The last sixty years have ushered in a tectonic shift in American sexual culture, from the sexual revolution—with its liberal attitudes toward sex and sexuality—to a growing recognition of rape culture and sexual harassment. The responses to these changes in sexual culture have varied. Conservatives, for their part, bemoan the liberalization of sexual mores and the rise of a culture where “anything goes.” And while progressives may cheer the liberalization of attitudes toward sex and sexuality and the growing recognition of sexual harassment and sexual assault, they lament the inadequacy of state efforts to combat sexual violence. Although these responses are substantively different, both evince a sense of the state’s failure. For conservatives, the changes wrought by the decriminalization of “deviant” sexual behavior, the shift to no-fault divorce regimes, and the recognition of constitutional protections for sex and sexuality suggest that the state has abdicated its historic role in imposing consequences on those who do not comply with traditional sexual mores. For progressives (and especially feminists), state efforts to properly regulate rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are, at best, anemic and, at worst, utterly ineffectual. As they see it, the state has failed to impose consequences for harassment, assault, and other offensive sexual conduct.
But it is not just that these two constituencies believe that the state has failed to properly regulate sex and sexuality; they have also responded in uncannily similar ways to these lapses. Specifically, in response to the state’s failure to regulate, private actors on both sides of the ideological spectrum have stepped into the regulatory void, challenging extant sexual norms and articulating new visions of appropriate sex and sexuality. These private regulatory efforts are evident in the rise and proliferation of conscience objections or exemptions, as exemplified in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, as well as in the emergence of the #MeToo movement. As this Article maintains, conscience objections allow private actors to reject the extant normative regime and instead articulate and enforce their own views of appropriate sex and sexuality through the denial of goods and services. The #MeToo movement has similarly sought to advance an alternative vision of appropriate sex and sexuality through private action. Using social media and the press, the #MeToo movement has identified recidivist harassers and workplaces where sexual harassment and sexual assault are rife, advocated for increased workplace harassment training, and, ultimately, called for the expulsion from the workplace of many high-profile men who, for years, engaged in objectionable conduct.
As this Article explains, the fact that private actors are stepping in to regulate in the state’s stead is not necessarily novel. Private actors have often played a regulatory role—particularly in contexts where norms are in flux or contested. Nevertheless, the private regulation seen in Masterpiece Cakeshop and #MeToo evinces a new turn in the regulation of sex and sexuality. In the absence of appropriate state regulation of sex and sexuality, private actors are coming to the fore to take on a more visible role in regulating sex and sexuality, and in doing so, have claimed and recast parts of the public sphere as private space suitable for the imposition of their own norms and values.