; or should the lady have powers to bind him, though she did not love him?

The court of ladies issued its judgements with gravitas:

‘May this judgement, which we have delivered with extreme caution, and after consulting with a great number of other ladies, be for you a constant and unassailable truth.’

Why, then, is there such a current aversion to distinctions? Why is it unacceptable to say that one thing is worse than something else; or to apportion blame and fault as they appear due, on two sides? Why cannot we distinguish the good and the bad, or the criminal from the rude?

The reason appears to be that #MeToo is based on a single model of human conduct: that of the abuser-victim. In our times, this has become the archetype for all human relations: between men and women, but also between adults and children, or even children and other children.

It is the uniformity of our model of human relations which means that no distinctions can be made between acts. Acts are seen as important, and meaningful, only inasmuch as they represent the abuser-victim archetype.

There is a deliberate attempt to eclipse different points of view, or different narratives of human conduct. ‘You men are all the same’, said the woman who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct (though she was the one who pursued him, and she didn’t at any point say no to sexual acts). ‘How about we NOT celebrate men who are simply decent human beings’, said one of Matt Damon’s critics: she doesn’t want to hear about the good men. Here is the pursuit of sameness, of uniformity of narrative.

It is because #MeToo represents an archetype, that you join it simply by saying the words ‘Me too’ (as Ellen did). You need give no details, no proof – merely the two words, which enact a subsumption of one’s own experience under the universal umbrella.

(The claiming of exception – for example, saying that you have not experienced something you would consider harassment or abuse – is met with incredulity: they do not believe you.)

#MeToo cannot make distinctions, because to make distinctions you need polarity – notions of good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In ancient Greece, there was the polarity of noble and ignoble, and this was the question they asked of their conduct: was it noble or ignoble? A lover should not lose control or self-possession, and he should not degrade the boy or make the boy his object (3). They should meet each other freely, equally: the goal was to unite reciprocally but to remain self-possessed.

In the Middle Ages, the judgements of the Courts of Love were guided by an ideal of love, and wrong behaviour was marked out precisely as a violation of this ideal.

For us, there is no ideal to hold against the bad, in contrast and in measurement. There is no notion of what we are seeking to realise in our relations with one another.

One result of this is that an act such as violent rape loses its shock as an extreme and unusual act – as the extreme violation of how we should be relating. The rape becomes merely an example of a general model, and so loses its status as an exception, an inversion of mores, as something outside the normal course of conduct.

#MeToo may breed nervousness and anxiety among men, or it may breed antipathy and resentment. But these consequences will be lawless, amoral. The movement will not lead to a guiding and civilising of sexual relations – which requires judgement, and it requires distinctions.


(1) Crime and custom in Savage Society, Bronislaw Malinowski, 1932

(2) Sources of Ancient and Primitive Law, Albert Kocourek, 1915

(3) The Use of Pleasure, Michel Foucault, 1985