Comes Naturally #68 (March 6, 1998):
The Odd Ways We Get To Talk More Freely About Sex

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Spectator Magazine - March 6, 1998
(c) David Steinberg. All Rights Reserved.


I never thought I'd see the day when Mike Wallace would be offering the word "pussy" to the world of serious television news, but there it was.

It was Sunday, February 15, the day after Valentine's Day, and Sixty Minutes was doing a background report on Vernon Jordan, Bill Clinton's close friend and go-between to Monica Lewinsky. The report included extended back-and- forth verbal duels between Wallace, representing the inquiring press, and ex- Presidential Counsel Lloyd Cutler and former Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss, representing the cautious and calculating White House.

Cutler and Strauss, it seems, are also Jordan's close friends, or at least close enough to have the inside dope on who Jordan really is. Much of this information they were willing to share with Wallace and the viewing public -- enough to give us the feeling that we were getting the inside scivvy on this rich, popular, and attractive example of black success by non-confrontation. Clearly there was also information about Jordan about which they were also being determinedly tight-lipped. Wallace kept reiterating how strange it was that no one inside the Beltway could be coaxed into saying anything negative about Jordan. Cutler and Strauss were carefully explaining why that was, all the while dutifully saying nothing about Jordan that Jordan wouldn't say himself.

It was an elegant chess game, with all three men playing their designated media roles to the hilt. Wallace was asking pointed questions cleverly and politely, testing defensive perimeters here and there, looking for a place of weakness that could be exposed and exploited, or maybe just looking for the correct opportunity for Cutler or Strauss to incriminate Jordan without violating White House policy. Cutler and Strauss were, equally politely and properly, refusing to be put on the spot or to be manipulated into saying anything other than what they wanted to say about any number of sensitive subjects -- Jordan's background with the National Urban League, Jordan's fondness for making lots of money, Jordan's reputation as an inveterate ladies' man, Jordan's close personal relationship with the President, what Jordan would be willing to do for Clinton if Clinton asked him for a favor, what Clinton might or might not have asked Jordan to speak to Lewinsky about, what might or might not have actually happened between Clinton and Lewinsky. It was the full, standard drill -- thrust and parry, thrust and parry.

Maybe Wallace was just exasperated and desperate to get something interesting going. I think it's more likely that he planned it out well ahead of time and cleared it with his producers before he ever opened his mouth. In any case, at one point Wallace asked Cutler to comment on a Newsweek report on what Jordan and Clinton talked about when the two of them were out playing golf together, good old heart-to-heart buddies that they were. Jordan, it seems, had been very direct.

"Jordan said, quote `We talk pussy,'" Wallace reported. Actually he said, "We talk pu____," because the network bleeped half the word "pussy." But pussy is one of those words that you don't have to be a professional lip reader to know when someone is saying, so Wallace and Cutler and CBS News all knew that all we viewers knew that pussy is very much what grandfatherly Mike Wallace had said.

Now, Lloyd Cutler is about as professional at being Mr. Cool as a person can get, which is why he was the guy representing the White House on Sixty Minutes. Cutler didn't lose his composure in the least, but you could tell that Wallace had surprised him, how this wasn't a word he was expecting to travel from Wallace's mouth to his ears during a national television interview.

He shrugged it off with a little smile, saying only that Jordan and Clinton could talk about whatever they wanted to while playing golf. "If they have a certain amount of locker room banter, or tell jokes to one another, who among us can cast the first stone? You and I will tell one another jokes. That's talking pussy." (Bleeped again.) The message was fundamental and clear: Regular sexy guys talk about pussy. Jordan and Clinton are regular sexy guys. Therefore it's not the least surprising or improper for Jordan and Clinton to talk pussy when they're together.

"What could be more natural?" Cutler was implicitly asking, and of course he's right. But being natural about sex is hardly the established American way, so it felt decidedly unnatural, or at least unusual, to hear Mike Wallace and Lloyd Cutler talking pussy so supposedly naturally right there in the middle of Sixty Minutes (tick, tick, tick, tick).

Wallace, knowing he's onto something, doesn't leave it there. Next thing we know he's talking pussy with Washington commentator Sally Quinn. He repeats the Newsweek story, saying "`We talk pussy.' I almost fell out of my chair when I read that. Didn't you?" There's that (bleeped) word again, spoken to a woman no less, on primetime tv. The story has shifted from how amazing it is that Clinton and Jordan talk pussy to how amazing it is that Wallace and Cutler talk pussy on Sixty Minutes, and now to how amazing it is for Wallace and Quinn to be talking about talking pussy all over again.

Wallace is into it, a little like a two-year-old who's discovered the power of shocking his parents by saying the word "no." He's cool about it, of course -- totally calm and casual -- but he seems to delight in the newfound freedom to toss this juicy, forbidden-until-just-now word into the unaccustomed laps of his distinguished guests, not to mention the millions of American men, women, and children in their millions of American homes.

Quinn is into it too. Since she isn't representing the White House she isn't required to be as professionally deadpan as Cutler and maybe, even among sophisticated Washington reporters and commentators, being a woman still cuts a person a little slack to be a human being. She allows herself some surprise, laughs a little, and says quite directly, "I'm nearly falling out of my chair right now that you're saying it."

"It's astonishing," Wallace comments about himself.

"Nobody even flinches when you say it anymore," Quinn notices without repeating the word herself. The whole Lewinsky incident, she comments, has "certainly changed the rules of discourse," changed how sex is talked about in political circles and among the national press corps. Sitting together in CBS's studio, Quinn and Wallace share a chuckle, enjoying the opportunity to have broken some new ground in sexual honesty, minuscule as it might be.

It feels like, all of a sudden, everybody wants to loosen up the stuffy old strictures about sex. It seems like, all of a sudden, everybody wants to stop pretending to be non-sexual automatons and to acknowledge that sexual feeling, and even so-called sexual indiscretion, are everyday parts of everyday life -- from the basement to the board room, from the bunk house to the White House. We're all human. Now let's grow up and get on with life and the real things that cause misery in the world.

Clinton, for his part, has shown the way, very much as a national leader is actually supposed to do. He has shown the way, first of all, by allowing himself to be a not-entirely-proper sexual person, even when he finds himself inhabiting the White House and playing the role of Leader of the Free World. And he has shown the way through the Lewinsky caper by holding himself together, not getting dragged into the media feeding frenzy, issuing his denial, and giving a focused and dignified State of the Union address that refocuses national attention on issues of national and international policy. He has said to the American people, "You will take me and my social issues seriously, no matter how much Kenneth Starr and the rabid press try to distract you with their `If True' journalism. We will be adults together in this, and not be reduced to giggly children."

And, for once, the American people have come through with flying colors, evaluating Clinton as a national leader independently of whatever they may think of his extramarital sexuality, and properly identifying Kenneth Starr, Linda Tripp, and the overanxious national press corps -- not Clinton, or even Lewinsky -- as the real slimeballs in this thing. American women, often the main ohmigosh tongue-cluckers in sexual matters such as these, have been especially sensible about the whole thing, even more willing than American men to shrug off as politically irrelevant what Clinton does with his dick and to whom. Even ultra-conservative radio commentator Laura Schlessinger, excoriating American women as "lying hypocrites" who are distracted by Bill Clinton's good looks, is forced to admit that "it's a bit of a turn-on to think we have a rake in the front office."

So there you have it, yet another strange twist in the winding road of American sexual history lurching its way toward Bethlehem. Progress raising its head in unexpected places, at unexpected times, and for all the wrong and unexpected reasons. It is an especially ripe moment for irony lovers to unite, have a good laugh, and another beer. Thanks to the likes of nefarious Republican die-hards like Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp, staid professional newscasters are now talking about Presidential pussy as matter-of-factly as they talk about acid rain or corporate budgets, and the American people may have finally grown bored of being upset with politicians for their relatively innocent sexual indiscretions. The shifting boundaries of the territory designated as appropriate sexual behavior and discourse have been pushed outward one more time. For those of us who long for sexual matters to become included in the heartland of everyday social interaction and conversation, this is a particularly delightful twist of fate, one positive consequence of the Lewinsky brouhaha that will live on, no matter what deal Starr cuts or doesn't cut with Goldburg for Lewinsky's grand jury testimony, no matter what details of Clinton's connection with Lewinsky ever become known or left to obscurity, no matter whether jurors believe or disbelieve Paula Jones.

This seems to be the way sexual territory expands in American culture: through the back doors that come along with the various ridiculous sexual scandals, outrages, and social panics of an infantile national sexual outlook. The Lord, as they say, works in strange ways. It was when Lorena Bobbitt took a kitchen knife to hubby John Wayne that the word "penis" made its way onto the national airwaves, without even getting bleeped. Get used to it, kids, it's just a word, a part of the body, a kind of nice one at that. After the first hundred times on network news, it won't even sound strange any more. Just like pussy.

Likewise, it has been the extended air time afforded the AIDS epidemic, even more than the earnest efforts of dedicated sex educators around the country, that has brought anal sex and condom awareness into the daily consciousness of tens of millions of middle Americans, just as surely as it was Madonna and not the Society of Janus that mainstreamed spanking and bondage to Omaha. TV news coverage of AIDS has made anal sex the latest sexual dance craze (have you noticed all the anal sex videos in the adult section of your local video store?) and you can be sure that every eight-year-old has seen enough people talking about condoms on tv to make condoms very much a part of eight-year-old consciousness, much to the dismay of conservatives from coast to coast.

Joke: Two three-year-olds are playing together. One says, "Guess what, I found a condom on the patio this morning." The other one looks confused. "What's a patio?" s/he asks.

Or, getting back to Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's kneepads, the current Doonesbury cartoon series pokes fun at a school's "scandal facilitator" embarrassedly trying to help children come to grips with sexy national news that they have already neatly tucked under their collective young belts.

Another joke riffs that Clinton is doing so well with the Lewinsky and Paula Jones matters that he is already planning his next sex scandal to boost his approval ratings. It looks like Clinton is going to be able to smile and wave his way through any number of sexual dalliances and be seen as more sensible, more mature, and even more desirable than his detractors, simply because he has the presence of mind to just smile and say, implicitly, "This is no big deal."

Let's just hope that his strategy and his poll ratings hold up in the weeks ahead. Once a political leader gets to wave aside sexual hysteria and come out ahead, the rules of sexual assumption will be entirely changed. Then it will be the people who react with horror to the simple truth of who people are sexually who will have to start wiping the egg off their silly faces, and the sexual exuberance that keeps overflowing the unreasonable restrictions of outdated moralism will gain the social respect it deserves.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see 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 Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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