Roving thoughts and provocations

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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Félix Vallotton

In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. History was a fast-feminizing profession, with a graduate community primed for signs of discrimination—or worse. Physical contact constituted a presumption of malevolent intention; a closed door was proof positive.

Shortly after I took office, a second-year graduate student came by. A former professional ballerina interested in Eastern Europe, she had been encouraged to work with me. I was not teaching that semester, so could have advised her to return another time. Instead, I invited her in. After a closed-door discussion of Hungarian economic reforms, I suggested a course of independent study—beginning the following evening at a local restaurant. A few sessions later, in a fit of bravado, I invited her to the premiere of Oleanna—David Mamet’s lame dramatization of sexual harassment on a college campus.

How to explain such self-destructive behavior? What delusional universe was mine, to suppose that I alone could pass untouched by the punitive prudery of the hour—that the bell of sexual correctness would not toll for me? I knew my Foucault as well as anyone and was familiar with Firestone, Millett, Brownmiller, Faludi, e tutte quante. To say that the girl had irresistible eyes and that my intentions were…unclear would avail me nothing. My excuse? Please Sir, I’m from the ’60s.

The life of an early-’60s adolescent male was curiously confined. We still inhabited our parents’ moral universe. Dating was difficult—no one had cars; our homes were too small for privacy; contraception was available but only if you were willing to confront a disapproving pharmacist. There was a well-founded presumption of innocence and ignorance, for boys and girls alike. Most boys I knew attended single-sex schools and we rarely encountered women. A friend and I paid hard-earned money for Saturday morning dance classes at the Locarno Ballroom in Streatham; but when it came time for the annual social, the girls from Godolphin & Latymer School laughed at us all the same. We cut the experiment short.

Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.

And then, to our surprise, we learned that we were part of the “sexual revolution.” Within a matter of months, a generation of young women abandoned a century of lingerie and adopted the miniskirt with (or without) tights. Few men of my acquaintance born later than 1952 have even heard of—much less encountered—most of the undergarments listed above. The French pop star Antoine sang optimistically of buying contraceptive pills in the Monoprix (approximately France’s K-Mart). At Cambridge, cool and worldly, I helped a friend arrange an abortion for his girl. Everyone was “playing with fire.”

Or claiming to. My generation was obsessed with the distinction between theory and practice—I knew a man in California whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to “Theory and Practice in theory and in practice.” Sexually, we lived the contrast. In theory we prided ourselves on being the cutting edge. But in practice we were a conformist cohort: shaped more by our ’50s youth than our ’60s adolescence. A surprising number of us married young—often to our first serious girlfriend. And of that number, many have stayed married. Championing the inalienable right of everyone to do anything, we had scant occasion to do much ourselves.

Our predecessors had grown up in the claustrophobic world of Lucky Jim and Look Back in Anger. Constrained by the limits they were taught to respect, they might try to seduce an office junior or a female student but were instinctively rule-bound: they did not expect to live out their fantasies. We, by contrast, had trouble distinguishing our fantasies from everyday life. The solipsism of the ’60s—“make love, not war,” “do your own thing,” “let it all hang out”—certainly destroyed taboos. But it also muffled the conscience: nothing was off-limits.

In 1981, shortly after arriving at Oxford, I invited a student and her boyfriend to dinner. My wife and I lived in a country village and by the time the young couple arrived it was snowing hard. They would have to stay overnight. I casually pointed out the tiny guestroom with its double bed and wished them good night. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder whether the pair were sleeping together. When I delicately alluded to the matter a few days later, the young woman patted me on the shoulder: “Don’t worry Tony, we understood. You ’60s types!”

Our successors—liberated from old-style constraints—have imposed new restrictions upon themselves. Since the 1970s, Americans assiduously avoid anything that might smack of harassment, even at the risk of forgoing promising friendships and the joys of flirtation. Like men of an earlier decade—though for very different reasons—they are preternaturally wary of missteps. I find this depressing. The Puritans had a sound theological basis for restricting their desires and those of others. But today’s conformists have no such story to tell.

Nevertheless, the anxieties of contemporary sexual relations offer occasional comic relief. When I was Humanities dean at NYU, a promising young professor was accused of improper advances by a graduate student in his department. He had apparently followed her into a supply closet and declared his feelings. Confronted, the professor confessed all, begging me not to tell his wife. My sympathies were divided: the young man had behaved foolishly, but there was no question of intimidation nor had he offered to trade grades for favors. All the same, he was censured. Indeed, his career was ruined—the department later denied him tenure because no women would take his courses. Meanwhile, his “victim” was offered the usual counseling.

Some years later, I was called to the Office of the University Lawyer. Would I serve as a witness for the defense in a case against NYU being brought by that same young woman? Note, the lawyer warned me: “she” is really a “he” and is suing the university for failing to take seriously “her” needs as a transvestite. We shall fight the case but must not be thought insensitive.

So I appeared in Manhattan Supreme Court to explain the complexities of academic harassment to a bemused jury of plumbers and housewives. The student’s lawyer pressed hard: “Were you not prejudiced against my client because of her transgendered identity preference?” “I don’t see how I could have been,” I replied. “I thought she was a woman—isn’t that what she wanted me to think?” The university won the case.

On another occasion, a student complained that I “discriminated” against her because she did not offer sexual favors. When the department ombudswoman—a sensible lady of impeccable radical credentials—investigated, it emerged that the complainant resented not being invited to join my seminar: she assumed that women who took part must be getting (and offering) favorable treatment. I explained that it was because they were smarter. The young woman was flabbergasted: the only form of discrimination she could imagine was sexual. It had never occurred to her that I might just be an elitist.

This story is revealing. When discussing sexually explicit literature—Milan Kundera, to take an obvious case—with European students, I have always found them comfortable debating the topic. Conversely, young Americans of both sexes—usually so forthcoming—fall nervously silent: reluctant to engage the subject lest they transgress boundaries. Yet sex—or, to adopt the term of art, “gender”—is the first thing that comes to mind when they try to explain the behavior of adults in the real world.

Here as in so many other arenas, we have taken the ’60s altogether too seriously. Sexuality (or gender) is just as distorting when we fixate upon it as when we deny it. Substituting gender (or “race” or “ethnicity” or “me”) for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a projection of self onto the world at large.

Why should everything be about “me”? Are my fixations of significance to the Republic? Do my particular needs by definition speak to broader concerns? What on earth does it mean to say that “the personal is political”? If everything is “political,” then nothing is. I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s Oxford lecture on contemporary literature. “What about the woman question?” someone asked. Stein’s reply should be emblazoned on every college notice board from Boston to Berkeley: “Not everything can be about everything.”

The playful mantras of our adolescence have become a way of life for later generations. At least in the ’60s we knew, whatever we said, that sex was about…sex. All the same, what followed is our fault. We—the left, academics, teachers—have abandoned politics to those for whom actual power is far more interesting than its metaphorical implications. Political correctness, gender politics, and above all hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments (as though there were a right not to be offended): this will be our legacy.

Why should I not close my office door or take a student to a play? If I hesitate, have I not internalized the worst sort of communitarian self-censorship—anticipating my own guilt long before I am accused and setting a pusillanimous example for others? Yes: and if only for these reasons I see nothing wrong in my behavior. But were it not for the mandarin self-assurance of my Oxbridge years, I too might lack the courage of my convictions—though I readily concede that the volatile mix of intellectual arrogance and generational exceptionalism can ignite delusions of invulnerability.

Indeed, it is just such a sense of boundless entitlement—taken to extremes—that helps explain Bill Clinton’s self-destructive transgressions or Tony Blair’s insistence that he was right to lie his way into a war whose necessity he alone could assess. But note that for all their brazen philandering and posturing, Clinton and Blair—no less than Bush, Gore, Brown, and so many others of my generation—are still married to their first serious date. I cannot claim as much—I was divorced in 1977 and again in 1986—but in other respects the curious ’60s blend of radical attitudes and domestic convention ensnared me too. So how did I elude the harassment police, who surely were on my tail as I surreptitiously dated my bright-eyed ballerina?

Reader: I married her.

This post is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

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