To the Editor:
I WAS SURPRISED and disappointed that in Christine Rosen’s article on men and women at the workplace she chose to ignore the principle casus belli of the sexual upheavals that have been roiling the waters since the sixties—the oral contraceptive (“The Reckoning,” January). Before the Pill, pregnancy functioned as a strong psychological and physical inhibitor to male sexual predation. After it, all that remains are the comparatively weak forces of decency and good manners.
To the Editor:
I SHOOK my head in puzzlement when reading Christine Rosen’s article. If I understand her correctly, Ms. Rosen is saying that it is impossible to agree on norms regarding sexual behavior. If so, I respectfully disagree. Such norms have shifted radically over the past 200 years. The libertinism of the early 19th century gave rise to the Victorian and Albert Biedermeier happy-home norm. After Victoria, standards loosened again, with the mores of Edward VII and Jennie Jerome as the new normal. The angst and tragedy of World War I lifted after the war with a frenzy of desperate La Valse gaiety. The Depression was another sea change, followed, after World War II, by the “happy homemaker” at her hearth. One homemaker owned a cookbook unironically titled “The Way to a Man’s Heart.” The feminists of the 1960s and ’70s stepped in and pulled up the rug by the hearth. We are still feeling, and reeling from, the effects.
Sexual norms can change, and history suggests that they will indeed do so. All that is needed is for a few prominent women to publicly announce that they will not be playthings but will respect themselves and insist on the respect of men until marriage. I await these changes with patient anticipation, but courageous leaders must take the first steps.
Christine Rosen writes:
DAVID SMITH is correct about the lasting cultural impact of the Pill, of course, but in the context of how we define norms for behavior between men and women in the workplace, I think he underestimates the forces of decency and good manners. Far from being “weak,” this kind of civility, when agreed upon and embraced by the majority of people in a society, can be a powerful force for good, even in the absence of “inhibitors” like pregnancy.
The question, as Eileen Pollock reminds us, is what happens when the agreed-upon rules change and we can’t figure out how to write new ones. I don’t think it’s impossible for us to reach agreement on norms for sexual behavior; what I argue is that in a culture as polarized as ours, in which men are treated like enemy combatants in an ongoing gender war and women are asked to choose among a host of contradictory messages about sex (be sex positive! wait until marriage! consent is impossible! etc.), it’s much easier to applaud periodic #MeToo moments than it is to do the hard work of thinking through the benefits and the drawbacks of our most recent sexual revolution, especially since the latter would mean acknowledging that men and women often have different needs and expectations when it comes to sex. I hope we can eventually establish new norms that respect individual liberty and don’t infantilize women—norms that make clear what sexual consent and autonomy should look like. Until then, however, I think we should be cautious about premature claims of victory by feminist activists.