As the first Valentine’s Day in the #MeToo era approaches, you can almost smell the hot takes starting to sizzle. They’ll use the word “chilling,” and fret about the fate of ardor. They will wonder aloud if our most “romantic” holiday can even survive this onslaught of angry women. They are, in some instances, already here. Reuters invoked the frosty “c” word last week in the first line of their well-syndicated article (in which, full disclosure, I’m quoted): “#MeToo movement means changes for Valentine’s Day romance.” The movement to call out harassment and end assault, it seems, is killing sex.
Let’s talk about chilling experiences, shall we? The most profoundly chilling experience of my life was the night a guy I knew climbed into my bed when I was very drunk and decided, as I was slipping in and out of consciousness, to use my body for his own purposes.
That happened a long time ago, and these days, most of the time, I feel like I’m pretty thawed. But I still sometimes have trouble sleeping with someone else in the bed. And my body still goes into a deep freeze now and then, when something — a particular feeling of drunkenness, someone waking me up suddenly from a deep sleep — reminds me of that night. After I read the news about Aziz Ansari, I fell asleep with bile in my throat, thinking of every one of us whose bodily desires have been viewed as an obstacle course, trampled by men who forget we’re actual people. The next morning I couldn’t bear for my boyfriend to touch me.
If you haven’t experienced it, it can be hard to describe the hollow left behind when someone else’s violent decision separates you from the pure joy that your body can be. Even when, at the cost of years of grueling emotional labor and thousands and thousands of dollars in therapy and lost wages and school tuition, we are able to find real healing from the trauma, it’s never fully gone.
Every time I read one of those very concerned “contrarian” think pieces, I wonder if the “thinkers” have ever once stopped to consider the sexual appetites of those of us saying #MeToo. One way or another, those of us who have endured sexual violence will be shadowed by it our entire lives.
What about all the delicious sex we’re missing out on? What about our sexy fun? Why does no one bravely speak up about our sexual rights? Oh, right, that’s what #MeToo is actually trying to do.
You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but a some of us have been doing this work long before #MeToo as well. For years, I’ve been writing and teaching about how transforming the sexual culture can prevent sexual assault and make sex better for everyone (except those who enjoy using it to do harm). And for just as long, I’ve been told I “don’t understand how sex works” or that I’m trying to “criminalize male heterosexuality.” But that’s only true if you think sex is a zero-sum game in which one side emerges victorious and the other side is at best humiliated and at worst profoundly hurt.
The only way a movement of (mostly) women standing up against male abuses of power looks like it’s anti-romance is if you see romance as a literal pursuit, in which men must be free to hunt. If you think sex is primarily for men and about men’s appetites, that the real pleasure women should derive from it is the pleasure of being selected as the favored object of consumption, I can see how this reckoning could look like a crackdown on seduction.
It would even be understandable if you did see sex this way — it’s the way sex is commonly conceived of by both “liberal” Hollywood (which sells stalking as the height of romance) and the right-wing religious forces that control what passes for sex ed in far too many U.S. public schools, teaching young people that boys can’t control themselves when it comes to sex, leaving girls at “fault” for both consensual sex and male sexual violence.
So I’ll say it plainly here: Good sex isn’t what you can get away with. Good sex is never the result of wearing someone down. Good sex is a creative collaboration between two or more people. Between people who want to play, to connect, to explore their mutual fantasies, to enjoy each others’ enjoyment. You like to be seduced, dominated, ravished? Great. There are plenty of people who like to play that way consensually. You just have to talk about it with them first. But you can’t demand that the entire culture conform to your particular kink at the expense of women who don’t share it.
The only people for whom #MeToo is making the world less sexy are abusive men and their enablers. For the rest of us, it opens up a world of erotic possibility free of fear, shame, pain and trauma. If you think we’re ruining the fun with our insistence on consent and respect, it’s time to ask yourself whose “fun” you’re really defending.
Jaclyn Friedman is the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. She hosts the podcast “Unscrewed.”