Saturday, October 8, 2016

Powerful Men: when philandering becomes misogyny

[Pablo Picasso, The Harem, 1906]
In its March 13, 1998, issue, Commonweal magazine published an article I wrote just as Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky began dominating the news. As far as I know, it received only one comment. Someone thought my language was crude.

I am reposting that article the day after the Washington Post released a video in which "Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women . . . , saying that 'when you’re a star, they let you do it.'” This happened in 2005, 8 months after Trump married his third wife, Melania, and 6 months before their son, Barron, was born.

More than 18 years have passed since I wrote the Commonweal article, and some things have changed--though not nearly enough.

If I were writing a similar article today, I would continue to encourage women--no matter their political beliefs--to speak out about Men Behaving Badly. Fortunately, women in 2016 are a good deal more vocal about sexual harassment and abuse than they were in the 1990s, though some are still trying hard to excuse the inexcusable.

I would definitely say more about how men--no matter their political beliefs--should speak out whenever a man demeans women. Fortunately, a number of prominent Republican men have finally denounced Trump's vulgarity--though unfortunately, few have named his behavior assault and adultery, which it certainly is, and it took most of them way too long to say anything at all.

Here's what I wrote in 1998 [lightly edited]. I am deeply sorry that it needs to be read again.
"Of course, this isn't about sex. It's about possible obstruction of justice." "Clinton's sex life is his own business. What matters is whether he's doing what we elected him to do." "If his wife can live with him, why should we care?"

Gosh, we're all so grown-up. Sex may have been all we thought about in the late sixties, but we're far beyond that now. If it weren't for those questions of perjury and the electoral mandate, we would certainly not be watching all those prurient commentators, now would we?

Well, I for one find sex fascinating, and having been grounded by the flu just when Monica hit the airwaves, I relentlessly watched the alleged scandal unfold. I confess I've been startled to hear countless fastidious people denying any interest in Clinton's sex life (though at parties, after a drink or two, they begin calling him the Unabanger, and worse). This is not because I'm a Clinton-basher. I voted for him twice, and I hope he is eventually found to be pure as the driven snow. But I am really watching because I am amazed at [some] women's willingness to overlook men's perfidy.

The subtext of l'affaire Clinton is that old law of nature: the most powerful male can have all the females he wants. In the West he is unlikely to have a state-supported harem, but he is allowed to keep a wife, a mistress, and any number of sexual servants at his disposal. Who allows him to do this? We all do--especially when we say that allegations of sexual misconduct are relatively unimportant, as long as the alleged perpetrator tells the truth about them.

If the top baboon can have all the females he wants, it's clear where he's sitting. His bright pink rump is planted firmly on the glass ceiling. Look up, women: you can't miss it. If you're young and nubile, he may beckon to you. Take a breathtaking ride up the elevator past that glass barrier, right into the inner sanctum of power. Make him feel good and be rewarded with small gifts and better jobs. Afterward, as you fly past your plainer colleagues on your way to the basement, console yourself: at least you have seen the view from the top baboon's penthouse, while they--with all their integrity and hard work and brains--will never get past the barrier.

Well, one of them might. For there is also a top female: the wife. She may be powerful in her own right. She certainly shares her husband's glory. She bears his children, speaks for him when he cannot be present, counsels him at will. And she can live above the glass ceiling for life--as long as she does not mind the eager young things getting off and on the elevator[, and as long as she is never replaced by a newer model].

According to one school of thought, men will behave if their wives play a prescribed role to perfection, whether the role be domesticity and maternity or professionalism and assertiveness. If men do not behave, it is because their women have somehow failed. Perhaps this idea works with lesser baboons (though it seems hardly fair to blame one person for another's misbehavior), but the top baboon does not generally subscribe to it. Their wives' dazzling beauty did not keep the husbands of Jacqueline Kennedy or Diana, Princess of Wales, from finding extracurricular interests. Brilliance did not protect Eleanor Roosevelt from the other woman; gentle reticence was no safeguard for Mamie Eisenhower; political astuteness was insufficient for Lady Bird Johnson. Did all these women simply make poor choices? Coretta Scott King and Kasturbai Gandhi married saints, but both had to endure the elevator that kept delivering fresh women (Gandhi, who presumably was not after power, also claimed not to be after sex: he wanted naked young women in his bed so he could strengthen his character by saying no).

Back in 1964, the year [before] Hillary Rodham graduated from high school and a year after publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Jack Jones was crooning to nervous housewives: "Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up...." You'd better look good when your husband walks in the door, advised Hit Number 14, "Wives and Lovers," because "day after day, there are girls at the office, and men will always be men." Is that really what it means to be a man--to be unable to resist attractive women? And are the only possible female responses either to "Stand By Your Man," if you're directly involved, or to argue that adults can do whatever they like sexually, so long as they're otherwise fulfilling their job descriptions?

I'll agree with the prevailing wisdom on one point: the current scandal is not about sex. But it's not about perjury either. It's about power. With enough power, we apparently still believe, a man can have all the women he wants. Some will throw themselves at him; others will be more subtle. Very few will turn him down, and virtually nobody will kiss and tell. And through it all, the wife smiles graciously and makes excuses.

This scandal is also about self-respect. Women--whether single or married, professionals or homemakers--are not tokens of winning, like poker chips, and we demean ourselves when we speak of adultery, sexual compulsiveness, and harassment as peccadilloes. I don't know how, when, or if women are going to get past the glass ceiling. It is more likely to happen in our lifetime, however, if we have the courage to say that philandering is misogyny. It's time to stop making excuses for men who see women as prizes in the power game--playmates, not players.