What has happened to sex — to the body and its pleasures — in the era of #MeToo?
Bodies and sexual pleasures have always been entangled in public, moralizing discourses. #MeToo, in its articulation of the very real sexual harassment and violence that too often accompanies the pleasure of some at the expense of others, takes shape in and through an intensified and hypermediatized morality that reconfigures bodies and pleasures as matters of contract and law, appearing in the contemporary media landscape in language that speaks nothing of desire. Mass media discourse speaks of sexual “contracts” and personal “responsibility”; we read about denunciations (or “cancellations”) on social media platforms such as Twitter, threats of prosecution and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
How has this social climate influenced the ways in which individuals express, experience, communicate and embody their sexual desires and pleasures? Has there been a “record high” decline in people having sex?
Just over a year ago, more than 100 French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter condemning the #MeToo movement for its “hatred of men and of sexuality” and to “defend” men’s “liberté d’importuner” — men’s freedom to importune, to press or to make advances toward women.
Their letter characterizes #MeToo as a “vague purificatoire” — a “purifactory wave” — and as a “liberation of speech” that unfairly targets men and sexuality, if not pleasure itself.
For these women, “free speech” had gone too far with #MeToo because its speech impinges on men’s “freedom” to make advances toward women, which they suggest is a man’s primordial right. In their “defence” of men and in the name of women’s pleasure, it was time, they claimed, for women to liberate “another speech” (une autre parole).
But what is this “other speech”? And does it concede or advance the possibility of sexual pleasure, and if so, for whom? In the wake of the #MeToo movement, our interdisciplinary team of researchers is interested in contemporary discourses on sex, its pleasures and their ethical dimensions.
The rhetorics of “risk” and moral panic
The prevailing social context is marked by an increased social awareness of sexual abuse and violence, high-profile court cases, burgeoning institutional and educational programs around sexual consent, victimization and the use of broad definitions of sexual violence. In contemporary culture, we tend to treat desire as if it were something that must be expressed in and through law, without understanding how desiring bodies and pleasures frustrate legal discourse and can be expressed in other ways.
Meanwhile — and by contrast — popular mass media, including social media and pornography, incite pleasure and convey countless “practical” tips to optimize sexual performance and satisfaction.
What should we understand from all this? We are bombarded with many statements about sex that are often contradictory or incommensurable. One side emphasizes the diverse “risks” and “dangers” that lie in wait; it gestures to the powers — both formal and informal — that should oversee and regulate the expression of sexuality. The other would revel in and celebrate sexual pleasure as such.
In the contemporary context, then, cultural anxiety surrounds sexuality as a new form of moral panic. Sex is politicized anew, the subject of increasing media surveillance and suspicion. The invocation of “free speech” notwithstanding, bodies and their pleasures seem to be shrouded by a certain silence; desires and pleasures seem almost deviant and unspeakable.
Research on sexuality is not much interested in … sex
Most research on sex and sexuality tends to have a medical or psychiatric focus and is studied exclusively on pathological terms. Ironically, research on sexuality tends to ignore sex and very little is devoted to the study of pleasure, desire and excitement in a manner that is realistic, concrete and anchored in people’s experiences.
Research by sociologist Angela Jones demonstrates, for example, that most published articles “medicalize” sex and presume a deficiency or a failure; others tend to focus on risks and sexual victimization. And an essay on sexuality and embodiment published by psychologist Deborah Tolman and her colleagues in 2014 reports that, in fact, little is known about the embodied aspects of sexual pleasure:
“Ironically, research on sexuality has little interest in sex, which is what people do, think and feel when they express a sexual feeling or use their bodies in a sexual way.”
So this raises the question of how we determine the conditions of possibility for experiencing “great sex,” described by University of Ottawa psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz as a type of sexuality that goes beyond the functional, the good and the satisfying — a sexuality that provides a deep sense of pleasure and accomplishment that is lived and experienced as profound, memorable and extraordinary.
An “other speech”: the opening of a discursive space?
To be clear, we are neither for nor against the #MeToo movement or other social movements. Nor do we question the value of free speech, despite its many faces. Rather, we suggest that these phenomena represent an occasion, or a “rhetorical situation,” that calls for further study. What is the embodied experience of “great sex,” of pleasure, and how is this expressed today?
Is this not found in the experience of connection, authenticity, vulnerability, and moreover, communication — in and as the self’s intimate relation with the other? Our research focuses on the ways in which individuals create a sense of agency in their relations, and how they interpret and navigate social norms and injunctions in order to express, to live and to share their bodies and pleasures.
Between the aversion to moralizing discourses and the injunction to optimize sexual pleasure and performance, our research opens onto another “speech” that recognizes the ways that sexuality is both ethical and embodied.
This “other speech” is not quite the one imagined by Catherine Deneuve and the other French feminists who signed the open letter. Rather, this speech is productive and takes place in bed (or on the sofa or elsewhere); it speaks about bodies and their pleasures between intimates that invite, rather than “importune” or take liberties.