By Victor Davis Hanson, November 27, 2017
Just like aggressive nations, so too people who are not innately moral are deterred from committing crimes by fear of punishment.
The likelihood of arrest, the good chance of conviction, the probability of jail time or fines, or a permanent criminal record—or all that and more—do their parts to discourage criminality.
In that context, the sudden deluge of sexual harassment claims shares one common theme: lost deterrence.
Those who use their positions of ideological correctness, perceived power, authority, influence, or money to leverage some sort of unwanted sex (from a fleeting grope to coerced intercourse) do so because, in their jaded cost-benefit calibrations, they can.
In our postmodern age, we can no longer rely on now ancient notions of self-restraint. Too many celebrities and power-mongers deprecate the old idea of acting like a gentleman as corny or passé. Many of today’s feminists may find men who open doors, pick up the dinner tab, or postpone sexual intercourse until there is a clear relationship as either condescending chauvinists or utter nerds. Hollywood seems to have idealized the moment when a man rough-handles a woman until his violence leads to eroticism and a willing surrender in his arms—in clinical terms perhaps possible, in real life clearly quite rare.
The majority of high-profile men do not ascribe anymore to religious principles that restrain the libido. Mike Pence was laughed at for his wise counsel of avoiding ubiquitous temptations—as if he were a 60-something innocent babe in the woods of slithering vamps.
In our therapeutic culture born in the 1960s, sex was recalibrated as liberating, free, and without consequences—notas the Greeks once warned of Eros as dangerous and destructive in its power to cloud reason and make even the sober and judicious mere slaves to their appetites.
A sex-sick Phaedra was not a pretty sight.
The Right Politics
Sometimes sexual deterrence is lost through loud liberal politics. Al Franken assumed that as a progressive “giant of the Senate” his professed progressive feminism exempted him from any consequences for his snickering gropes and creepy cheap feels. In Franken’s twisted mind, how many free prods and pokes does voting against confirming conservative federal judges earn?
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) seems to have made a career of exempted perversions, predicated on the fact he was a founding member of the Black Caucus.
Correct politics deterred aggrieved women from coming forward—on the understandable expectation that, even if believed, their elders would insist that their own harassment was not so important as to endanger the cosmic political good.
So abstract morality can offset concrete immorality in a variety of ways: Bill Clinton’s stance on abortion may have earned him a sort of coerced or cheap insurance from “knee-pad” sex. Denigrating a Paula Jones as trailer trash was a small price to pay for having an empowered Hillary as first lady.
Al Gore assumed that his “Earth in the Balance” greenery earned him a few leveraged “crazed sex poodle” cooldowns with working-class hotel masseuses after a long day on the road saving the planet from global warming. Gore’s green get-out-of-harassment-free card was the sexual equivalent of his earlier rush to sell (before an anticipated rise in the capital gains tax) a failed cable station to the antisemitic Al Jazeera, fueled, of course, by Middle Eastern carbon fuel profits.
Harvey Weinstein’s in-the-trenches fights against the NRA and the forces of Trump darkness apparently had convinced him that with impunity he could grab, assault, and even rape women—as if he were some sort of irreplaceable social justice deviant. If liberal Kevin Spacey ever had to announce to the world that he was gay, it would be to pose as a victim of the public’s crude stereotyping of gays as pederasts. But an Oscar Wilde battling Victorian England Spacey was not.
Certainly, a young woman was apparently supposed to have seen a progressive mentoring groper, exhibitionist, or sleaze-talking Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, or Leon Wieseltier as a sophisticated progressive feminist, who sympathized with the plight of up-and-coming females in the workplace. Or women assumed that such old pros at least knew well the career-ending dangers of using their star power to leverage some sort of sex that otherwise in the arena of mutually assenting hook-ups was unlikely—given their age, grating pomposity, ossified looks, and crustacean personality.
Celebrity and Power
Often in related fashion, celebrity and perceived authority also erode deterrence. At Fox News, it was not so much conservatism per se that empowered Roger Ailes, Eric Bolling, Charles Payne, or Bill O’Reilly. Each according to his respective station, apparently felt that he could at times talk or act sexually crudely in asymmetrical ways—largely because each assumed he was too financially important to the network to be held accountable (whether or not Fox News would have concurred with their assessments). Hubris can earn sexual Nemesis.
In addition, serial exploiters assumed intended targets would endure even unpleasant attention and sexual come-ons, out of star-struck gratitude, or in hopes of quid pro quo career investments. For the crass sexual investor, then, the risks of being held to account were not deemed as great as their perceived benefits derived from sexual predation.
Perhaps past stealthy and affordable sexual financial settlements had green-lighted such behavior. Or past warnings from management were deemed Munich like. Or serial sexual congress was seen as a sort of roulette wheel: predators played the percentages in the expectation that in the past they had landed at least a few willing sexual targets and thus were willing to put up with the embarrassments or dangers of more common rejection. In all these cases, the common denominator was the loss of deterrence to prevent such predation—and of course the view of sex as something one-sided, leveraged, and animal-like. For the powerful male, the old idea of just being nice to someone in all matters of congress was apparently written off as unsexy.
How is sexual deterrence restored in what are asymmetrical and non-consenting relationships?
1) Politics has to be divorced from sex and replaced with the deterrent of hypocrisy. The self-professed religious moralist and the progressive feminist who coercively grope, grab and worse should suffer the additional wage of duplicity.
2) The sudden spate of career-ending apologies, embarrassments, or confessionals is already deterring others in like positions from targeting those deemed unwilling and subordinate.
What happens in the next few months will determine whether deterrence holds or career implosions lead to amnesia and career rehabilitations. If the Trimalchio Charlie Rose is back in business in a month, then would be predators to come will again have made the commensurate cost-benefit calculations. Perhaps a few will see the dangers of a mere transitory career dip as still worth the risk.
3) On the other hand, if current legitimate complaints are drowned out by dubious allegations, then in Salem Witch Trial fashion or in the manner of the hysteria unleashed by the guillotining Committee of the Public Safety, the public will conclude enough is enough! The destruction of Hippolytus is the archetypal warning of what follows from the revenge of the spurned.
In addition, a congressman who made a sexual ass out of himself with a willing adult partner, in a tawdry but mutual relationship gone on the rocks is a matter of ethics—not the law. Consenting promiscuity is not in the same category as the felonious Anthony Weiner. The state has no business in investigating what two adults in private willingly consent to.
Moreover, no one has yet quite calibrated such sins with commensurate punishments. Clearly, an elderly groper like George H.W. Bush or a creepy avuncular feeler like a solicitous Joe Biden is not in the same den as Jeffery Epstein’s “Lolita Express” or the allegations lodged against Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, or Harvey Weinstein. He said/she said, the nature of the one-sided impropriety, the statutes of limitation, the consistency of evidence, the age of the target and the targeted all factor into the equation of punishment and social and legal ostracism.
For deterrence to hold, then, public opinion will have to weed out post facto claims of men and women who feel their once consenting relationships did not pan out as they once hoped and thus justify investments in pursuing vengeance—especially if a long-ago partner is or has become wealthy, powerful, or well known.
4) Private settlements are a double-edged sword. Hushed payouts both enhance and erode deterrence.
If rich perpetrators know that they can pay money and win contractual silence, then they may feel free to
continue their predations, as the bailouts of congressional harassers proved. Victims are on their own in a sort of free-for-all to find private justice rather than collective relief through changed mores.
But if such settlements are outlawed by the state or by the firm, then the offender may feel he can only be hurt in a court of law, in which he said/she said evidence will not often warrant charges. The offended likewise will calibrate that without the leverage of financial compensation, and with little likelihood of criminal prosecution, acts of lewdness are better left forgotten.
5) Sexual liberation of the 1960s is incompatible with 21st-century definitions of sexual probity. The most effective way of restoring deterrence, of course, is to redefine ’60s sexual mores as transient and destructive rather than liberating and permanent. One does not have to be a prude to see that the promiscuity of the last half-century was a boon to some men, who saw less need for courtship or commitment—or even kindness—to find sexual gratification. In so many cases humiliation and canine viciousness seem part and parcel of their predations.
In our present weird system of promiscuous Victorianism, men and women in the workplace are reduced to bumper cars. They butt up against each other hourly, often with the false assumption that a gesture, a nod, or a spoken word are pathways to something sexual—rather than irrelevant and incidental, in a better world where two people must know and like each other pretty well before they dare consider surrendering their intimacy to the dangerous power of Eros.
Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism.
Dr. Hanson is the author of The Second World Wars – How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won. It is coming out in October 2017 by Basic Books.