On what he called the worst day of his political life, Senator Al Franken articulated two points that are central to understanding what has become known as the #MeToo moment. In an eleven-minute speech, in which Franken announced his intention to resign from the Senate, he made this much clear: the force that is ending his political career is greater than the truth, and this force operates on only roughly half of this country’s population—those who voted for Hillary Clinton and who consume what we still refer to as mainstream media.
There was one notable absence in his speech: Franken did not apologize. In fact, he made it clear that he disagreed with his accusers. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true,” he said. “Others I remember very differently.” Earlier, Franken had in fact apologized to his accusers, and he didn’t take his apologies back now, but he made it plain that they had been issued in the hopes of facilitating a conversation and an investigation that would clear him. He had, it seems, been attempting to buy calm time to work while a Senate ethics committee looked into the accusations. But, by Thursday morning, thirty-two Democratic senators had called on Franken to resign. The force of the #MeToo moment leaves no room for due process, or, indeed, for Franken’s own constituents to consider their choice.
Still, the force works selectively. “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” said Franken, referring to Donald Trump and the Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Trump and Moore are immune because the blunt irresistible force works only on the other half of the country.
That half is cleaning its ranks in the face of—and in clear reaction to—genuine moral depravity on the other side. The Trump era is one of deep and open immorality in politics. Moore is merely one example. Consider Greg Gianforte, the Montana Republican who won his congressional race earlier this year after not only being captured on tape shoving a newspaper reporter but then also lying to police about it. Consider the tax bill, which is stitched together from shameless greed and boldface lies. Consider the series of racist travel bans. Consider the withdrawal from a series of international agreements aimed at bettering the future of humanity, from migration to climate change to cultural preservation. These are men who proclaim their allegiance to the Christian faith while acting in openly hateful, duplicitous, and plainly murderous ways. In response to this unbearable spectacle, the roughly half of Americans who are actually deeply invested in thinking of themselves as good people are trying to claim a moral high ground. The urge to do so by policing sex is not surprising. As Susan Sontag pointed out more than half a century ago, Christianity has “concentrated on sexual behavior as the root of virtue” and, consequently, “everything pertaining to sex has been a ‘special case’ in our culture.”
The case of Franken makes it all that much more clear that this conversation is, in fact, about sex, not about power, violence, or illegal acts. The accusations against him, which involve groping and forcible kissing, arguably fall into the emergent, undefined, and most likely undefinable category of “sexual misconduct.” Put more simply, Franken stands accused of acting repeatedly like a jerk, and he denies that he acted this way. The entire sequence of events, from the initial accusations to Franken’s resignation, is based on the premise that Americans, as a society, or at least half of a society, should be policing non-criminal behavior related to sex.
While this half (roughly) of American society is morally superior and also just bigger than the other half (roughly), it is not the half that holds power in either of the houses of Congress or in the majority of the state houses, and not the half that is handing out lifetime appointments to federal courts at record-setting speed. And while the two halves of this divided country may disagree on the limits of acceptable sexual behavior, they increasingly agree on the underlying premise that sexual behavior must be policed. As I wrote in an earlier column, drawing on the work of the pioneering feminist scholar Gayle Rubin, we seem to be in a period of renegotiating sexual norms. Rubin has warned that such renegotiations tend to produce ever more restrictive regimes of closely regulating sexuality. While policing such unpleasant behavior as groping or wet kisses landed on an unwilling recipient may seem to fall outside the realm of sexuality, it is precisely this behavior’s relationship to sex that makes it a “special case”—and lands us in the trap of policing sexuality.
Outside the #MeToo bubble, the renegotiation of the sexual regime is happening right now in the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the Court heard arguments in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Justice Anthony Kennedy surprised many observers with his seeming sympathy for the baker’s argument. “Suppose he says: ‘Look, I have nothing against gay people,’ ” said Kennedy. “ ‘But I just don’t think they should have a marriage because that’s contrary to my beliefs.’ It’s not their identity; it’s what they’re doing.” It was an oddly refracted expression of the understanding that our behavior toward others may be based—perhaps ought to be based—on the way they conduct themselves in areas related to sex.
There are many differences between the case of the senator who lost his job and the same-sex couple who couldn’t get a cake; undoubtedly, there is a difference between acting like a jerk and getting married (though the plaintiff in the cake case claims to have been offended by the gay couple’s intention to get married). Oddly, though, these cases stem from a common root. If only Franken’s heartbreakingly articulate expression of his loss were capable of focussing our attention on this root, and on the dangers of the drive to police sex.