Has Liberalism Found a Coherent Sexual Ethics?

The death of Hugh Hefner and the dawn of the #MeToo era, coinciding in the autumn of 2017, seemed to mark a turning point in the history of social liberalism in America.

Out, at last, went Hefner’s sex-positive utopianism, the no-prudes-here giddiness and aspirational promiscuity that linked his “Playboy philosophy” to 1980s sex comedies, 1990s lad magazines, liberal excuses for Bill Clinton’s priapism and the sweeping cultural triumph of pornography.

In came #MeToo feminism, founded on outrage over rape and sexual assault, but inclined more broadly to regard hookup culture as a zone of danger, male desire as a force in need of correction and control, and bare consent as an insufficient criterion for sexual morality.

From the start the #MeToo movement was criticized, usually from a libertarian or classical liberal perspective, for reviving socially conservative or even Victorian impulses under a feminist and progressive guise. But it was precisely that remix that made the movement interesting: #MeToo took what had often been a conservative-coded critique of the sexual revolution — one that emphasized the ways that Hefnerism made life easy for pigs and libertines, forcing young women to accept male sexual expectations in the name of liberation — and promised to make it serve a more progressive and egalitarian vision.

The question seven years later is whether that vision actually exists — whether social liberalism can find a standard for sexual morality that’s better for human flourishing than bare consent, and a mechanism to constrain sexual misbehavior that’s more effective than the traditional emphasis on monogamy and chastity.

To illustrate where the quest for this vision stands, consider three recent cover stories in New York magazine.

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