But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it. I knew full well he’d been dying to do that. Our tutorials—which took place one-on-one, with no chaperones—were livelier intellectually for that sublimated undercurrent. He was an Oxford don and so had power over me, sensu stricto. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power. But now I have too much power. I have the power to destroy someone whose tutorials were invaluable to me and shaped my entire intellectual life much for the better. This is a power I do not want and should not have.
I dread the day I lose my power over men, which I have used to coax them to confide to me on the record secrets they would never have vouchsafed to a male journalist. I did not feel “demeaned” by the realization that some men esteemed my cleavage more than my talent; I felt damned lucky to have enough talent to exploit my cleavage.
Kissing a woman is an early stage of courtship. It is one way that men ask the question, “Would you like more?” Courtship is not a phenomenon so minor to our behavioral repertoire that we can readily expunge it from the workplace. It is central to human life. Men and women are attracted to each other; the human race could not perpetuate itself otherwise; and anyone who imagines they will cease to be attracted to each other—or act as if they were not—in the workplace, or any other place, is delusional. Anyone who imagines it is easy for a man to figure out whether a woman might like to be kissed is insane. The difficulty of ascertaining whether one’s passions are reciprocated is the theme of 90 percent of human literature and every romantic comedy or pop song ever written.
We should certainly realize by now that a moral panic mixed with an internet mob is a menace. When the mob descends on a target of prominence, it’s as good as a death sentence, socially and professionally. None of us lead lives so faultless that we cannot be targeted this way. “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”
Given the events of recent weeks, we can be certain of this: From now on, men with any instinct for self-preservation will cease to speak of anything personal, anything sexual, in our presence. They will make no bawdy jokes when we are listening. They will adopt in our presence great deference to our exquisite sensitivity and frailty. Many women seem positively joyful at this prospect. The Revolution has at last been achieved! But how could this be the world we want? Isn’t this the world we escaped?
Why this moral panic, and why now? I’m not sure, to be honest. I can hazard a few speculations. We’ve in the past thirty years experienced a massive restructuring of gender roles. When Hanna Rosin wrote her 2010 Atlantic essay, “The End of Men,” she was not exaggerating. “What if,” she asked, “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” What if? Because it seems very much that it is. “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength,” she wrote. “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.” America’s future, Rosin argued, belongs to women. “Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you.” And it is.