Book Review – What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo

JoAnn Wypijewski, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority, & the Mess of Life. London and New York: Verso, 2020. xxxiv+286pp.

This highly readable collection brings together and updates some of the best journalism of former Nation editor JoAnn Wypijewski (pronounced “Vipichevsky”) over three decades, including essays relating to various sex panics, obsessions, and scandals that have gripped American media from 1992 to 2018. What most of these stories share is a rush to construct villains, typically but not always male, to act as scapegoats for the more complex, but unacknowledged social maladies that lie concealed underneath the media’s facile narratives of angelic innocence violated by incarnated evil. Wypijewski visits the multiple scenes of atrocity and gives us an anthropologist’s view of the local cultures that produce them, whether the Laramie, Wyoming, of Matthew Shepard and his killers, the decaying upstate factory town where a charming black drug dealer from Brooklyn was alleged to have knowingly infected a score of working class white girls with HIV, or the dusty Texas military town where Abu Ghraib’s “sexual sadists” were based and tried. With her, we see, hear, taste, and smell these places. In every case, she opens up to us a very different tableau from the formulaic monster/victim scripts that most reporters are content to mass produce in case after depressing case. Her rich narratives become vastly more interesting than what we thought we knew about the perpetrators and victims.

Unlike many reporters, Wypijewski never loses sight of her own subjectivity, framed by who she is and was as she grew up experiencing sex. She starts some of her essays with a brief autobiographical film clip. A girl raised in a working-class Polish Catholic family in Buffalo, she remembers how she had led her fellow Girl Scouts to walk out on a priest who tried to feel them up and engage in inappropriate talk, and has scant sympathy for the brand of feminist victimology that holds that all women and children become limply passive in the presence of male desire. As a young editor, she encountered and consented to the advances of a male intern, not much younger than her, but had to tell him that he could not be hired because of their relationship. This makes her wonder what the media narrative would have been had the gender roles been reversed. In frankly acknowledging her subjective positionality, she is far more honest than more conventional reporters who delude themselves with a false pretense to objectivity. Her sense of ambiguity and complexity comes from real lived experience as a sexual subject.

In almost every case, the real story is something other than the textbook demonization ritual celebrated time after time by the sanctimonious clerisy of mainstream media. The real story of Abu Ghraib was not the inhumanity of poorly trained low-rank soldiers or the naïveté of a not-very-bright hick girl from West Virginia, but a military culture of unthinking conformity and systemic torture encouraged by the U.S. government. Matthew Shepard’s death had nothing to do with homophobia, but everything to do with the drug-sated lifestyle of unambitious young men in a boring cowboy town; we now know that both Shepard and his killers were drug dealers who sometimes traded sex for more pharmaceuticals. The Nushawn Williams case in Jamestown, N.Y., is not just that of a reckless and narcissistic sexual player, but a milieu of casual unprotected sex (and drugs) that assumed HIV is not an issue for heterosexual partners who imagine they are in a “relationship.” Williams himself may very well have gotten HIV from one of these local girls. Woody Allen’s disgrace was not about child sexual abuse, but manipulative implantation of victim memories within a grossly dysfunctional family. The real story about Brett Kavanagh is not whatever may or may not have transpired between Catherine Blasey and him when they were both drunk teenagers, but his lack of intellectual curiosity about contemporary sexual politics and the consequences of the upper-middle class adolescent party scene in which they grew up.

The most famous priest scandal that won the Boston Globe a Pulitzer and the film Spotlight an Oscar had nothing to do with real child abuse in the Catholic church, and everything to do with a greedy personal injury attorney and unscrupulous psychiatrist who recruited mentally unstable patients to produce inconsistent and scientifically discredited “recovered memories” of weekly abuse that no one else present at the school had ever witnessed any occasion for. No one says anything about the psychological damage done by implanting false memories of horrific acts into the already disturbed minds of men desperate to find an easy explanation for all of their failures in life. The secondary story was the Diocese’s too ready acquiescence in paying out huge sums to illegitimate claimants, which only encouraged still more to come forward and board the gravy train, thereby delivering even more damaging stories about hundreds of victims and feeding the torrent of hate-filled anti-clericalism from “victim advocacy” fanatics like SNAP (Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests). Wypijewski attended Paul Shanley’s trial and extensively interviewed both Shanley and others involved in the case. Her sceptical investigative reporting definitively established Shanley’s innocence of the criminal charges brought against him. She concedes that the radical street priest who founded the Boston chapter of Dignity and championed gay inclusion against the disapproving Catholic hierarchy was a complex and imperfect human being. He violated his clerical vows by actively pursuing sexual relationships with some of the troubled young gay men and teens who sought his counsel in the 1960s and 70s; it is possible, although not certain, that some of the runaway boys he took in might have been younger than 16, the legal age of consent in Massachusetts. But there is no evidence that he was ever interested in pre-pubescent children or even had occasion to be alone with them, much less commit rape. Despite mounting scientific evidence against the credibility of any “recovered memory” testimony, which is now rejected almost universally in courts of every state, the Massachusetts Supreme Court refused to overturn Shanley’s unjust conviction. His story had become “too big to fail.”

Even as Shanley was the stereotypical sexual monster of the 2000’s, another even more odious monster emerged in the next decade in the persona of the repulsive Harvey Weinstein, whose downfall spurred the 2018 essay that gives the book its title. The media relished the image of the once wealthy and powerful film producer bent over his walker, publicly derided as fat, hairy, stinking of shit, with graphic descriptions of his deformed genitals broadcast to a world full of laughing haters. No one will deny that he engaged in bad behavior, but what we don’t talk about is the willing complicity of the many young actresses who either acquiesced to his crude advances or agreed to keep silent. In a Hollywood culture where the “casting couch” has always been a byword, ambitious young women sometimes compromise their moral purity by consenting, however reluctantly, to sex with ugly and obnoxious men, seeing it as a necessary and temporary sacrifice, at least until a personal injury attorney helps them monetize it even more by saying they didn’t fully consent on one or two occasions. There is much else we don’t talk about, such as sex panic, vengeance, Schadenfreude, due process, and the serious social costs of criminalizing all but a strictly regulated menu of permissible sexual and romantic behaviors.

For an hour-long interview of Wypijewski by Canadian “Femsplainer” Danielle Crittenden and the libertarian journalist Emily Yoffe, listen to the podcast at It is always a relief to hear independently minded sex-positive feminists, whether of the left or right, who reject the paternalistic construction of ubiquitous female victimization and weakness, itself a sexist stereotype that is arguably even more toxic to women themselves than to the men whom we so love to damn as serial predators. Theirs is a feminism of strength and self-confidence in dealing with men, not whining self-pity. They recognize that sex and desire are inherently messy and often disappointing, rarely Platonic ideals of perfect egalitarianism that can be hypostasized into a legally obligatory conformity.


Book Review – Paying for Sex in a Digital Age

Paying for sex in a digital ageReview of Teela Sanders, Barbara G. Brents & Chris Wakefield, Paying for Sex in a Digital Age: US and UK Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2020) xvii + 250 pp.

This book differs from most scholarship on sex work in that it focuses not on the demography and experiences of sex workers, but of the consumers who pay for sex. Much feminist and social conservative rhetoric demeans this group as men who exemplify the worst aspects of “toxic masculinity”: a desire for dominance and control, indifference to relationships and emotional intimacy, neglect of family, compulsive hypersexuality, misogyny, and violent abuse. This ideology has engendered a progressive orthodoxy, often known as the “Swedish model,” that favors decriminalizing the sex worker, but criminalizing anyone who purchases sex. The present book offers a much more nuanced and humane view, based on two separate surveys the authors conducted in the UK (1206 participants) and the US (687 participants), recruited from users of online sexual services platforms. This population yields a sample more typical of most sex work customers today than previous studies based on men arrested for soliciting sex on the street, who tend to be intoxicated or relatively indiscreet in their interactions.

Comparing US and UK samples is helpful: despite the cultural similarities between the two nations, they have very different approaches toward the legal status of sex work. In the UK, it is completely legal as long as it is privately negotiated between two parties, kept off the street and out of organized brothels. The US, as in most sexual matters, adopts a much more restrictive and intolerant regime, criminalizing it in all but a few counties of Nevada with regulated brothels (whose customers the book also studies, as two of the authors are located in Las Vegas). Indeed, the repressive state apparatus in the US has recently moved in the direction of shutting down web platforms utilized by sex workers and their clients, such as Craigslist, Backpage, and Rentboy. US media, academics, and legislators justify this repression in the name of protecting victims of sex trafficking, which they assume to be so ubiquitous that one study estimated over 1% of the population of Texas had been trafficked. The frequent users of sexual services who responded to this book’s surveys, in contrast, found that trafficking and other forms of third-party coercion were relatively infrequent in their experience.

Chapter One examines the demographics of those who buy sex. General population surveys show that 11% of adult men in the UK have at some point in their lives paid for sex, 14% of men in the US, 17% in Australia, and over 20% in Spain, where it is fully decriminalized. Carceral repression would thus in theory involve locking up a significant proportion of the male population. In the UK and Australia, younger men in their 20s and 30s without a regular sex partner are most likely to be consumers of paid sex, whereas in the US, it is more common among men in their 40s, but older men who do pay for sex tend to do so more often. In the US, the religious are just as likely to pay for sex as the non-religious, men living in rural areas just as likely as those in urban areas, and the poor just as likely as the rich. Contrary to feminist dogma, surveys find no evidence that buyers of sex score higher on psychological tests of entitlement or control; indeed, these authors accumulate evidence that they are more gender-egalitarian in their attitudes.

Chapter Two surveys the contemporary political and legal landscape with regard to sex work in both the US and UK. Religious conservatives and feminists have joined forces to combat prostitution, nominally out of concern for the welfare of female sex workers, but perhaps with greater zeal to demonize male moral turpitude and hypersexuality. They have successfully exploited a dominant media and public policy discourse around “sex trafficking” as justification, but this book argues that the evidence for it is often little more than anecdotal, the data sources dubious, and the generalizations unverifiable. The authors maintain that the more punitive approach does not lower the supply or demand, but it does make sex work encounters more dangerous for both consumers and providers by dismantling safer online platforms and driving transactions underground. Legal developments in both the US and UK hold consumers strictly liable for enhanced “trafficking” penalties if they engage anyone who later claims to be trafficked or compelled by a third party, even if the consumer is completely unaware of the circumstance.

Chapter Three treats in more detail how digital platforms enable both consumers and providers to screen each other more carefully, set out clear understandings in advance, and communicate multiple times to increase each party’s trust and comfort with the transaction. The authors note that the impact of the 2018 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) has been to thwart most online communication in the US, forcing formerly independent sex workers back onto the street (note the fourfold increase in street prostitution in San Francisco the week after passage of FOSTA/SESTA) or into brothels/agencies managed by organized crime. As such, it has made them less safe. By pushing any remaining online commerce onto the invisible “Dark Web,” it has actually made it more difficult for law enforcement to identify real cases of trafficking. The sex workers rendered most vulnerable by the loss of online platforms are not the high-end call girls or gay porn stars, who can rely on extensive interpersonal networks, but precisely the poorest and most marginalized, women of color and trans persons.

Chapter Four gives a more in-depth look at the data about sex-work clients accumulated in the authors’ US and UK surveys. They acknowledge a key limitation of their data sample, namely its probable over-sampling of regular users of sexual services who frequent some of the more specialized online platforms, such as those that provide ratings or reviews of sex workers. Both their sample and previous studies have suggested that most online clients are “white, middle-aged, middle-class, cisgender men with slightly higher than average education and income.” However, depending on the sampling technique, studies show some significant differences with regard to how many clients are married or have other regular sexual partners, with the figures ranging from 75% with regular partners to 75% without. The authors’ US survey showed 42% married, but only 31% in monogamous relationships, suggesting that many of the men who sought sex work did so with the knowledge, permission, and in some cases participation of their wives. Unfortunately, their data was not granular enough to distinguish how many of the men remained married in sexless or sexually unsatisfying relationships (e.g. for the sake of the children) and resorted to sex work out of loneliness or need for physical contact and how many were men with very strong sex drives who continued to enjoy sex with their wife, but felt they needed more. Significantly, and in contrast to some previous surveys, the authors’ work showed that sex work clients are much more politically and socially liberal than the general population.

The authors note that previous studies of men arrested for street solicitation reveal a very different demographic: younger, poorer, and more likely to be non-white. It remains unclear whether this is because less experienced or socially polished men are more likely to make awkward or drunken advances on undercover officers or because more affluent, educated, and experienced gentlemen prefer to go online and book their trysts in advance. What is certain is that street work is much more risky for women and trans persons, and it is now far less common in the UK, where online communication and privately negotiated sex work indoors are legal.

Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

The information on prices paid for sexual services was not as useful as it could have been, failing to distinguish between male and female sex workers, older (i.e. wealthier, but less physically appealing) clients and younger clients, and prices paid for overnight stays or multi-day travel from those for brief encounters. The US and UK surveys were not comparable, because they asked fundamentally different questions (average monthly expenditure vs. average expenditure per encounter), but they do suggest that prices are considerably lower in the UK, probably because of the lower threshold of legal and physical risk for both parties. Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

Chapter Five is in many ways the most interesting to me, as it focuses upon niche markets for atypical consumers, including women, gay and bi-sexual men, disabled people, and the older man. Despite feminist denials that women would ever purchase sex, they constituted about 1% of the respondents to the UK survey, 6% of the US survey, but the authors make no claim these numbers are representative of the general population. Female purchasers are mainly unmarried professionals in their 30s and 40s (and in the US, also their 50s). The UK survey asked about the particular services purchased: women were more likely than men to purchase anal sex, threesomes, and webcam services, but since there were only 13 women in the UK sample, this may not be representative. They frequently purchase services from other women (8 of the 13 in the UK sample, not asked in the US survey).

Disabled and elderly men find sex workers less judgmental toward them than other women, so they provide a valuable service to those who are otherwise lonely. The older buyer tends to have more disposable income, but may be divorced or have a wife who is ill or no longer interested or no longer attractive to him. Indulgence in periodic purchase of sexual services may be less disruptive to his life and family than a regular mistress would be. A significant percentage of older men only begin buying sex in later life (31% of the UK sample began after age 56). If we include more informal “sugar-daddy” arrangements that are on the margins of being definable as sex work, older men’s engagement with the sexual market is even more widespread. Older men who do purchase sex tend to be more frequent purchasers than younger and middle-aged men, unsurprising given their higher income and lower prospects for finding attractive partners just based on their looks and vigor. They also tend to value ongoing relationships and some measure of emotional intimacy with a favored sex worker to a greater degree than young consumers.

Chapter Six explores the phenomenon of webcamming as non-contact sex work. This tends to take two forms: public performances open to multiple viewers who can encourage the performers with electronically transmitted tips (comparable to strippers in a club) or private one-on-one performances in which viewers are able to share their own (often unclothed) image with the performer and talk with them directly. Among those who use this latter medium, many report having favorite performers with whom they develop online friendships and talk about non-sexual topics as well.

Chapter Seven provides an insight into the motives and ethical attitudes of online consumers of sex work. Contrary to feminist doctrine, the vast majority have no interest in “control” or coercion. 66.5% of the US sample said they sought “emotional intimacy” with sex workers, whereas only 14.2% cited “power or control” as a motivation. Many even say they seek sex workers to deal with stress, anxiety, and a need not to be always in control; many cite disappointments in non-commercial relationships, appreciate the clearly negotiated boundaries and expectations of a sex work encounter, and see their sex work experiences as having more to do with validating their masculinity among their male peers than about asserting it toward women. US samples of sex consumers report much more egalitarian attitudes toward women in work, politics, and the home than the general population of men.

Indeed, most clients report compassion toward the sex worker and avoid situations where they suspect exploitation. Only 2.2% of the US sample of regular purchasers admitted having ever bought the services of someone under 18, suggesting that media-driven narratives of a widespread industry of “child sex trafficking” are overblown. 23% of the UK buyers reported that they had at least once in their life encountered a sex worker whom they believed was being exploited by a third party; in the qualitative portion of the survey, they said such situations were a turn-off and they would even pay the fee without actually engaging in physical contact. The authors did not explore what clients thought about the ethics of supplying cash to sex workers who were in thrall to a drug habit. But they did emphasize that criminalization of buying sex (with especially harsh penalties for buying from a victim of exploitation) deterred clients who encountered exploitation or abuse from reporting it to authorities. This only makes it more difficult to stop.

The US survey revealed that 16.1% of respondents had ever been in a “heated argument” with a sex worker, but only 3.4% had been in a “violent confrontation.” These figures are less useful than they should have been, because they did not specify whether the conflict or violence came from the sex worker or the client, and whether the sex worker was male (more likely to resort to threats and violence) or female.

A brief concluding chapter ties together the threads of this investigation and again warns us that poor public policy comes out of ideologically motivated “stereotype, falsehood, and generalization” concerning clients of paid sex. Their data proves conclusively that clients are not the chief source of the exploitation and violence that characterizes some segments of the sex industry. In a fully decriminalized context, where they feel free to report abuses to the authorities, clients can be a key part of the solution.

I have noted a few places where I wish we had more granular data. My largest criticism is that the authors should have made a greater effort to recruit more gay and bi-sexual users of online platforms, who would likely confound the reductive feminist shibboleths about power and control even more resoundingly than straight men. The UK data about lesbian or bi-sexual women purchasing sex from other women is intriguing, but the number responding (eight) is too small for us to conclude very much about this phenomenon. As the old sexual and gender binaries break down, sex workers may provide a key role in allowing previously straight men and women to broaden their horizons of attraction and self-fulfillment by experimenting with alternative desires, ethnicities, and body types. Not every bi-curious man is ready to put his profile out on Grindr.


Book Review – The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence

Review of Judith Levine & Erica R. Meiners, The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence (London & New York: Verso, 2020) vi+213 pp.

This is a book written by feminists for feminists. For most academic and activist writings, that would not be remarkable or particularly worthy of distinction, but this book is special because it chooses to focus upon a topic that causes distress and anxiety to many feminists; moreover, the book challenges feminists to rethink their position, which many activists blame for the draconian regime of mass incarceration and subsequent social death of men whose past sexual behavior has deviated from contemporary social norms. Womens’ Studies scholars commonly assert the necessity of “intersectional” analysis, but Levine and Meiners argue that they need to be even more intersectional in recognizing the damage to queers, people of color, and economically disadvantaged communities done by policies encouraged by mostly white, educated, cisgender heterosexual women under the banner of holding all perpetrators eternally accountable for crimes that have anything to do with sex. Levine and Meiners draw on strands of black and Latina feminism that, since the 1970s, have argued for the oppressive role of law enforcement against racial and ethnic minority communities. As well they invoke the rhetoric of prison abolition activists in proposing to reinvigorate “abolition feminism” to oppose the vindictive “carceral feminism” that has become so fashionable in the era of #MeToo crusades against still too frequent male swinishness. The authors argue that sexual violence cannot be ended by a regime of sanctioned state violence, but only by personal engagement and restorative justice within the community.

As a feminist journalist with a long background in left politics, Levine, along with Meiners, a tenured Gender Studies academic with a track record of publication on sex-offense related issues, presents us with a succinct, well-written polemic, backed up by solid references to peer-reviewed literature. While not minimizing the serious toll of sexual violence on its victims, they call our attention to the increasing severity of the sex offender regime, which imprisons men for terms substantially longer than are meted out to other categories of violent crime and then place them uniquely, often for life, on open public registries that make them pariahs within their communities, debar them from full involvement in their children’s lives, as well as the job opportunities and housing necessary to successful reintegration, despite long-documented statistics showing they are less likely to recidivate than any other class of “violent” felon (p. 70).

They contrast the complicity of contemporary carceral feminists with the anti-police distrust of state authority by the radical feminists of the 1970s, especially those who were non-white and poor. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, proudly shepherded by former Sen. Joe Biden, actually had the perverse effect of disempowering women and limiting their agency by forcing prosecution of violent partners whom many women chose to forgive and maintain as family breadwinners rather than see the family broken apart and forced into poverty by extended incarceration. They also see state paternalism at work in the 2011 initiative of the Obama-Biden administration (the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights) to require universities to investigate murky cases of drunken or later-regretted student sex with procedures and assumptions that presumed the truth of allegations and denied due process to the accused. They point out that these policies have produced the regressive result that the campus allegations have disproportionately targetted African-American males (pp. 27-28), even as the sex offender registries and carceral state also do (p. 50). Although they do not mention it, these allegations also disproportionately affect gay male students because other male students who may drunkenly consent to experiment with same-sex intimacy later regret it and want to cleanse themselves of any taint of being gay by casting their partner as a predator who took advantage of them.

The book is always ready with a handy statistic or study to illustrate the absurdity and futility of the surveillance regime that the war on sex offending has created. As laws and sentencing guidelines have grown progressively more punitive, sex offenders are the most rapidly increasing segment of the incarcerated population (12% of those in state prisons, 10% in federal facilities – p. 46), despite a decline in the absolute number of sex offense cases. A Minnesota study of the small number of sex offenders who re-offended showed that residency restrictions would not have prevented a single case of re-offense, and a New York study showed that the institution of community notification had no effect on rates of sex offending (pp. 51-52). Girls spend twice as long in juvenile detention for sex offenses as boys (p. 56). A California study showed that released felons who had been through a sex offender treatment program in prison were no more or less likely to re-offend than those who received no treatment (p. 73). Individuals with strong religious involvement throughout their lives actually have higher rates of sex offending, more victims, and younger victims (p. 108). A meta-analysis showed that the most commonly used instrument for assessing the risk of recidivism was accurate only 60% of the time, “not much better than a coin toss”(p. 75). This entire vastly expensive and bureaucratic system is nothing but security theater for the benefit of an anxious and fearful population, unsupported by even a sliver of empirical evidence for its effectiveness.

Part III of the book, called “Fractured Resistance,” strikes a more hopeful note as it surveys the terrain of various groups that are fighting or might be enlisted in fighting the pernicious effects of carceral solutions to anathematized sex: we meet groups like NARSOL, ACSOL, and WAR (Women Against the Registry), largely composed of mothers, grandmothers, and wives of men caught up in the system. Their effectiveness has been limited by failure to forge alliances with other groups that might be helpful: movements to restore voting rights to felons or register them where they do have the right to vote, the broader prison abolition movement, some non-mainstream LGBTQ organizations, religious ministries that see no one as “irreparable,” the men’s movement, disability rights advocates aware of how age and disability are used as an excuse to deprive people of sexual agency, and sex worker support groups that have learned all too well that criminalization of websites offering sexual services puts them at greater risk of abuse by clients or pimps. The authors express hope that each of these groups can look beyond their particular focus to understand the broader context of the struggle for a world where both sexual violence and state violence are rare. However, given the differing agendas of these groups and the timidity of those who fear being tarred with charges of “normalizing pedophilia” or being “rape apologists” for daring even to raise the issue (charges particularly likely to be hurled at male activists), this vision of a broad fusionist movement may be an elusive pipe dream.

What is the alternative to the carceral system for men who harm others sexually? Levine and Meiners show enthusiasm for Circles of Support and Accountability and other manifestations of what is called “Restorative Justice” or “Transformative Justice.” This approach has considerable appeal, but I am disappointed that their chapter is short on examples of how it works in real life situations. The one concrete example concerns a small activist organization dealing with a once-influential officer who committed sexual harassment. Everyone getting together to educate such an individual and hold them accountable for pursuing change in the future might work in such small-scale collaborative contexts, and also holds some potential for the many Title IX cases that involve situations of ambiguous, drunken, or poorly verbalized consent among inexperienced college students. But what would Restorative Justice look like in the most serious cases: the woman who is forcibly raped by a stranger (not her date), or the small child who is manipulated by an adult into doing something they neither understood nor wanted? Would such victims ever want to see their assailant again, much less engage with him in a process of mutual healing? Those with an exceptional capacity for philosophical breadth, empathy, and forgiveness might, but we must understand that many victims will not. Can we always find five sympathetic and emotionally stable friends for every sex offender who needs a Circle of Support and Accountability? Offenders and victims alike tend to come from marginalized communities with frayed social fabric and low thresholds of tolerance.

In keeping with their aspirational mission, Levine and Meiners end the book with ten concrete recommendations. Most of these are obvious and would receive our wholehearted support: end the Registry, end civil commitment and the medicalization of sexual deviance, rationalize the laws pertaining to teenage sexuality, provide positive sex education that does not focus on sexuality only in terms of risk, but as a collaborative interaction that aims at reinforcing social bonds through mutual pleasure. I particularly like their proposal to “complicate consent” beyond the simple-minded strictures that imagine every sexual exploration must be desiccated into a constantly affirmed checklist of “Yes” and “No.” As they point out, there is a lot that even vanilla practitioners can learn about consent from the BDSM community; I would add that cruising spaces of the gay community have also evolved codes of communicating consent and non-consent that are not always verbal and from which heterosexuals can derive valuable lessons.

I am more dubious about their proposal that sexual violence can be reduced if we “Build and Sustain a Robust Welfare State.” Domestic abuse, spousal rape, and child sexual abuse occur in families up and down the socio-economic ladder; sexual harassment is just as much a problem in corporate boardrooms, broadcast TV studios, and the halls of Congress as it is among the immigrant janitorial staff cleaning those facilities overnight. There is no evidence that socialist economies or generous welfare benefits correlate with lower rates of sexual abuse. The fusionist approach to organizing and activism depends on attracting support across the political spectrum. Small-government libertarians are natural allies to those of us who want to get law enforcement out of the bedroom, so they should not be alienated with calls for massive redistribution of wealth that has no provable relation to the problem under consideration. A government that is omnipotent enough to provide cradle-to-grave care for all its citizens is just as paternalistic as the state that attempts to legislate sexual morality and enforce it with brutal repression. Both are grounded in the conviction that a “knowledge elite” of privileged technocrats knows what is good for our public health and safety better than we do.  – TKH

Judith Butler, Nonviolence, and Mass Incarceration

Herd immunity is hardly a conspiracy to define some lives as more expendable than others – it’s simply the epidemiological reality that as a high proportion of a population gains antibodies to, say, a virus, incidence of new infection will go down, as there are fewer actively infected persons (thanks to widespread immunity) shedding virus – thus reducing exposure to those still vulnerable.

Butler’s mistake here isn’t entirely innocent. It points to a paranoid style intrinsic to identity politics, with which her work has long been richly, if paradoxically, intertwined.

Granted, Butler offers here a fine sermon on our mutual dependency and the boomerang of political violence. But do her often useful contributions as a public intellectual come in spite of her commitments?

Does it sharpen or confuse analysis when she invokes over and over race and ethnicity, queerness, feminism (“very strongly nonviolent” she says in a recent New Yorker interview), along with these terms’ inevitable antipode, “straight white men”?

Butler’s categorical fetishisms might seem odd for a theorist who rocketed to fame through the counter-intuitive claim that, for people, gender is a performative construct – as somehow it isn’t for bonobos or willow trees. Hers was a Frankensteinish chimera of two dead mindsets – creationism’s conceit of human uniqueness and B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Are ethology and evolution and anthropology really silent on sex and gender?

Insisting materialism didn’t matter, Butler managed to pull off a zombie intellectual apocalypse. She ignored rival accounts, larger bodies of evidence, or cross-disciplinary standards of empirical adequacy. In what was indeed quite a performance, she helped put the stamp of leftish approval on the magickal irrealism now pandemic across the political spectrum.

Even if Butler got pushback from feminists or gays who see gender or lovemaps as more ontologically deep-seated than discursively conjured, the criticisms never really stuck to her teflon persona.

That’s because her theory of performative identity – while absurd for explaining gender or erotics – fit perfectly feminism and LGBTQ as identity movements, as petty nationalisms – nationalism being, of course, a confection, accreting in young hearts & minds by so many performative renditions of national anthems and pledges of allegiance under the watchful classroom gaze of so many benevolent founding fathers.

While there’s now some pushback among progressives for how broader goals were hijacked by identity movements – how Hillary Clinton’s waving of rainbow flags served as red flag to the deplorables’ china-shop bulls – the critique has much further to go.

Identity movements are opportunistic nationalisms that, once advancing beyond core legitimate claims, have tended to become voracious imperialists and parasites on the common good. Check out for the perfidy of, say, the Congressional Black Caucus. Or consider how AIDS activism decayed into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Pharma, leaving few obstacles in the way of the corporate driven opioid death mill. And scholars such as Marie Gottshalk and John Clegg & Adaner Usmani  show how racism is a poor corrective lens for seeing clearly America’s carceral state.

You don’t have to question abortion like a Nat Hentoff to wonder how non-violent feminism has been. Just consider Aya Gruber’s The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration. Feminist theoretical claims denying any distinction between symbol and act may have failed to put a fatwa on Debbie Does Dallas, but they have put tens of thousands of men in prison, often for decades, for crimes on the order of possessing Japanese anime or dirty fiction. Feminist victimology spawned Satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory scams – endorsed by the movement’s leading figures without any of the consequences faced by men accused of intrinsically unproveable fondles from decades past. The political fetish of positive identities – as surely as what goes up must come down – creates vacuums where negative ones flash into being, Aryan to Roma or Jew. Thus has been justified the wholesale deprivation of civil rights of some one million Americans on offender registries, to the invidious delight of LGBTQ, Inc. Anthropology shows homosexuality to be overwhelmingly age-structured – a trend so dyed-in-wool that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing would today be tarred as “pedophiles” – a term Butler makes clear in her New Yorker interview she wants to defend the Aryanesque purity of LGBTQ against.

Almost as if agent provocateurs, the identity movements have savaged institutions and traditions – whether equality before the law (see hate crimes statutes) or the Church or Boy Scouts – that, however flawed, evince universalist ideals, take people roughly as they are and where they’re at, and can at least be called on to answer when they fall short, as M.L. King did so powerfully. Butler’s highlighting how we depend and mutually implicate each other are welcome thoughts. But her beating the undead horse of identity politics isn’t going to carry us further along to materializing those ideals.