We now know what it must have felt like to be a Regency dandy who lived long enough to experience Victorian prudery. For we are living through a revolution in manners not unlike the one that occurred in the second and third quarters of the 19th century. In the space of a generation, libertines became pariahs.
It is a feature of such revolutions that no one can say exactly when they begin. Historians of Victorian values seek their origins in the upsurge of evangelical religious feeling on both sides of the Atlantic often called “the Great Awakening”. In the same way, there is clearly some connection between the feminist movement and the spasm of revulsion against sexual harassment in the workplace that is currently — and belatedly — sweeping the English-speaking world.
And yet it was not a professional feminist who exposed the allegations of rape and sexual assault against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but the male broadcaster Ronan Farrow. And he cannot have foreseen, when he published his devastating j’accuse in The New Yorker last month, that it would unleash a cascade of accusations fatal to the reputations of such erstwhile darlings of New Yorker readers as the comedian-turned-senator Al Franken, the actor Kevin Spacey, the comedian Louis CK, the political journalist Mark Halperin and the interviewer Charlie Rose.
The New York Times — which along with The Washington Post has been working the phones to keep the cascade going — is keeping score. To date, it reckons, 34 “high-profile men have resigned, been fired or experienced other fallout after accusations that have ranged from inappropriate text messages to rape”. Embarrassingly, it emerged last week that one of them was that newspaper’s very own Glenn Thrush.
It would be interesting to know what proportion of these people waxed indignant last year about Donald Trump’s confession — in a conversation recorded on a “hot mic” during an Access Hollywood appearance in 2005 — to being a serial sexual harasser. Rather a high one, I would guess. Here was Mark Halperin’s response on Twitter: “When people say some new Trump tape could have material that is WORSE than the @accesshollywood video, what exactly could be WORSE?!?”
Al Franken also commented. “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms,” he said in an interview on NBC. “I belong to a health club in Minneapolis . . . Our locker-room banter is stuff like, ‘Is Trump crazy?’”
Louis CK preferred to equate Trump with Hitler, the least of whose crimes was inappropriate behaviour towards women. On Stephen Colbert’s show in April, CK called Trump a “gross, crook, dirty, rotten, lying sack of shit”. Well, who’s gross now?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sexual harassment was supposed to be the kind of thing only Republicans did — inveterate sexists such as Trump or alleged molesters of underage schoolgirls such as Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. How very awkward that the majority of names in the New York Times list of top harassers are men of the left, not the right.
Awkward, but not surprising. For the Weinstein case has proved to be a moment of truth for a liberal elite that for decades has been guilty of the most egregious hypocrisy. The same Weinstein who stands accused of rape today went on the Women’s March in January. For years, he and his ilk have been signalling their feminist virtue by day and practising the degradation of women by night. Sadly, they have too often been enabled in their two-faced conduct by feminists who could not quite resist the allure of their power.
“Even if the allegations [made by Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones] are true,” wrote Gloria Steinem in The New York Times in March 1998, “the president [Bill Clinton] is not guilty of sexual harassment.” No, Clinton had just made “dumb passes” at those women. As for Monica Lewinsky, her “will” had not been “violated” — “quite the contrary”.
Worse, Steinem & co have spent their lives deriding the values of men such as Vice-President Mike Pence, who in 2002 told an interviewer “that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either”. “Is that sexist?” asked a female columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Absolutely, according to a lecturer on gender and psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, though she preferred to call it “gender discrimination”.
We find ourselves in a bewildering dual world. The world of education is patrolled by the gender-studies thought police — witness the departmental interrogation of a teaching assistant at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, Lindsay Shepherd, who had the temerity to show students a TV clip featuring the Toronto University psychology professor Jordan Peterson. This, she was told, was a violation of WLU’s “gendered and sexual violence policy” because Peterson is known for “critiquing feminism, critiquing trans rights”. In this world, a mere accusation of sexism can end a career.
Meanwhile, in the entertainment world, Hollywood continues to churn out movies in which alpha-male heroes enjoy casual sexual encounters with pouting, scantily clad twentysomethings. Or are we to believe that in the new James Bond film, Bond 25, a transgender 007 will issue a heartfelt apology for her character’s 64-year career of sexism and sexual harassment? The fact that Bond films are still being made illustrates the extent of the cognitive dissonance at the heart of western civilisation today.
In many ways, Bond came to personify the sexual revolution of the 1960s. At least some of the acts of which eminent men today stand accused read like crude imitations of his seduction techniques. In that sense, the sexual revolution is finally devouring its own children, who made the mistake of believing that Pussy Galore was forever.
I’m against sexual harassment. I condemn anyone who abuses their power in the workplace for gratification. So I am on the side of this revolution in manners. My concern is only that such revolutions have a tendency to overshoot. I wonder: do we risk sliding into a kind of secular sharia, in which all men are presumed to be sexual predators and only severe punishments can prevent routine rape? Will one-to-one work meetings between a male and a female co-worker soon be a thing of the past? What next? A more general segregation of the sexes? How the Islamists must be enjoying all this.
If the feminist revolution in manners has a sacred text, it is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with its dystopian vision of an America in which women have no rights, but only reproductive obligations. Few fans of the book appear aware that this vision is much dearer to the hearts of Islamists than to those of evangelical Christians. As a corrective, I recommend Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, in which the liberal elite of France embraces sharia in — yes, that’s right — a spasm of revulsion at its own decadence.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)