Where there’s power, there’s potential for abuse. Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

Back when former president Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstructing justice, I was in my late 20s — not much older, in fact, than Monica Lewinsky. Although I intended to be feminist and progressive in my thinking, I was still pretty green and overly cowed by what people who might be more knowledgeable than me (or perhaps just louder) were saying about the situation.

I listened too credulously to the voices of the culture, and thus, what I managed in the way of a “progressive” view of the affair was the (shaky, ill-formulated) belief that the business of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky was distasteful, but irrelevant to his ability to be president.

Or — his behavior was regrettable, but, realistically, par for the course when it came to men in positions of power. Or — his behavior was a reflection of the overall passion of a passionate man, a surplus of appetite driving both his insatiable intelligence and his desires. This last idea was bolstered by images of sweaty, gregarious Clinton jogging with a phalanx of Secret Service, or stopping at McDonald’s to press the flesh, or playing saxophone on Arsenio: you just couldn’t hold the man back. He was a force of nature. So he was portrayed.

Like many people, I had been persuaded by various means that sex-scandals were or should be considered secondary to more “relevant” aspects of a politician/powerful person’s life.

Supporting that was the fact that mostly, men like Clinton were “convicted” on their lies and cover-ups, not on the sex-lives they were lying to hide: after all, the sex wasn’t (usually) illegal. Consenting adults, and so forth. There was the lingering suggestion that one might view such behavior as anything from immoral to sloppy and in poor taste, but it wasn’t, in itself, a crime.

Irrelevant: that’s what these powerful, arrogant people have propagated — that’s been their rebuke to the investigations into and publicizing of their “private” lives. Director Jason Reitman’s 2018 film, The Front Runner, about former Democratic senator and (1988) presidential hopeful Gary Hart, emphasizes Hart’s contempt for the journalistic and public condemnation of his affair with Donna Rice (which was, according to people who’d long known him, the tip of the iceberg — this article from Vanity Fair in 1987 explores the subject in depth). The film’s depiction of Hart makes it clear that Hart stood by an assertion that whatever he did outside (in private) the conference rooms and offices where policy was crafted and debated had no bearing on that world (his public office).

That assertion has been made repeatedly by men accused of engaging in sexual relationships with women other than their wives. It has been embraced by anyone who has wished to defend those men, from the wives themselves to staff members to religious leaders to plain old voters and consumers.

As I say, I, too, used to think that a politician’s sex life was his private business.

But as I’ve come to reconsider it, I’ve realized that the internal ethical remodeling I’ve had to do to allow myself to excuse abusive and misogynistic behavior has made me complicit in the system that uses sexism (along with other instruments) to promote abusive, dishonest people to the top of the heap. That is, in my own way, I’ve been part of the problem.

That’s disheartening. But then again, it’s only when we realize and acknowledge the ways in which we’re complicit in something we deplore that we can extricate ourselves and do better.

Knowing is half the battle? It’s some fraction, at least.

What has tripped me up trying to think this through is the portrayal of sex as, on the one side, a sin, and on the other side, a red herring. Not wanting to align myself with the portion of society that continues to use sex to shame people, I’ve stuck to the only other position that’s been offered: that the sex-lives of public servants should be considered off-limits. But that’s not exactly right, either.

The problem isn’t the sex, per se.

Rather, the extramarital affairs of politicians like Clinton and Hart are a sign that, however progressive they and their policies may seem, they are still uncritical participants in a system that privileges the public power of (mostly) men at the expense of everyone else. The real problem, then, is the abuse of power and the sexism (and racism and classism — but that’s more than I can tackle in one essay) that enables it.

Men AND women can see the womanizing a politician engages in as intolerable abuse that disqualifies him from public office only insofar as they believe that women are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity — as equals. When men and women dismiss the complaint/defense of a Donna Rice or a Monica Lewinsky or a Stormy Daniels as the whining of a tramp whose behavior meant she’d had the abuse coming — or when we blame the powerful man’s behavior/“fall from grace” on the “loose” woman or “gold-digger” — it’s because we believe women’s personhood isn’t as valuable as men’s. If we believe that, we can justify dismissing the abusive behavior. We might even, on some level, see that abusive behavior as confirmation of the abuser’s right to exercise his power. A lot of us won’t bother to stand up to a bully when the bully isn’t bullying us — we might not even see the behavior as bullying at all.

The ways that Gary Hart and Bill Clinton and the current POTUS and any other prospective public servants have treated the women in their lives do and should figure into an assessment of how qualified they are (were) to lead the country.

Systemic sexism has perpetuated a hierarchy that justifies and excuses men’s exploitation of women. Although it is difficult, it is not impossible to recognize and overcome this entrenched disparity and treat women, who are devalued in the system, with dignity and respect. Anyone who seeks to be a public servant should go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate such a capacity.

People who demonstrate that they can’t sustain behavior that meets such a standard shouldn’t remain in positions of leadership; they shouldn’t be elected public servants. Although it still galls me somewhat to say so, the current POTUS’s braggadocio is not really worse than Clinton’s claims that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” or than Hart’s evasions. It’s all of a piece, and if we truly want to eradicate sexism in America, we have to stop tolerating it, even in public servants we would otherwise want to endorse.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.