My formative years included a literary heritage that may seem rather low-brow—collecting, reading, and drawing from Marvel comics as well as reading (consuming) every issue of National Lampoon.
Although the Internet has been surprisingly unhelpful for me to verify this, I recall very vividly a Foto Funnies in one issue in which a young woman is being physically propositioned by a young man: Images of him reaching for her, touching her, or forcefully kissing her in a sequence in which she rejects him with “Please!” and then “Don’t!” followed by “Stop!”
The final picture, however, is the couple in the throes of passion, I seem to recall him on top of her and her legs wildly raised, but the key is she is shouting enthusiastically: “Please don’t stop!”
In my adolescence, I found the word play brilliant—a key element of the humor I relished in the magazine each month. But this comic is also another lesson, one taught directly and indirectly to men and women: Men, just wear women down when it comes to sex because women really want it too but must put up the proper resistance at first to protect their reputation.
As I have witnessed the growing #MeToo movement—especially in the many brilliant and disturbing pieces written by women confronting how the male world is all too often misogynistic and rapacious—I have thought more and more about the dynamic captured in the National Lampoon comic and echoed in Richard Dreyfuss’s retort (one shared by many men confronted with their coercive behavior, such as Aziz Ansari) to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.'”
Further, I have grown less comfortable with how we manage consent, a complicated concept that isn’t being investigated as fully or well as it deserves, notably in terms of the dynamic between Bill Clinton (resisting his #MeToo culpability) and Monica Lewinsky, who now has reconsidered if she was capable of consent in the relationship with Clinton.
Bill Clinton as one of many powerful men in the long procession that has brought the U.S. to Donald Trump as president and the most disturbing Teflon celebrity—this is a reckoning about much more than sexual harassment and rape culture.
It is reckoning about men as conditioned sexual predators and women as conditioned sexual prey.
Recreational sex—sex for physical pleasure without romantic intent—has profoundly different consequences for men and women; it is often positive social capital for men and nearly always negative social and personal capital for women.
Sex also remains strongly associated with physical and moral cleanliness—almost entirely as the expense of women who are either clean (sexless) or dirty (sexual).
Professional and personal taboos lend themselves to further eroding healthy relationships and interactions between men and women along the spectrum of platonic to intimate.
In many ways, the response by men—hyperbolic—that they do not know what they can say or do around women in the workplace is ridiculous and disingenuous, but there are real problems being unmasked by the #MeToo movement that these disingenuous responses cannot be allowed to derail.
Intimate relationships must begin at some point, being initiated in some way between people who have to risk asking about what the relationship is, where it may go, and how both people feel. When the context of that risk includes extenuating circumstances—think about the imbalance of power and age between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example—then the margins for those risks, how people interact, become narrower, more precarious, especially for the person with less power (often the woman).
Here, I am most concerned about not just consent, and all the problems with consent such as time and power, but what behaviors and characteristics of men that we reject as well as give a pass.
To many people, I think, Clinton and Ansari are qualitatively different than Harvey Weinstein (charges against whom include violent sexual assault and aggression); Clinton also viewed not as crass as Trump.
Where these distinctions fail, I fear, is not recognizing the ethical failure of men as dishonest sexual predators—the real-world manifestation of the National Lampoon cartoon.
Men who prey on women for sexual pleasure, not seeking romance or relationship, while cloaking their behavior otherwise—here is the behavior needing greater inspection: There is a misogyny and objectification in men who are sexual predators that is just as repulsive as men who commit the more immediate rape or sexual assault.
To extrapolate an analogy from Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that smoking was a socially acceptable form of suicide, sexual predators who wear women down to garner consent are socially acceptable rapists.
And that is why the National Lampoon cartoon haunts me; these are lessons taught to men and women about how we should conduct our sexual lives, our intimacies.
I have been listening very hard to women, coming almost daily to recognize the inordinate weight of being a woman constantly aware of her fragility in a man’s world that seems mostly not to acknowledge any woman’s full humanity.
The existential burden of gender for women parallels the existential burden of being black in the U.S.; these conditions are about existing always in a state of awareness and threat.
Talking with a young woman last night, we were standing on a side walk up the street from a bar. Three young men stumbled by, one guy was big and muscular; they were loud, drunk, and motioning toward us for high-fives.
We quietly stepped aside, and at least one of the guys paused and motioned as if he was offended we were ignoring them. The situation was relatively brief, and we didn’t say anything, but we both knew the event was terrifying for the young woman in a way it could never be for me.
They crossed the street to the hotel; I walked her to her car while watching the three drunk men. We needed them to move on, disappear.
This moment will now rest in a topic we have discussed often: The dilemma women face when guys approach them at bars, offering to buy drinks. For women, even when they genuinely are not out looking for any sort of socializing with these men, refusing the free drinks can be more dangerous than just playing along and trying to extricate themselves later.
We have created a culture in which men physically approaching women must be viewed as predatory, intimidating. We have created a culture in which women are responsible for managing that the world is threatening.
We still haven’t begun to fully hold men responsible for changing that culture, even as we are not demanding that some men take culpability for being sexual predators—such as Clinton.
#MeToo, I think, cannot be about turning our gaze even more intently on the victims and cannot be about rape culture only as a way not to investigate the normalized acceptance of men as sexual predators and demonizing of women who are sexual (consider the standard posing of Stormy Daniels as “porn star” versus Trump still never being held accountable).
In her excellent reflection on John Hughes, Molly Ringwald also turns to National Lampoon, where she confronts the contradictions she feels about Hughes:
It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.
Ringwald’s looking back and unpacking a “different time” speaks to our own need to admit that very little is different in terms of the dynamics that matter between men as sexual predators and misogynists and women as prey, dehumanized.
I think in most ways I survived the horrible lessons about men, women, and consent—such as the cartoon I once found funny and now find deeply uncomfortable. I was also able to cast off eventually the racism I was taught growing up.
A different world will mean that we all refuse these lessons, of course, but an even better different world will be when we no longer allow the lessons to begin with.
There is nothing funny about a man coercing a woman into consent. There was never anything funny about that.