Morality Crisis: On the Legitimate Acquisition of Tons of Sex

— Elise Duryee-Browner


“For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly. For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face.” (NASB, 2 Corinthians 11:19-20)

Times of moral crisis, like the time of Jesus, produce in the culture a specific relationship to the law. Law, created to enforce the particular dying morality of an old paradigm, appears to the cunning and uncreative like the only mode by which to affect human behavior. For example, in the case of Jesus an establishment group of colonized Jews made recourse to Roman law, which they despised, in an attempt to rid themselves of the internal threat of a Jew preaching the universal, the supralegal. This is mentioned not to draw too much comparison of recent lambasted scapegoats to Christ but rather to indicate that much as each of us contains an inner cop, so may we contain an inner Jesus: imagine crucifying yours upon the hardened corpse of Knight Landesman’s career.

While man in mainstream culture still rapes, beats, murders, harasses, makes more money, talks over, feels generally more confident in everything he does, grabs ass, occasionally wakes up in the morning to a blow job, watches very smooth women with very stretchy black holes be penetrated, and loves on a deep personal level his penis, it is admittedly somewhat less the case in the cultural avant-garde, which whatever people say must still exist exactly because of this slight difference (in artists’ communities there is more acceptance of altered gender roles and also less cultural acceptance of certain forms of women’s oppression like domestic violence, rape). I have heard through the walls in my loft at 50 Taaffe Place in Brooklyn men half-jokingly worry that there’s no art left for the white straight male to make. Preteen girls captured by Boko Haram in Nigeria are offered the choice of being a sex-slave or wearing a suicide vest and walking into a crowd (twelve year-olds thinking, well, I will instead go blow myself up alone by that tree), but no matter how wonderful the man I speak to here may be he will still get a little uncomfortable about this current witch hunt. Possibly just because he hasn’t been compelled at any point to think in these terms during his life, which may well be the extent of his crimes. Nonetheless I would remind him that I knew at a very young age how girls in Afghanistan weren’t allowed to go to school, and that men in neighborhoods very near me in California murdered their pregnant wives, or kidnapped girls out of their bedrooms, raped and dragged them through the woods, strangling them in the dirt with their underwear pulled down. Knowing that the spectrum of male sexuality terminates there at total control and domination and descends (quite quickly, around rape) into what is generally normalized, and also knowing that for millennia women were officially considered stupid and that if we (meaning basically the generation before us, ours, and the next) can’t prove in that much time what we’re capable of, the feminist project might be called off, produced in me a certain amount of neurosis that was not mitigated by the realization around age eleven or twelve that if I didn’t want to be completely socially doomed I would have to relinquish some of my dominating aura, which is part of what resulted in me basically becoming silent in public until age twenty-seven. Another reason for that silence was probably that, although I idealized my father as a kid, out of respect for my mother I wanted to be sure that when I spoke it was because what I said felt necessary, not because I wanted to feel special or important. My dad’s confidence was intoxicating, especially when compared to my mom’s evident pain, but even at a young age I knew that she was my people and suspected that male certainty came at our expense. Believing, for half my life, that in all likelihood what I had to say wasn’t interesting was an excruciating but possibly necessary exercise which few men have undergone.

Being a woman is thus inherently an epistemological thing. Occupying public space, as men historically have, is to have a platform to advertise and promote a set of skills and values, generations of ideology abstracted and made concrete. So even while operating in different modes and developing different skills, women are presented with a very visible set of sanctioned and reinforced qualities, access to which was either denied or made impossible through lack of training. Questioning what a woman is capable of knowing and understanding, as a woman, produces an immediate awareness of the social self’s fundamental instability and of the processes of power in the fabrication of a sturdy self-image. I think my mom’s generation had it the worst, told all of a sudden that they could and more importantly should perform like men without the skills to achieve this or historical evidence to guarantee its plausibility; how could they not have felt not only that they failed individually but also on behalf of their sex? I felt such pressure to prove I could hit a baseball that I often missed. Men have historically been very comfortable with the idea of sexual difference; it’s well-known and clinically proven that they are generally overconfident and as a result will find reinforcement of their beliefs in utter randomness. Recently they have cautiously allowed us to inhabit many of their skill sets but still resist imagining they could adopt ours. Boyfriends who expect me to perform like them seem disappointed in me for caring as much about the relationship as my projects; even the ones who wholeheartedly encourage my career respond with frustration or condescension when conversation turns to the personal. Despite the obvious presence of other ways of thinking about feeling, men in my experience have remained deeply uncurious about themselves as men, moving forward in what Berlant[1] calls the “cruel optimism” of the possibility of replicating the behavior of generations past even while projecting, perhaps via self-referential images of frightened animals, a certain uncertainty.

If you shake the board until the pieces settle, you find that nearly every man still thinks his work is more important than anything else, which is why he is not lying back and crying silent tears of amazement thinking of how women and others too have managed to hold onto things they’ve always known, whole cultures, and at the same time close in almost to siege level on a certain Cologne legacy that might be said to currently terminate in one of my ex-boyfriends. He has worked for a couple older artists whom we both respect immensely; the intellectual connection he had with them resulted in a paid job and I dated one of them instead. I had been jealous that my boyfriend at the time got to know this very interesting man while I sat in an adjacent “room of my own.” On the other hand no older woman artist has offered me a job, though it’s totally possible that rests entirely on my bad qualities: shyness, narcissism, an aura of shadiness, things easier for a man to overlook. The crazy puzzle of life is that much as a powerful man may respect your art and want you to do well, he may also be nervous around you because he wants to fuck you, and that we don’t yet understand completely if this mutual desire to fuck, you, the less powerful woman, and him, the more powerful man, is simply natural or if it still just plays into the ancient legacy of women as a living currency that cannot exchange itself. The high valuation of youthful women may well be the last bastion of men’s power since we cannot help but age… Why does a man like so much to fuck twenty-three year-old women? He doesn’t himself know, it may perplexingly seem to govern his whole being, he may say it’s in his nature even if he makes his money from art, the apex of civilization, but so long as it continues to be possible he does it. And a powerful man who cannot may then write pathetic and disgusting emails.

For several years though, the happiest years yet in my life, I have pushed these kinds of thoughts out of my head! I used to drive myself crazy trying to figure out what would be fair and equal, but it’s very clear that the first principle of nurturing individual power is to not fixate on what you do not have access to or on what you’ve been denied. Any such fixation requires occupying a critical position, which by its nature is not creative since it always presumes to be located beneath something larger and more powerful; imagine a shark trying to take a bite out of a boat. The painful, painful irony of the current besieging of the ivory-colored cocaine tower is that while it seems likely that we can starve its inhabitants to death, by doing so we might extinguish an endangered culture without ever understanding what we’ve destroyed. And what do we plan to do when we move in, dump them unceremoniously in a mass grave, write them out of history, tear down their banners and replace them with our own? Certainly underprivileged people, too, can be guilty of acting out of pure ambition, and isn’t that worse for art than flawed people who nonetheless also have a certain deep integrity? Because of choices I’ve made there are things I never accessed and will never access, kinds of cool I simply can’t reproduce. But I suppose I can do some other things without denying the value of what I don’t altogether understand.

Sexual harassment being a legal issue, what is occurring now is the extension of its liability into industries which were previously immune, industries in which women’s beauty is highly prized, and in which the professional and social are heavily entwined, basically cool industries dealing in fame with bad or no HR departments. The strategic extension of governance, the forcing of the hand of the Man. Stoned into slowness the other night I started to get pissed off while observing a performance by two men, just a conversation, but one I didn’t have the wherewithal to enter. They were enjoying themselves and I was silent which didn’t bother them. Nothing exactly was wrong with what they were doing or discussing, a totally unlegislatable situation, and yet I was sure neither of them had ever just stood there like I was doing and watched two women talk. If the conversation of two women didn’t interest them or they couldn’t engage they would have happily turned away, but I was mesmerized. I couldn’t start what I could be certain would be a better conversation with the other woman there, middle-aged and also silent. Not that women’s power is totally unacknowledged, but it seems to be best and more often extracted in private from a mom or girlfriend: hugs, kisses, searing and subtle analysis of social dynamics (things easier to do in a place of trust sanctioned by sex and intimacy because extremely dangerous or impossible to say in public). For four years I sequestered myself in a women-only college and yet I still have to force myself to maintain continued eye contact with a woman if there’s a man in the room, especially if the woman is merely very deeply a person and the man is a professional colleague.

My intuition tells me that what’s happening is groups of people (read: Nazis) trying to collectively justify the abortion of a difficult creative process in an attempt to externalize the extreme pain of fabricating in the incertitude of the void. At the center of ancient Hindu temples a single idol sits in empty, unornamented space; elsewhere humbugs lurk with their dicks out behind the curtains. It hurts here in the absence of a great hidden Nose at the core of culture, without the soothing structure of a grand conspiracy. Reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale call it a cautionary tale when we know it’s really a fantasy. In truth every day a bunch of fools reiterate, put on their backpacks in the morning, sell ads, assemble a smart list of people to exhibit, talk shit, use social media strategically. Recently to me this is what white male cultural hegemony comes down to: the rote repetition of a phrase, like a mantra, desperate propaganda (which importantly is spread not so much by the men themselves but rather mostly by those who picture themselves occupying any new vacancies) in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. It’s a matter of culture versus governance, or maybe more precisely the concerning possibility that our culture is moving toward total synonymity with that which is governable. Having abandoned faith in the possibility of the continued elaboration of American culture, as if it’s been primarily white and male and Protestant all along, we’ve become focused on locking down what a minority is allowed or disallowed to do. There are undeniable legal and structural realities to white male power, but it’s exactly because we know about these that we cannot rely on those structures in its dismantling. Assuming we can rely on them implies a belief that men can be convinced to relinquish these structures; the reality inherent in holding that belief demands that we develop a full understanding of our own power rather than shortsightedly use this political moment to take over the Staedelschule for example. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this may be what Kanye has, albeit recklessly, been arguing. Though there was no prior moment in history when women could have stepped to the plate, minority narratives now are bursting with power; it seems almost fated that we have arrived at this point just as our current civilization implodes.

And why do I want to talk about the impending moral crisis when I witness this extremely moral destruction of abusive men in positions of professional power? Maybe it’s because men who grab ass or demand sex are closer on the spectrum of male sexuality to alt-right incels or serial killers, men who cannot get the sex they desire by acceptable means (acceptable being the same as unlegislatable), or who only desire sex acquired by unacceptable means. Are we in the business of denying sex to these men, or encouraging prostitution (distilled essence of this other more diffuse practice) and secretive violence? Or are we in the business of trying to comprehend and contend with the widespread belief that the acquisition of young women’s sex (or in the cases of Louis C.K. and Knight Landesman’s later pursuits, imposition upon it) is necessary and deserved? In which case does its “legitimate” acquisition, through sufficient charm, power combined with a degree of appeal, etc, have any reason to go so unquestioned? If Louis C.K. had with grace hit on one of the women and gotten her in bed, possibly even dated her, rather than humiliating himself in front of two of them, his career would be unsullied. This is not to condone their behavior but rather to implicate all men. Men who can’t get sex are ugly creeps (Knight described himself as “small and funny looking” according to Catherine Liu in the Los Angeles Review of Books[2]; Louis calls his body “shitty, ugly, disgusting”), often scary ones, a fact which they themselves cannot necessarily help. Any man who can get sex is simply the privileged recipient of a genetic and cultural lottery; as everyone knows the amount of sex a man gets is not correlated to his decency as a person, though any decent man will succeed from time to time. An ugly creep might be able to work on himself as a person and become less creepy, but demanding that is just like demanding that a man who gets tons of sex work on himself as a person: he probably won’t.

A quieter revolution is taking place simultaneously to our loud cries but within the exact same culture, one by which the very question of morality may one day vanish. Again we see this strange coincidence of scientific and identitarian principles which began, perhaps, with the legalization of homosexuality via the argument that it is “not a choice,” and is resulting as we speak in the destigmatization of psychopathy and sociopathy.[3] The question of morality in Western society relies on the Enlightenment definition of free will, but scientism has construed the individual to be an amalgam of nature and nurture, genes, epigenes, environmental factors, etc, basically a series of one day fully measurable and analyzable external factors determining every unique outcome and decision. Add to this the social construction of race, class and gender, etc. So long as the idea of the individual-as-citizen reigns, meaning that ultimately what is governed is the individual’s (capacity for) intent, it seems it is going to grow increasingly difficult to condemn and possibly eventually prosecute people for their behavior.

To avoid the discomfort of judging someone for a pathological behavior over which they have no control, the totally simultaneous scientific and cultural processes (both being products of the white male Enlightenment) that uncover the various reasons for bad behavior propose two solutions; the scientific: medication or gene modification, and the cultural: total acceptance and embrace, the taking of everyone at their word. Ancient human ideas of good and evil blown out of the water such that either difference of any sort faces obliteration or that manipulative, self-interested or murderous people cannot be sequestered or shunned, or, more likely, some combination of the two, a centralized hashing out by the two dominant and overlapping current forces about the tolerability and intolerability of different types of difference. The will to outsource judgment about individuals or their individual acts to either an exterior moral schema of privilege or to scientism seems part of a deep anomie borne of the devastation of watching the world become increasingly unrecognizable (Simmel’s description of modern thought as “the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism”[4] now truly archaic), a fear to become what Oprah demands of us: our fullest selves. Which in a way is her kind of anarchism, the cultivation of personal power that is not realized externally but rather within, an assumption that the inner ember, if nourished, will guide each of us to our supreme destiny. As people involved in the propagation of culture, something which against all odds has usually managed to change and develop despite the dominant power structure, we are obligated to believe in it.

In his recent interview with the New York Times, after calling Trump “a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies,” Philip Roth responded to the subsequent question about recent harassment cases by explaining that none of it surprised him: “I’ve stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometimes so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy.”[5] But the reality of lunacy itself depends on culture.[6]

[1] Lauren Berlan, Cruel Optimism (Durham : Duke University Press, 2011).



[4] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Modern Life”, in Levine, Donald (ed), Simmel: On individuality and social forms, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), p. 324.