It’s the one-liners I remember most. As a polyamorist who prided herself on sexual liberation, orgasming during sex was far too déclassé. “If I wanted an orgasm,” she said, as if I were an idiot, “I’d use my vibrator.” A week later, the vibrator was gathering dust. Yet as each encrustation of sexual politics crumbled, it only revealed another. Walking back after a particularly strong series of dilations under a moonlit sky, she stopped dead. I had dared to mention the orgasms. “You can’t talk about that!” she said. “That was mine.”
Soon after, the meltdowns started. “You don’t understand,” she wailed in public. “I’ve had a very difficult year!” It transpired this difficulty had started when she volunteered herself as the junior member of a two-woman harem. An excellent way for a sexual revolutionary to prove her bisexuality, for sure; yet an odd way for a feminist to gain respect. Unsurprisingly, the imagined personal dividend turned out to be in short supply. The trilateral relationship declined into mistrust and abuse. “I think,” she told me, scornful of the other girl’s departure from the progressive rule book, “that she got jealous.”
Soon after the implosion of her ménage à trois, my friend—let us call her Anne—had something akin to a nervous breakdown. The highly paid job started coming apart and she stayed home watching hardcore porn. But given the new dogma that sex is whatever you want it to be, the advent of a hive of psychiatric disorders could not be connected to her sex life. PTSD, depression, anxiety, ADHD: All were blamed on something else.
Now starting the day with a buffet of Obamacare-funded psych drugs, she pressed on with the work of Sexual Liberation. At one of the orgies, she met her next boyfriend. They had an open relationship, of course, a liberty of which he pressed her to take advantage. And so she went on Tinder dates, posing as a singleton in order to keep abreast of his promiscuity. The cognitive dissonance soon became deafening. Two girls accused her “boyfriend” of—ready yourselves—using them for sex. In the feminist rule book, this is a close neighbor of rape. Fortunately—as a fully qualified Radical Feminist—Anne was able to explain that, by understanding and preempting the two girls’ desires, he was the real feminist in the situation. Phew!
It’s no surprise that, even as she brimmed with political certainties, Anne was not the happiest person by the time we met. Certain words and topics were out of bounds to avoid “triggering” her. A concept that once protected people from past trauma is now deployed to protect them from taking responsibility for their own actions (this ring-fencing nonetheless coexisted the axiom that such actions were not bad or incorrect). It eventually became clear that any excursion from her personalized mental boudoir was triggering, including me asking about the status of our relationship (she requested a “code word” to shut down any such conversation).
The springboard for such mental gymnastics is refuting not only that ancient tool of repression—an objective morality—but also the notion of objective truth itself. The key buzzword will be familiar: gaslighting. This is taken from the eponymous film, in which an autocratic husband convinces his wife that she is losing grip on reality. But, like “triggering,” the term has now been inflated to the extent of undermining its original—and very real—value. Its new definition is not merely someone undermining your grip on reality, but someone undermining your grip on your reality. According to the website Everyday Feminism, this means “overwriting your reality with theirs.”
It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone whose worldview consists of 6 billion separate realities locked in a Darwinian fight to the death. Outside perspectives become a personal assault of unspeakable cruelty. For Anne, these included the idea that gender does not place a high-earning white graduate at the front of the global victimhood queue; that social-justice outcomes might require some sacrifice; that dominating women is misogynistic even if undertaken by other women; or that Adderall-fueled rages were not the best means of political persuasion. When I suggested that she could control her responses somewhat better, the cry-bully switched poles. “My ego?” she said. “Now, that’s gaslighting.” And then tears.
The gaslighting mentality provides the perfect igloo in which to shelter the certainties handed down by radical politics; because anyone who attacks your certainties is, de facto, attacking you personally. This brings us to the Bigger Picture. Our relationship coincided with the 2016 election campaign. Anne worshipped at the shrine of Hillary Clinton. Her flat was plastered with campaign material; and yet the one name she couldn’t hear was that of her heroine. She wanted to talk politics, but to do so was to dance in a minefield. Any mention of the name Hillary—in a political context, rather than personal hagiography—lit a fuse of profound irritation. Hearing about Clinton’s Saudi connections—or her corruption, or Benghazi, or emails—cracked open a volcano of aggression. The campaign had fused with her identity, becoming the rawest of raw nerves. Forget the “personal is political”; the political had become personal. How had this happened?
The answer lies deep in the roots of the 20th century. A smug British TV polemicist named Adam Curtis has traced how the public relations industry—led by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays—originally used Freudian insights to target products at the irrational ego rather than the rational mind. As culture became ever more centered on the individual, these techniques became even more powerful. Consumption no longer conformed you to a social role—mother, husband, sportsman—but allowed you to become more yourself. This illusion has been very successful in concentrating corporate power and sowing deeper social conformities. And the 2016 election campaigns represented its apotheosis in the political sphere. Americans became so personally invested in a pair of corporate agendas—united only in their contempt for the average political consumer—that they have ended up willing to kill for them. Tens of thousands of Clintonites entered into physical shock when The Donald grinned his way to victory. Anne was among them, keening and vomiting like someone personally bereaved.
The result had gouged more deeply into her private psyche than any public event should. All the bulwarks of personal meaning—family, art, pleasure—seemed to have been removed. How had such a space been created?