COMES NATURALLY #21
Spectator Magazine - May 27, 1994
(c) David Steinberg
Bill Clinton's Underwear; Brazilian President Itamar Franco and the Lack Thereof; Rating Politicians on Sex; Notes from SSSS/San Diego; An Optimistic Look Forward
A President and His Underwear
Maybe this is just me making something big out of something little (no, I don't have my hand in my crotch), but I keep on thinking that something important is different, now that sex is back in the White House. I mean, it's been over 25 years since anybody there had any kind of erotic juice whatsoever, and when Kennedy brought his particular sexuality to the First Bedroom, that was also worth noting and very much noticed.
We're not very comfortable thinking of our political leaders in sexual terms. We hold them as somewhat mythical father figures, in the way that little children think of their parents as being larger than life. Yet at some point every kid has to admit that his/her Mother and Father do It and somehow integrate the idea of Mom and Dad as ultimate caregivers, nurturers, protectors, and authorities with Mom and Dad as plain old human beings just like everyone else, just like us.
I remember the time I found Henry Miller's The Rosy Crucifixion at the bottom of my father's underwear drawer. I can't remember for the life of me why I was rummaging around in his dresser, but I was, and there it was -- this little paperback that somebody (I now realize) must have smuggled into the country, and that had traveled through God-knows-what secreted route into the dresser that stood next to the window in my parents' bedroom. This would be the mid-1950's, around the time Hugh Hefner first had the idea for Playboy, well before pornography was a ubiquitous American phenomenon. My dad, you could say, was a man who was ahead of his time. (You could also say, I suppose, that when I write here and publish the books I publish and so on, that I'm carrying on a family tradition....)
So at the age of ten or so I discovered (1) that naughty, well-written, sexy books existed; (2) that my very regular Dad liked such sexy things; and (3) that liking sexy things was something to be discrete, if not secretive, about. (I have always assumed that he was hiding the book from my mom, but as I write this it occurs to me that it's just as likely that he was open with my mom about such things and was actually hiding the book from me.)
I also found out that it was very much a turn on to find and devour the Good Parts of such treasure troves. A few years later I would find that there were other literary excitations in the world. My horizons expanded to include Harold Robbins's novel, 79 Park Avenue, the sexiest book you could check out of the public library (which, along with Miller, successfully eroticized prostitution for me), and Robert Lindner's The Fifty Minute Hour, a book of case histories by a forensic psychiatrist (that eroticized a variety of circumstances for me, circumstances that had driven the people who actually experienced them to criminal madness).
But I'm getting way off the point. The point is that Dear Old Dads and even World Leaders jerk off to Henry Miller, have fantasies and affairs, visit sleazy bars -- and also have interesting or boring sex, frequent or occasional sex, imaginative or repetitive sex, intimate or empty sex with their wives -- just like everyone else.
Looking at different leaders, you get the clear impression that some are comfortable with this fact of sexual existence, while others (most, sadly) are so uncomfortable that they would like us to believe that they would never come near sex at all -- except perhaps in the nicest, cleanest, loveliest, most unimpeachable (!) of ways. And I think it's fair to say that what an honored public figure like a President projects about himself as a sexual person has far-reaching effects on how much we can embrace sex as one more significant aspect of normal, everyday human existence. I'm saying that there's a big difference in the subliminal national psyche between George Bush walking and talking as if he never has sex or sexual feelings and Bill Clinton walking and talking in the manner of a person who welcomes sex as part of his nature.
What I see with the return of White House sexuality is an ongoing process of sex normalization. We are allowed and even encouraged to contemplate the fact that somewhere at some times, amid all the historical trappings and the Secret Service guards, a few feet away from the phone that may ring at any moment with news of an emergency in Bosnia or on Capitol Hill, President Bill and Lady Hillary actually do get naked and, in one way or another, get down. They sweat, they moan, they change their breathing patterns. She sucks his balls, perhaps, and he eats her pussy "like a champ," probably because he loves pussy, but certainly lest she believe that he only does that for the likes of Jennifer Flowers. When they come, they probably both look marvelously ridiculous, just like the rest of us. Then they calm down, put on tuxedos and evening dresses, and go state dinners for John Majors, or the like.
If sex is actually happening in the White House, then it's happening everywhere. And doesn't it change something about our notion of what a leader is to imagine Bill Clinton as a naked, desiring, emotional, vulnerable human being?
Women across the country talk of having fantasies of being sexual with the President of the United States. That changes something about the notion of a leader, too. To my mind it changes that notion for the better. At a town-meeting-type high school event a few weeks ago, one young woman felt so intimately familiar with the most powerful man in the world that she asked him about his underwear. "America has got to know," she said (insisting she was a spokeswoman for what everyone was wondering), "whether it's boxers or briefs." Now, did anyone ask what kind of fabric George Bush, or Richard Nixon, or Woodrow Wilson, wrapped around his cock and balls? No one would have dared, of course. But mostly, no one cared. Now, high school students giggle excitedly over lunch, fantasizing about Bill Clinton's underwear.
According to press reports, by the way, Clinton turned beet red. But significantly, he also answered the question, willing to be a party to this slightly erotic national game. And in case you too have been wondering, it's "boxers, mostly."
Having a leader who doesn't disown his sexual existence -- not by his words, not by his body language, not even by how he denies potentially damaging sexual accusations -- is no small issue. If Bill Clinton is turning being sexual and being a little sexy to political advantage, he is also demonstrating that a politician's sexuality has the potential of being an asset rather than a liability, something to be proud of instead of embarrassing baggage that is best kept as hidden as possible.
The Republicans, who don't yet understand that the sex-generational times they are a-changin', are sending out legions of bloodhounds to search for new sexual material, with which they hope to embarrass their nemesis. Meanwhile Bill (and Hillary, too) smile, issue "no-big-deal" denials, and get on with more important affairs of state. Get over these petty concerns, they say to those who pretend to be horrified. Grow up. The implicit message is sex-easy, rather than apoplectic, and I dare say the omigosh factor is losing steam. Maybe that's why the stakes are now being raised: If people aren't offended by sexual affairs, maybe they will react more negatively to sexual harassment.
A President and Underwearlessness
Now, maybe we're coming along in our national sex-political consciousness, but we're nowhere near the sex-political acceptance level of a truly advanced country like Brazil. Brazilian President Itamar Franco was publicly seduced during Carnival by Lilian Ramos, a young samba dancer and Playboy model, who was wearing a very short skirt, no bra, and very obviously, according to the press (every time she raised her arms), no panties either. With press cameras delightedly clicking beaver shots by the hundreds from beneath the presidential reviewing stand, Itamar had a fine flirt with this young hussy, later calling her back to date her as well.
The only stir at all was not that the elderly, widowed Franco would pick up with a sexy woman half his age, but that she had the nerve to specifically take her panties off before talking her way next to the President. And Franco's reaction to the publicity was to say, quite matter-of-factly, that the hardest thing about being President was that it inhibited his sex life, with the public watching his every move all the time.
Voting for Sex in '96
There are all sorts of political groups across the political spectrum that rank Congresspeople and Senators according to their stands on whatever issues each group considers significant. The Sierra Club has its 80% ecology-positive friends and its 10% ecology-negative enemies, and it wants to let its members know who's who, so they'll know who to vote for and who to vote against. The National Organization of Women does the same.
Maybe we need a rating scale, a way to evaluate political figures according to both their sexual attitudes and their voting records on sex-related issues. Maybe we should come up our own attitude questionnaire, our own counting of sex-positive and sex-negative votes, so that we can decide whether political candidates are healthy or toxic for the sexual environment.
We could rate legislators' stands on the immediate issues -- things like pornography, abortion, birth control, sex education, AIDS research, gay rights, prostitution, federal support for erotic art. We could also push them to take public stands on sex in general, like whether they see sex as something basically wonderful which should be encouraged (within certain limitations) or something fundamentally dangerous which needs to be controlled (with certain exceptions). We could go further and rate the sexual intelligence of various public figures, even query them about their personal enjoyment of sex.
Imagine if it became embarrassing for politicians to be known as sexually repressed or sexually ignorant! Dirty tricks campaigns alleging that so-and-so's wife (or husband) is going crazy from sexual neglect! What if politicians came to worry about losing the MTV vote if it became known that they never taught their daughters how to ask for what they wanted sexually, or never showed their sons how to use a condom? What if political handlers advised their candidates that, if they wanted to impress the voters, they'd better learn to give their spouses juicy, passionate kisses when they won their parties' nominations, instead of those oh-so-boring pecks on the cheek?
In other words, what if we saw sexual vibrancy as the sign of a good and wise leader, instead of something emotionally and morally suspect? Jimmy Carter said he chose Walter Mondale as his running mate because, when the two went walking in Plains, Georgia, after Mondale's interview, Carter could see that Mondale had genuine affection for children, and he considered that an important quality in a leader. What if Presidential candidates chose their running mates, in part, based on their sexual attitudes, because they considered being a relaxed, intelligent person about sex an important quality in a leader?
Ok, so I'm taking this into the land of the absurd. But, quite seriously, I believe that a leader who honors and cherishes and celebrates his or her sexual existence is likely to also be a person who will relate to the world and the world's problems in a human, caring, appropriately complex, and relatively un-neurotic way -- a person who is likely to make world-affecting decisions based on a measure of inner strength and even wisdom.
Tidbits from a Gathering of Sexologists
Squibs from the recent West Coast regional conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (my favorite group of sexologists):
David Weis, a professor at Indiana's Bowling Green University, hardly the undergraduate wellspring of radical sexuality, reports that students seem to have little interest in campus sexual conduct codes, like the media-enshrined policy at Antioch College. According to Weis, students generally think of these "amorous relationship policies" as essentially condescending and infantilizing.
Students, says Weis, actually think of themselves as mature adults, capable of wending their own way through the ambiguities of sexual and pre-sexual interaction, and more concerned about defending their right to fuck professors if they want to than worried about being protected from unwanted professorial sexual attention. According to Weis, concern about sexual harassment of students generally comes from faculty members, rather than from the students themselves.
Weis also says that even at his conservative midwestern campus, sexual exploration is alive and well. S/m experimentation is particularly popular, he feels, because it involves exactly the open discussion of sex-related power issues that the legalistic sexual conduct codes attempt to address in a punitive way.
Why, asks Weis, do we so often focus on sex as something that men do to women, rather than something women equally invite from men. Why, for example, does Andrea Dworkin define intercourse as a male act on a woman's body, rather than as a woman's "enshrinement" (his word) of a man's penis.
Debra Haffner, Executive Director of SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Council for the U.S.) took time from her chronicling of the horrors of the ongoing battles around sex education in the schools to note that, despite the overwhelming financial advantage of reactionaries over progressives, the truth is that we are winning these wars as time goes on. You could almost talk about some kind of Marxian historical inevitability. Thus, where the idea of sex education in the schools was once almost unthinkable (moral training being reserved for the home), even the right wing now accepts that sex education is here to stay. Instead of resisting sex education outright, the conservatives now are focusing on the content of sex education curricula, fighting for programs that promote abstinence, monogamy, and heterosexuality.
And Dr. James Weinrich, investigating why people develop the sexual attachments and orientations they do, posed the intriguing possibility that we are in the process of raising a generation of bondage freaks by seatbelting kids into their car seats every time we take a drive. I've wondered about that myself, for adults as well as impressionable children, especially those bondage machines that so insistently strap you to the upholstery as soon as you close the door.
Losing Some Battles but Winning the War
I agree with Debra Haffner. I think that in our concern about all the rear-guard right wing scuffles we often forget to notice how much things are really changing in a sex-positive direction -- Meese, Wildmon, Reagan, and MacKinnon notwithstanding. Open discussion of sex -- among adults, among teenagers, among pre-teens -- is here to stay. High school kids play with spanking as well as petting, part of the way sex is done now, I'm told. TV talk shows take on oral sex, anal sex, diverse sexual orientations and s/m all the time. Full of titillation and raised eyebrows to be sure, but the monolith of silence is broken nonetheless. It would be hard for anyone to grow up thinking that heterosexual vanilla monogamy is sex these days.
Porn videos, CD-ROM discs, phone sex networks, sex and sex information via computer bulletin boards, and sexually oriented CD's are all here to stay as well. The genie is out of the bottle; the toothpaste is out of tube. People can yell and scream, but there's no way to go back to the status quo ante. All the right wing yelling and screaming is because sexual values, practices, and discourse are changing so rapidly that it scares people into wanting to go back to the docile white picket fences of the 1950s.
Tidbits from a Gathering of Sexologists
We have come through a long period of regression, one last digestive look backward, part of the process of integrating the sexual great leap forward of the 60s and 70s. Shifting the entire sexual outlook of a culture turns out to be more complicated than turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, and certainly more complicated than declaring Bantustans of free love. But the sex-historical tide is moving forward again, and in the long run the simple truth of the wonder and goodness of the sexual impulse truly is undeniable. Even the anti-porn crusade at the Justice Department, born of the Meese Commission, is quietly being packed up and put away by people like Bill Clinton and Janet Reno. Looks like spring to me.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.