Does the US constitution ensure our freedoms even if those freedoms may occasionally cost the lives of others? Is sexual predation also about freedom, albeit of a different sort?
Numerous women came forward last year to say they were victims of acts of sexual aggression perpetrated by the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Similar allegations have been made against the sitting president, and a new charge surfaces almost every day against one or another male in the public eye.
Meanwhile, mass shootings by lone gunmen have become as predictable as the change of seasons. Each time one occurs we react with shock and horror and the usual debate about gun control is raised and then fades away. When recently an especially egregious slaughter occurred, 58 people with scores wounded at a concert in Las Vegas, we went through the usual ritual of trauma and grief with more calls for stiffer legislation on one side and the blockage of any such effort on the other.
But this time I heard something that caught my attention that may help explain our inaction about both gun violence and sexual predation. The World Service of the BBC in covering the shooting in Las Vegas interviewed some Americans about what they thought. Along with expressions of outrage at our lax gun laws and the countervailing insistence on our constitutional right to “bear arms,” the reporter came upon one man who calmly stated that incidents like the one that had just taken place in Nevada were deplorable but that the occasional shedding of blood was the price we pay for this precious freedom we enjoy under the constitution.
That honest statement may help explain both our unwillingness to change our attitudes toward both the possession of weapons capable of mass murder and sexual assault. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone who’s in favor of the freest interpretation of the Second Amendment is also a sexual predator. The correspondence between the two attitudes lies in our willingness to make a trade-off between security from gun violence/male predation and our “freedom” as Americans and/or males.
Freedom, as Orlando Paterson has pointed out in his classic work on the subject, is not just the absence of constraint. It can also mean the ability and the legal right to constrain. It was a freedom of the slaveholder to own other human beings while also enjoying the freedom not to ever be a slave himself. Sexual predation is freedom in this second sense, specifically male sexual freedom or power. We tolerate it for different reasons than we do gun ownership but with a similar reluctance to question its basis.
The British actress Emma Thompson stated in an interview she gave following the Weinstein revelations that virtually every fifteen-year-old girl has already been groped on a crowded train or otherwise sexually abused. But without a sense of license to exert their sexual privilege if only anonymously on a crowded train, males would not behave as they do. Society, male-dominated and male-protective, gives them the permission to gratify their sexual urges, and it does so from a very early age.
If, for whatever the reason, we choose to let things remain as they are it’s because not enough of us are willing to tip the balance between containing sexual predation and gun violence and the sacrifice of our (mostly male) freedom such restrictions would entail. For a similar reason we don’t care to acknowledge the modern economic and social disenfranchisement African Americans have endured under modern federal, state and local government policy over the last hundred years, as documented by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America – and then face up to the substantial efforts required to make amends. Such a recognition would mean supporting a substantial national program to make up for those disenfranchisements, and that would entail a diminishment of white freedom – i.e., white economic and social preeminence.
So, we will likely go on enduring the occasional shedding of blood that gun-holder frankly accepts, along with recurrent tales of men in high places abusing women (preferring not to look at the daily abuses that take place right under our noses) as well as the next entirely predictable instance of an unarmed African American being killed by a policeman without cause. We will not acknowledge why we endure them: our refusal to tolerate any restriction on a constitutional liberty however dangerous, our protection of male dominance, the privileges we enjoy as whites. To act otherwise just wouldn’t be American.