Yesterday’s London Times ran a three page piece called ‘Oral History’ interviewing some of the ‘players’ (or perhaps ‘chancers’ would be more accurate) in the Monica Lewinsky ‘scandal’ that was to engulf the Clinton Presidency for more than a year, lead to his impeachment and, very nearly, to his departure from the White House.
The piece was pegged to the tenth anniversary of the surreal crisis and also, of course, to the Presidential Primaries in which Hillary Clinton, energetically supported by her husband Bill is trying to secure the Democratic nomination.
After all that has happened in the intervening decade, Bush’s disputed election, 9-11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Paris Hilton, it’s difficult to believe that the US worked itself up into such a frenzy back then over whether or not Clinton had a blow job. But, boy, did it.
If Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, then we can bank on some of that frenzy being revisited. In fact, it’s already happening, as both this article and it’s introduction with its regurgitation of that myth about Hillary’s Senatorship and thus her Presidential bid being based on the ‘sympathy vote’ for the ‘wronged woman’ shows. A myth that is, strangely enough, most popular with those who used the ‘wronged woman’ angle ten years ago to try and destroy her husband – when they hated her even more than him.
Here’s a piece I wrote in early 1999 at the height of the scandal about what I believed was really at the heart of the brouhaha: sexual hypocrisy. Not Clinton’s – ours.
The nur nur nur nur nur! response in both the media and in the blogosphere, liberal and conservative, to Senator Larry Craig’s recent entrapment in a men’s rest-room by a pretty, tap-dancing policeman, and the religious certainty that everyone, gay and straight, has expressed about a) what happened and b) exactly what this reveals about the Senator from Idaho’s ‘real’ sexuality and c) his political fate (he should resign), has shown that we haven’t come very far.
The Sex Terror
(Originally published in The Seattle Stranger, January 1999)
by Mark Simpson
In the midst of all the over-discussion – and all the over-exposure – of the Republican show-trial of William Jefferson Clinton, the real charge against him remains curiously under-reported. In fact, it’s not reported at all. Oddly, the media is thunderously silent to the point of discretion about it.
What is this crime of crimes that can lay someone so high so low and which can’t even be mentioned? It isn’t perjury, the obstruction of justice, or the betrayal of his Oath of Office. It isn’t even being a successful Democrat President.
No, it’s having the effrontery to resist the most magisterial, sovereign and powerful force in the land – the ‘sex’ terror. Clinton is being made an example of – one that everyone, even editors of academic journals, should fear.
Last week [15 Jan 1999] the American Medical Association impeached George Lundberg, editor for seventeen years of the AMA journal. Lundberg’s High Crime and Misdemeanour? He included in this month’s issue of the AMA journal research from 1991 which showed that 60% of college students did not define oral intercourse as sexual relations. A spokeswoman for the AMA explained his sacking: ‘Through his recent actions he has threatened the integrity of the journal by inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting the journal into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine’.
Who can blame the AMA for purging Mr Lundberg’s heresy? Everyone, of whatever political hue, whether they think Clinton should be censured, impeached or impaled, seems to be agreed on one thing-that Bill Clinton is a liar, that he did have sexual relations with ‘that woman’, and that his distinction between sexual intercourse and ‘inappropriate intimate contact’ (in this case fellatio) is pure sophistry and legalese.
In fact, this point has become the crux of the whole scandal (which, as I’m sure the AMA know, has everything to do with science and medicine). Clinton’s ‘crime’, the justification for all those ‘LIAR!’ banner headlines, the approval of the articles of impeachment and now his constitutionally unprecedented Senate trial has boiled down to his refusal to agree that fellatio constitutes ‘sex’.
After the broadcast of his four hour inquisition in the Starr Chamber, in which he admitted ‘inappropriate intimate contact’ with Lewinsky, many liberal papers cautiously applauded his forbearance but still called on him, for the sake of Mother’s Milk and Western democracy, to either throw himself on the Republican’s sword and resign, or admit to Congress ‘what we all know’-that he lied, and that oro-genital contact constitutes a ‘sexual relationship’ (in other words, fall on his own sword).
But is Clinton really a ‘liar’? Is it really absolutely clear what ‘sex’ is? Isn’t ‘common sense’ a fickle, not to say tyrannical mistress? Aren’t we just joining in the shouting because we want to distract from the necessary hypocrisies and disavowals that make our own lives bearable – and because we don’t want the Sex Terror to come for us? Isn’t Clinton’s trial more than just a farcical accident of history? Isn’t it perhaps the clearest sign anyone could ask for that no-one is safe from the Sex Terror?
It is a measure of how bad things have got that this has to be said at all: Everyone makes distinctions about what ‘sex’ is. Prostitutes, for example, know very well that most married men distinguish between ‘full sex’ and fellatio and ‘hand relief’, often opting for the latter two because it doesn’t feel like they’re really cheating on their wives; while the prostitutes themselves don’t even acknowledge vaginal intercourse as ‘a sexual relationship’: they regard it as ‘business’. Good Catholic girls in Latin countries often masturbate or fellate their boyfriends or even allow them bugger them, so they will remain virtuous virgins on their wedding night.
Of course, nowadays we smirk at their ‘naiveté’ and ‘denial’, and congratulate ourselves on our sophistication and honesty, but who are we to say they’re wrong to make that distinction? Isn’t it a form of erotic totalitarianism to insist that all sensual contact is ‘sex’? To refuse to acknowlede that the ‘meaning of sex’ isn’t actually incoherent – that it might even be occult?
Perhaps the only indisputable ‘fact’ about sex is that the meaning of it changes with the context. What happens in private, in the dark between two people takes on a different meaning – or just a meaning – when put under the spotlight. The ‘Oh boy was I drunk last night! I don’t remember a thing!’ line is not the recourse of someone who did something they regret the night before, but someone who doesn’t wish to regret, or even think about, what they did the night before. Yes, this can be the refuge of a scoundrel or worse, but the difficulties prosecuting so-called ‘date-rape’ cases merely demonstrates the difficulties in trying to draw one unambiguous meaning out of an intimate exchange between two people in the dark (or windowless, locked corridors off the Oval office).
Clinton occupies the most sober, most brightly lit office in the world. In a sense, he’s not so much the victim of his own stupidity, mendacity, promiscuity or even Republican hostility, but of the late Twentieth Century mania for dragging everything private out into the open. The more the meaning of that private activity changes once it is put in the public sphere, the more imperative it is to expose it. And what could be more private and therefore more worthy of being made public than the sex life of the President of the United States? The Starr Report was a $40M, half-ton tabloid scandal sheet, though, alas, not so well-written.
But this is not to down-grade its importance. As tabloid editors and Kenneth Starr know very well, despite the protestations of the public to the contrary, everyone wants to know the ‘truth’ about sex and in particular the ‘truth’ about celebrity sex lives. More than this, everyone thinks that the ‘truth’ about sex is the most important truth about us.
This is why pretty much everyone, except the Pentagon and Pat Buchanan, seems to want private homosexuals to come out as public gays these days-after all, gays are the living proof that the truth about our sex lives is the most important truth about us. They are literally defined by it; Telling the Truth About Sex is what they’re for. Even the uptight, soul-of-discretion Brits, for goodness sakes, want them to ‘come out’.
Disgraced British Minister Ron Davies’ crime wasn’t cruising for sex on Clapham Common but refusing to ‘come out’ as ‘gay’ after this emerged, and give the public what they wanted. He was berated by a sneering press for being ‘hypocritical’ and ‘dishonest’ (the tabs) and ‘in denial’ or ‘mentally ill’ (the broadsheets). However, if he had been caught in a red light district visiting prostitutes would he have been called upon to announce to the world that he was a congenital visitor of prostitutes and confess that this ‘truth’ about his sexuality was more important than, say, his relationship with his wife and children? (Prostitution and male cruising grounds are both age-old, ‘secretive’, ‘hypocritical’ institutions which have made the public virtue of marriage tolerable to millions of men who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet its demands).
By way of contrast, George Michael, ever the showman, knew exactly what the public wanted after his entrapment by the Beverly Hills PD’s finest and gave them full confessions which earned him the approval of the press for co-operating with their enquiries. The outing of Michael happened despite the fact that for several years George Michael had been fairly open in his work and interviews about not being straight. What the world wanted was for him to come out as ‘gay’; to stop being equivocal about sex and recognise instead its irresistible sovereignty in all our lives.
Interesting that many gay activists in the US have been largely silent about the Lewinsky affair, despite the fact that they know all too well the vicious, violent hatred of pinched pious people like Kenneth Starr, a hatred barely hidden behind a smiling respectability and constant invocation of The Law. As the shock troops of Telling the Truth About Sex, who originally elected Clinton so they could go on telling the Truth even more, they are ideologically hamstrung.
Barney Frank the outspoken and openly gay Senator, who is a close political ally of Clinton’s, exemplifies this dilemma. Although, unlike many others in the Democratic Party, he has consistently fought his President’s corner, he has nevertheless called on him to be ‘truthful’ about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and abandon his pedantic ‘sex’ distinction. In other words, to ‘come out’.
Frank has however pointed out one of the curious paradoxes of this whole affair-that those leading the inquiry into Clinton’s sex life and publishing their findings on the Internet are the very people who told Frank to shut up about his sex life and keep it private.
Putting Clinton’s behaviour into the context of America’s history and his own Baptist background the charge against him that he is a ‘liar’ because he didn’t consider having non penile-vaginal relations with Lewinsky ‘sex’ becomes even more confused. The Starr Report effectively brands Clinton a ‘sodomite’. Under the anti-sodomy laws still on the statute books of many US states [at time of writing], ‘sodomy’ is defined as oro-genital or anal-genital contact between members of either sex. That is, pretty much anything that isn’t penile-vaginal intercourse. Everything that isn’t potentially baby-making is a perversion, or ‘inappropriate intimate contact’ to use Clinton’s telling phrase. This is why gay marriage is so fiercely resisted in the US – including by Clinton who signed into law a bill banning gay marriage – because it bestows recognition and respectability on an act which is, by definition, un-respectable.
Sodomy was, until quite recently, not only unlawful but a crime against the American State. J. Edgar Hoover, who along with Senator Joe McCarthy, begat (spiritually) Kenneth Starr, kept secret files on public figures that were reported to engage in ‘oro-genital contact’, as he considered this meant they were subversive and ‘un-American’. McCarthy’s hysterical – and probably jealous – view of oral sex as a form of treason is echoed today in the repeated shrieks of a Republican spokeswoman on a recent TV debate: ‘HE WAS HAVING A BLOW JOB WHEN HE SENT TROOPS INTO BOSNIA!!!’
Since Hoover, we have had Kinsey, the Sixties, gay liberation and feminism and the meanings of what is ‘sex’ have been widened enormously. Hoover himself has been ‘outed’ posthumously as a ‘closet gay’, allegedly. But the effect of this ‘sexual liberation’ is not unambiguously ‘progressive’ or ‘liberating’ as most liberals seem to think. You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to see that the old imperative to control people’s erotic lives by prohibition has not been abolished. Instead it has been supplanted by a compulsory, puritannical transparency in people’s erotic behaviour – and indeed their whole sense of themselves is controlled, defined and produced through the ritual of public confession (i.e. Protestant rather than Catholic confession). Everyone must submit to ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’, even and especially Presidents.
The modern, ‘scientific’ discourse of ‘sex’, a la Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, which demands that sex be confessed, exposed and measured allied in the Sixties with the explosion of personal politics. That alliance was in turn given an irresistible momentum by the exponential increase in media, and exponential decrease in respect for privacy since then. The rise of political correctness and battles over sexual harassment has only intensified the need in the Nineties to confess ‘sex’ in the courts, the workplace, the television studio.
Now, at the end of the Twentieth Century, this Sex Terror has made it’s way into the highest office in the land. It has become a Scylla to America’s Puritan, scolding, sodomy-hating Charybdis. With ‘Elvis’, the Sixties baby-boomer liberal Baptist telegenic talk-show President in the middle. The supreme irony is that the Republicans, who believe that the distinction between sex and sodomy should be maintained in life and law, are trying to impeach a President on the grounds that he made that very same distinction in life and law. The Grand Old Party which once was the Party of discretion in matters of Eros is now a party of sexual Jacobins in the service of the Sex Terror, branding popular Presidents Enemies of the People for not confessing every detail of their private life – even outing themselves as adulterers on the steps of Capitol Hill – and turning American public life into one gigantic, insane Denunciation Box.
Prophetically, ironically, Clinton whose Presidency began with an attempted coup over his intention to lift the ban on sodomites serving in the military, now seems to be ending with another attempted coup over his own (heterosexual) sodomy. The compromise solution he came up with for that first crisis has turned out to be the most apt – if most hopeless – solution for what may turn out to be his last, as well as a romantic resistance slogan in an era where ‘sex’ is a sign we must all submit to: ‘Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t pursue’.
Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right – thanks for pointing that out. I don’t know why I used the expression ‘Founding Fathers’, other than it sounded nice. Will change it.
Whatever problems exist with American attitudes to sex, you can’t really lay the blame with the Founding Fathers. They were for the most part Deists. It is a myth the Christian Right push, that America was founded on Christian principles. Yet in a 1796 treaty with Tripoli it was stated that the United States was “in no sense founded on the Christian religion”. The original ideas were based more on Enlightenment principles. Those ideas were watered down and reworded by later congresses.