Maybe we need a fresh perspective. Everybody regards sexual harassers as creeps. We're watching them fall on their swords of necessity and regret, as much for being caught as for what they've actually done. Some of the rest of us, however, are acting a little too much like Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," knitting with contented delight as the heads of the guilty and innocent drop from the guillotine.
Nobody wants to do nuance. No one wants to take the side of a hideous harasser or boorish jerk. But we do need to face up to the difference between a man charged with rape and one simply forcing an unwanted kiss on the lips of a lady, between the man who presses his body close and the creep who locks the door of his office to prevent her escape, between the dedicated masher and the flamboyant performer taking slapstick to the point of touching a bosom or bottom.
Santa knows who's naughty, nice and nefarious, as in a "Saturday Night Live" satirical skit on the shenanigans and aggressions on Page 1. But the comics at NBC concede that children are naturally confused to learn that adults like toys, too, such as those Matt Lauer kept in his office for play dates. One of the youngsters in the skit says to Santa: "I learned that if you admit you did something wrong, you get in trouble, but if you deny it, they let you keep your job!" (Out of the mouths of babes.) Of course, that's not getting it exactly right, but in terms of morality and the law, the lessons are ambiguous, written not in black and white but in the 50 shades of gray in an erotic novel.
Sexual harassment is no trivial matter (as Roy Moore learned the other night in Alabama), but it's impossible to satirize anything in America now. Nevertheless, The Onion, the magazine of satire, perfectly captures Sen. Al Franken; in a parody of his resignation speech, he chuckles through an apology and sounds a lot like himself. "I'm deeply sorry for my hilarious actions," he says. "The things I did, while extremely funny, were also inappropriate and I sincerely apologize for the pain I've caused with my gut-busting antics." The curtain has finally fallen on the U.S. Senate's only professional buffoon. His colleagues calculated greater political payoff in getting rid of him than keeping him. Not exactly a high standard.
The greater cultural debate, once we get past the political one, is whether these scandals will actually change how men and women act with one another in both work and romance. Few of us will like the rigor of some of the rules now suggested, and not necessarily by Grandma Grundy. Can boss and employee lunch without chaperones? Must doors always be open for fear of male aggression and false female accusation? (It happens). Such rules infantilize adults and impinge on personal freedom, and they will ultimately hurt women more than men because women still rank lower in most office hierarchies.
Before the pill, sexual mores were guided by fear of pregnancy. After the pill, approved in 1960, women had greater protection against unwanted pregnancy. But the rhetoric that propelled women's liberation confused both men and women. Behavior suffered. Women feel more empowered, but sexual mores are still rooted in patriarchy. When a woman's most powerful excuse for saying no has gone away, both men and women must fall back on their instincts. That doesn't always appeal to the best in human nature. The sexual revolution, for all of its welcome liberation, has led to the trivialization of the magic of sexual attraction, making it the moral equivalent of a burger and fries.
Nobody wants to return to the artificial morality of the 1950s, when women were denied the freedom to be their sexual selves and harassment was often accepted as the way of life for men in power and left women powerless. There's a new worry that harassment accusations will affect work relations in general and personal relationships specifically. We're moving into uncharted territory.
Some who fear a revival of Puritanism recall the movie scene with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart adrift on a jungle river in "The African Queen." Bogart argues that carnal pleasure is what nature intends, and the lady replies icily, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on Earth to rise above."
Modern women aren't out to rise above their sexual natures, but many prefer a little disciplined tampering with that nature, particularly the nature of men in power. We can't let the creeps write the rules.