COMES NATURALLY #79
January 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
LIBIDO ET VERITAS
There are forces at work in the world that are bigger than you or me. They are bigger than any of the little people like you and me, bigger than any of the big, powerful movers and shakers, bigger (even) than all the movers and shakers combined.
History is one such force. Nature is another, death a third. And sex -- that primal force encoded into every cell of our bodies -- is a fourth monumental, primal force that -- like history, nature, and death -- cannot be brought to heel by the dictates and preachings of mere humans. All in all, it doesn't matter whether you like it or not, whether Bill Clinton or Ken Starr like it or not, whether I like it or not -- that's just the way it is.
Now, Ken Starr has made it very clear that he doesn't like the uncontrollable nature of sex one bit. He doesn't like at all that sexual desire causes all sorts of people to behave in ways that he and his Bible don't approve of, and of course he speaks for a fair number of people when he takes that position.
I think that people like Ken Starr and Tom DeLay, egomanias aside, truly believe that anyone who organizes their life in opposition to (their) God is going to be in deep trouble, both in this life and in what they presume will be the next. Of course, their God is one that's doesn't exactly relate to the sexual life force as a playful but lovable coyote that likes to stick pins in overblown moralities and complicate issues about what the Good Life is really all about. So Ken and Tom treat sex as something pretty damned close to the devil -- which is to say something you have to be on guard against most every moment lest it take you over and leave you roasting in the fires of your own private Idaho.
Bill Clinton is another story again, and there's something about this particular difference between Bill, Ken and Tom that helps explain why the latter two have lost touch with reality and the American people and seem willing to destroy the Republican Party for all time if that's what it takes to exorcise Slippery Bill from the White House. To be sure, there are more than a few ways that Bill Clinton is disturbingly similar to Ken Starr and Tom DeLay, and Clinton would certainly be the last person on earth to define himself as some kind of sex radical. But I daresay that the handsome President has spent his adult life in pretty much of a friendly relationship with the length and breadth of his various sexual desires. I think he's friendly to his sexuality, even when those desires fall outside the neat and tidy rules of "proper" behavior that irrepressible Eros loves to violate. And there's something about that basic attitude of Clinton's -- maybe it's a generational thing -- that got the Ken Starrs and the Newt Gingriches and the Tom DeLays in severe snits about him long before anyone knew Monica Lewinsky from Marilyn Monroe.
However apologetic Bill Clinton may be about specific sexual behaviors when it is politic for him to do so, he is nonetheless an unapologetically sexual man, the first such in the White House since John Kennedy (although you could make a case for Lyndon Johnson). Indeed, part of Bill Clinton's appeal, especially among younger people and women of all ages (who admit in large numbers to sexual fantasies about President Bill that would be unimaginable with George Bush or Richard Nixon), has been that he's a sexy sort of guy. Word is that the man gives good hugs, gives good head, likes to "talk pussy" on the golf course and, for at least one period of his life, liked his women two at a time. So I'm betting that, at least up until this past year, Bill Clinton has been the sort of person who truly appreciates the primal power of sexual feeling and desire, someone who has embraced sex as a positive force that makes life more lively, more livable, more interesting, and certainly more fun.
As for me, I'm rather unambiguously on the side of glorying in the fact that sex is bigger than we are and in the way it continuously crops up in ways and at times that surprise even those of us who think we see sexual dynamics pretty clearly and sympathetically. And, lucky for me, I'm not in a position where I have to worry too much about whether people see me as proper or not, so I can be pretty direct about how I feel. I guess you could say that the way the Ken Starr's of this world feel about (their) God is precisely how I feel about sex: if you organize your life in opposition to it, you're going to be in deep trouble -- deeply miserable yourself and therefore seriously toxic to the people around you.
As I see it, organizing your life in opposition to sexual desire, or without acknowledging the reality of how that desire works (in contrast to the ways we are constantly being taught sexual desire should work), is like organizing your life in opposition to, and in denial of any other fundamental law of nature -- like gravity, say. What could be more foolish and self-destructive? ("Honey, I just walked out of the second story window and damn if I didn't get smashed by the ground again! Can you believe it??!!")
Of course, sexual desire and practice can and should be shaped by social codes, but those social codes must acknowledge and essentially honor the way sexuality works. When a social code, like the one we all suffer under, tries to repress sexual desire in ways that are, well, unnatural -- ways that conflict with the nature of the desire itself -- desire always wins. The result is not ethical behavior, the result is blatant hypocrisy.
Sex will have its way with us, one way or another, whether we like it or not. It's simply that big. The real question up for discussion is how much people are going to have to lie and feel guilty about who they are and what they do -- to their mates, to their friends, and to themselves. The greatest casualty of antisexual moralities that dishonor sexual desire is that they deprive people of the opportunity to tell the truth about sex and to therefore to be sexually whole.
According to the Janus Report, two-thirds of American married men and one- third of American married women have had extramarital sex. Given that the people interviewed still have a lot of living to do, that means that the great majority of married Americans can expect to have some kind of extramarital sex somewhere along the long road of marital bliss, conflict, pleasure, and boredom. Extramarital affairs are, statistically speaking, the American norm. Yet, except for a very few couples, all of this extramarital sexual activity takes place under dark clouds of secrecy, deception, guilt, and betrayal -- all of which (unlike sex) are inevitable killers of intimacy, joy, and soul. If extramarital affairs are in fact wreaking havoc on the institution of marriage in America (something that is not at all obvious), it may well be that the damage comes more from the guilt and deception than from the sex itself.
I happen to believe strongly in the importance of telling the truth, and particularly about telling the truth about sex. I believe this, however, from a practical rather than a moral perspective -- another point in the road where Ken Starr and I part company. I don't think that lying makes someone into a morally stained individual who needs to be cleansed or punished or publicly humiliated by society. I do think that lying, much more importantly, by its nature destroys both the relational integrity of people intimately involved with each other, and the emotional integrity of individuals who distort the truth. The real problem with lying is that it requires a kind of emotional distance and dual reality that makes it all but impossible to offer oneself to a loving partner in a vulnerable, unguarded, unprotected way -- the basis of real intimacy.
That said, I also believe that lying is inevitable, often understandable, and not always the wrong thing to do. To start with, no human being is ever entirely honest -- not with him/herself and not with his/her loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. Telling the truth is always a relative matter, no matter what the Commandments are interpreted to be saying or how worked up sanctimonious types on Capitol Hill get about President Bill. No matter how skilled we get at taking our real selves out from under the protective wraps, we are always prettying up the picture to some extent -- excluding or retouching aspects of ourselves that we just can't bear to see without filters, let alone to expose to others. And that is especially true about our sexual selves, given the profound ways we have all been thought to think of sex with shame and guilt.
When I hear of someone lying about sex -- lying, say, to their spouse about an extramarital encounter or affair -- I don't think of it as some kind of personal character failure. I see, rather, the inevitable consequence of the way our general unwillingness to look sex in the eye puts people in impossible sexual double binds. Ironically, given the degree of sexual confusion, insecurity, and misrepresentation we all carry around, telling the truth about sexual matters is often an act of cruelty, rather than one of kindness.
John and Mary have been married for ten years, or twenty. They love each other very deeply, love the life they have built together. They have a couple of kids whom they also love and would never want to hurt. At the same time, their sexual connection is not what it used to be, or maybe sexual connection was never the core of their relationship. Maybe they're good at talking about these kinds of things with each other; maybe they don't feel comfortable talking about them at all. Maybe they're really unhappy sexually; maybe they're not so miserable, just a little glazed and world weary.
For most real live American families, there will be some point at which John or Mary has a sexual connection with someone else. Let's say it's Mary, just to keep the pronouns straight. Maybe she experiences something wonderful that she hasn't experienced in a long time, or ever before, something important enough that she doesn't want what she has discovered to end just yet. Maybe she remembers how important good sex is to her, despite her steadfast efforts to convince herself that it was no big deal. Maybe she remembers how good it feels to be sexually alive and desirable. for whatever reason, she comes away from her forbidden experience nurtured, reinvigorated, and -- in our culture -- deeply conflicted and guilt-ridden about what to tell or not tell John.
If she decides not to tell John what's going on, is she being hateful for deceiving him, or loving for protecting him from a truth that will be quite painful for him to hear? Will it help her marriage, her husband, her children, to be truthful about what she feels, or will it only cause everyone more pain? Would telling John the truth mean that her affair would have to end? Would it be good for Mary, or for John, to have it end? What would it be like for the affair to continue, with John knowing what was going on, and when?
How many husbands and wives really want to know the truth about what is going on with their spouses sexually? How many would respond to being told a painful sexual truth with appreciation and understanding rather than being consumed by hurt and blame?
Given the way we've got things structured, Mary simply doesn't have any really good alternatives, so she has to choose the lesser of some very substantial evils. And, unless we're dealing with people who really want to do the work of confronting some pretty difficult issues and feelings in themselves, the lesser of those evils for most families may well involve at least some lying. Are the Marys of the world to blame for this unhappy situation? Are the Johns? I don't think so. I think it's the system of shame and dishonesty about sexual desire that is to blame. If, under our moral code, most people are turning out to be sinners, doesn't that mean that it's our notion of sin that's gone astray?
At this point in my own life, I deeply believe that it's the truth that sets both me and my partner free to be the best of ourselves and to be the happiest that we can be together. But I don't forget for a minute how painful sexual honesty can be, and I'm neither surprised nor disdainful when most American families choose some version of "don't ask, don't tell" instead.
These are the dilemmas and complexities that lie barely under the surface, only slightly alluded to in a yearlong media blitz, while the drama of sex and betrayal in the White House plays itself out vicariously for all of us in the way that only the lives of Hollywood movie stars used to do. (Wasn't it Jerry Garcia who said that after Ronald Reagan all Presidents would have to be movie stars. I wonder if this was what he had in mind.) Fifty million Johns and Marys have been sitting in their living rooms, month after month, watching a President get caught in an affair and watching what he does about it. You can bet they're thinking about the times they've been caught in secret affairs, or caught their spouses, or about the affairs they've had that have never come to light, or the affairs they're afraid the other person might be having. Bet it's made for some pretty awkward dinner conversation. Is it any wonder that people just want this particular aspect of the evening news to go away?
More pointedly, the very same thing is true -- in higher percentages -- for the 535 Senators and Congressmen and their 535 spouses, which is where Larry Flynt (bless his tortured soul) comes in. Now, Larry Flynt is not really my basic idea of a social hero. The racism and misogyny in Hustler, just for starters, is nothing less than God awful. But I have always admired his outrage at sexual hypocrisy, and his commitment to exposing it wherever he can, a commitment that among other things has stuck him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
"Desperate times require desperate measures," says Larry, promising to rain hellfire and damnation right here on Earth by exposing the secret sexual lives of the Capitol Gang "until someone raises the white flag." As I'm writing this he says he's got ten people -- one Senator, eight Congressmen, and one "high- ranking official of a Republican organization" -- that he's ready to out, based on credible, researched information from their various amours. You'd better believe he's got about 525 out of 535 elected officials and their spouses sleeping quite uneasily every night, and thinking a whole lot more seriously than they did before that they, too, would like to see the whole issue go away. Needless to say, these are the people who have the power to accomplish just that.
Sexual McCarthyism, some call it. But being an adulterer in 1999 is not the same as being a Communist in the 1950's. It was never the case that half the adults in America were, in fact, Communists, but it is the case that half the adults in America are now (or ever have been) involved in extramarital affairs. It's really quite possible now, as it was most definitely not possible then, to simply say to one's discoverer, "Yes, it's all true. So what?" and have life go on relatively undisturbed.
There's a wonderful, if somewhat overblown, scene at the end of the movie, "Dangerous Beauty," that came to mind the minute I heard about Larry Flynt's crusade. In it, Veronica Franco, the most famous and cultured of Venetian courtesans in 1583, is on trial for her life, under the gun of the Inquisition. Rather than see her killed, first one, then two, then dozens of her clients among Venice's elite -- legislators, wealthy businessmen, even a cleric -- steps forward to announce with a good deal of embarrassment that he, for one, has enjoyed her favors. The agent of the Inquisition, unable to condemn all these good and noble men, is undone and Veronica is saved. (All of this, by the way, actually happened.)
If all was right with the world, this is the sort of thing we'd witness over the next few weeks -- so many Senators and Congressmen holding press conferences to announce their sexual meanderings before Larry Flynt did it for them that the whole nation could have a good laugh at how silly everyone's been being about all this sexual stuff for all these years. All at once, we'd grow up as a culture -- catch up to, say, the French, whose politicians are able to engage in sexual affairs without ever worrying that their careers will end if they are discovered, and who laugh every day at how immature les Américains are about these things. We would also take a good deal of the burden of guilt and shame off the shoulders of some fifty million American adulterers and probably make more of a difference in the national emotional landscape than would peace in the Middle East.
Well, to come down to earth, we're probably not at that moment of collective epiphany just yet, but we do seem to be edging closer to some sort of sexual attitude realignment. If the American people can remember this particular embarrassment to the national image long enough to enforce self-destruction on the Republican Party in the 2000 elections, we may yet come to bless 1998 as the year in which American sexual politics took something of a Great Leap Forward.
[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.]
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