It would be easy—a hard kind of easy—to understand the painful news happening all around us to be about sexual assault. After all, for weeks now, each day has brought fresh, lurid tales. And if our typically prurient American interests have led us to focus on the carnal nitty-gritty, the degree of sexual harm sustained, the vital questions of consent, that’s fair enough; there has been, we are really absorbing for the first time, a hell of a lot of sexual damage done.
But in the midst of our great national calculus, in which we are determining which punishments fit which sexual crimes, it’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether: that this reckoning is not, at its heart, about sex at all—or at least not wholly. What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and, more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do that work because the whole thing is tipped toward men. Sexual assault is one symptom of those imbalances, but not the only one.
Masha Gessen has written with perspicacity in The New Yorker in past weeks about how this moment risks becoming a sex panic, that one of the perils at hand—as we try to parse how butt-groping and unsolicited kissing can exist on the same scale as violent rape—is a reversion to attitudes about women as sexually passive victims. Her concerns are valid, pressing. Ye