Do we really have to swim in this sludge?

“Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” That was Bob Dylan back in the 1965, with the “sexual revolution” just getting into its stride.  Dylan at that time may have been, at best, ambivalent about what was happening. He wasn’t innocent but I venture to think that he wasn’t a fully paid up subscriber to everything that Mr. Jones was confused by. He was no Mick Jagger.


Has the revolution finally run its course? Certainly the news stories by the day recount casualty after casualty among those who are or were its fully paid up members. The stories come not as single spies but in battalions now.

On Wednesday the fallout of the scandal involving The Presidents Club gala dominated the headlines after an undercover reporter for the Financial Times revealed hostesses had been subject to groping and lewd comments. “Sexists and the City” was Metro’s take, while the Guardian reported that guests have “rushed to distance themselves” from the event.  The Sun called the gala the “sleaze ball” and the Times reported that the prime minister was expected to take action over the “gagging orders” women were allegedly forced to sign before “hosting” the all-male paying guests at the event. Yesterday the story was all over the world. Mercifully, The Presidents Club has announced it is closing.

A British Government minister was reprimanded for attending the gala. He apparently left the fundraiser event early but tweeted that he had “felt uncomfortable” He said he had not seen any of the “horrific” events reported. Why was he uncomfortable if he had not seen anything, we might ask?

But we still have a long way to go to clear up the mess left in the wake of that ground-breaking “liberation” which the ‘sixties brought us. As a sign of the contradictions embedded in our confused culture, on Wednesday the BBC World Service gave full coverage to the FT’s scoop. The day before, it had carried a very “non-judgemental” interview with a spokesperson for those who are now routinely described as “sex workers”.  She explained in detail the difficulties they encounter in fulfilling their role in our society.

While we are not in the business of changing human nature, we do need to get into the business of clearing up Mr. Jones’ confusion about it. The poisonous essence of the sexual revolution was not that it told us what mankind has known forever but that it told us that “anything goes”,  and that if it does, the more the merrier.

A recent article in The Atlantic pointed to one of the prime movers of that revolution which is still in full swing and is creating mayhem with the confusion it has been spreading, generation after generation – at least since hedonism became respectable in the ‘sixties. As yet there is little sign that the so-called  #MeToo backlash has touched this pulsating nerve.

“Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behaviour is everywhere—from songs about ‘blurred lines’ to TV shows where rapists marry their victims”, writes Julie Beck.

She lists a few examples: Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo – short for “emotional hardcore” – bands with their brooding lyrics. “Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth”, she reflects, “followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary”.

Is that all over? Not yet.

I grew up watching movies in which women found it flattering when their pursuers showed up uninvited to hold a boombox under their window, or broke into their bedrooms to watch them sleep, or confessed their feelings via posterboard while their love interest’s husband sat in the next room. So I found it flattering, too. I sang along with The Killers’ “Change Your Mind” (“If the answer is no, can I change your mind?”) and Fall Out Boy’s “7 Minutes in Heaven” (“I keep telling myself I’m not the desperate type, but you’ve got me looking in through blinds”) without a second thought about what the lyrics implied.

She cites, for example, the first season of Game of Thrones, where the relationship between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo—which is portrayed as a great love, one through which Daenerys eventually comes into her own as a ruler—begins with a wedding night on which the teenage girl cries and tries unsuccessfully to keep Drogo from undressing her.  Beck continues:

Even more pervasive than the redeemed rapist is the romantic hero whose efforts at seduction look more like harassment. In the Twilight series, the brooding vampire Edward Cullen not only breaks into his love interest Bella’s house in the first book to watch her sleep, but later on, in the third book, he also disassembles her car engine to keep her from leaving her house. But readers are supposed to see it as a protective gesture: He did it because he loves her, because he wants her to be safe.

In music, too, there’s no shortage of songs that glorify a man’s threatening overtures, from “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“Say, what’s in this drink?”), to “Every Breath You Take” (“I’ll be watching you”), to “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” (“I hear you saying what you won’t do / But you know we’re probably gon’ do”). And of course, there’s Robin Thicke’s literal anthem for the “Blurred Lines” I’m talking about (“I know you want it … Just let me liberate you”).

For six decades at least, all of that has been, and is still, pervading pop culture – through Hollywood, its off-shoots and the pop music industry. How could we not expect that the human agents driving those industries would not themselves be corrupted by the content they generated? Will the feminist-driven rage against personal assault, disrespect and offensive behaviour get to these root sources of the problem? What strategy, what change of attitude to the nature of sexuality, has to be effected to bring about a change in a culture in which its artefacts do not simply help us to understand our human condition but glorify and advocate behaviours which corrupt us, cause untold pain and which may ultimately destroy us.

Beck’s colleague at The Atlantic, Megan Garber, has described our current era as “a time in which feminism and Puritanism and sex positivity and sex-shaming and progress and its absence have mingled to make everything, to borrow Facebook’s pleasant euphemism, Complicated.”

Beck concludes that our culture is beginning to complicate things, to question the value of romanticizing stories where one person chases another, or wears her down, or drags her along against her will. She adds, “But recognizing the flaws in these ideas doesn’t make them go away. They still float in the spaces between people; they are the sludge through which we have to swim as we try to see each other clearly.”

Well, we do our best to sort out problems with actual sludge when it interferes with our quality of life. Why can’t we have the prudence and fortitude and engage our brains to deal with this metaphorical sludge which is probably doing us much more harm?

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