Commentary Magazine


"Sexgate," the Sisterhood. and Mr. Bumble

“Confusion worse confounded” is the phrase I would choose to summarize what has been generated by the story of the Clinton sex scandals and how various sectors of American society have responded to them. These sectors include, most prominently, the women of the feminist sisterhood; the men who give them moral and political support; the lawyers who fight for and against them in the courts; the conservatives who oppose them (or should); and the “American people,” as defined by what they tell the pollsters and what the pollsters then tell us they told them.

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To start with the feminists: everybody but they themselves, and even one or two of them, says that they were discredited. And in a limited sense (though exactly how limited remains to be seen) everybody is right. How discredited? Let us refresh our memories by going back to the beginning, the better to count the ways.

In 1991, when Anita Hill, a middle-class black woman and a graduate of the Yale Law School, proclaimed that she had been sexually harassed by her former boss, Clarence Thomas, she was instantly given the benefit of every doubt by her sisters in the feminist movement. It cut no ice with them that she failed to produce any evidence to back up her tale about the coke can bearing a strand of his pubic hair that she claimed Thomas had left on her desk, or about Long Dong Silver, a pornographic film he had supposedly described to her in all its salacious detail. Nor were the feminists in the least discomfited when it emerged that Hill had been willing and even eager to continue working for Thomas even after he had allegedly begun harassing her in these curious ways. Nor did it bother them that she never reported Thomas at the time, that she asked him to take her along when he changed jobs, and that for years after leaving his employ she made many efforts to remain in contact with him. Anita Hill leveled her accusations at Clarence Thomas, he denied them unequivocally, and without missing a beat or waiting for the hearings to reveal what they might reveal—or then paying any attention to what they did reveal—the feminists decided that she was telling the truth and that he was telling a lie. Period.

Of course, to the extent that the objective being pursued by Anita Hill and the feminist sisterhood was to prevent Clarence Thomas from getting a seat on the Supreme Court, it failed. But losing that skirmish was a small price to pay for the great strategic victory in the larger war the feminists were fighting to legitimize and popularize their concept of “sexual harassment.” Thanks to Anita Hill, this concept was given so mighty a push that it leaped almost overnight from the arcane lucubrations of marginal academics into the very center of our mainstream culture. The feminist sisterhood vociferously repeated over and over again when the Thomas hearings were going on that men just “didn’t get it.” But along with the many women, mostly located in the working class, whose consciousness had not previously been raised, men in all classes certainly ended up getting it by the time those hearings were over.

So much so that, from that moment on, the entire male sex, as it often seemed, genuflected without let-up before the imperatives flowing from what the feminists regarded as sexual harassment. Politicians were, for obvious reasons, the most given to this kind of cravenness, but they were by no means alone. Nor was it restricted to mere professions of rhetorical agreement with the feminist definition of sexual harassment. Not by a long shot. In the post-Anita Hill period, wherever men exercised power—as legislators, judges, employers, administrators, deans, and even military leaders—they began rushing to translate the new revelation they had experienced into laws, codes, and regulations, and to enforce them with a zealotry not seen in America since the days of the Salem trials.

The traditional ways in which women had in the past protected themselves from unwelcome advances—ranging across the spectrum of determination and finality from the polite rejection to the evasive action to the insulting putdown to the slap in the face to the knee in the groin—were no longer considered sufficient. Now the only approved tactic was for the woman to complain to the relevant authority, whereupon the man, usually denied the presumption of innocence and tried before what one such victim accurately described as a “kangaroo court,” could be fired from a job or expelled from a college or, where the law was graciously tempered with mercy, sent off to undergo a novel form of brainwashing known as “sensitivity training.”

This resurrected Victorian cad in modern dress could also be sued for damages, and so could the organization for which he worked. To avoid the trouble and expense and bad publicity such suits would bring, businesses and other organizations accused of being insufficiently rigorous in the promulgation or enforcement of their anti-harassment policies began making preemptive offers of financial compensation to the self-proclaimed female victims or accepting huge out-of-court settlements. In what looked to my naive eyes like a form of legal extortion, hundreds of millions of dollars were paid out to female employees past and present who pleaded damage to their self-esteem and other injuries to their psyches that no one had ever heard of before.

There seemed no lengths to which this process would not go, and no slowing down of the speed at which it metastasized its way through the body politic. At one extreme—surpassing even the cases of the poor sap kicked out by the Miller Brewing Company for mentioning a Seinfeld episode about masturbation to a female fellow worker; or of the fire chief who got into trouble because his fire house had a pinup calendar on the wall; or of the man who was taken to court for keeping a picture of his bikini-clad wife on his desk—a boy of seven was actually charged with sexual harassment and suspended from school for planting a kiss on the cheek of a little girl in his class.

Since the nation had not yet gone entirely mad, this last absurdity was laughed out of existence, and even the feminist sisterhood was embarrassed by it. Not so, however, with regard to the other extreme, which was reached in the military. There, anyone who exercised authority over a woman could now be demoted and fined for sexual harassment if he so much as leered at her; and if she thereupon agreed to engage in sex with him (or even if she had solicited it herself), he could be charged with various degrees of “sexual misconduct” and sent to prison for many long years. No one laughed when these provisions were imposed on the military by the feminist likes of Representative Patricia Schroeder, then on the House Armed Services Committee. On the contrary: I suspect that, like me, many people saw the whole ugly business as itself a kind of rape perpetrated by politicians on the military.

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It was in this cultural context that Paula Jones first popped up with a story which in 1993—that far-off age of innocence—still seemed unfit for publishing in what used to be called a family newspaper or for broadcasting on the news shows of the major television networks. To be more precise, and to be fair to her, it was not Jones herself who “broke” this story, but articles in the American Spectator and the Los Angeles Times. Yet fearing that people might think she had been “asking for it” (to use the term that would have been invoked in the preAnita Hill period before we had all learned better), Jones decided to go public with her own account.

The particular “it” for which she might or might not have been asking allegedly occurred in 1991 when Jones, as a low-level employee of the state of Arkansas, was working at a registration desk in the lobby of a Little Rock hotel where Governor Bill Clinton was scheduled to make a speech. At some point during the afternoon she was told by a state trooper that the Governor wanted to see her in his private suite upstairs. Her version of the sequel was summed up about seven years later in the decision by Judge Susan Webber Wright quashing the civil lawsuit that Jones had eventually launched against Bill Clinton, who was by now President of the United States:

Thinking that it was an honor to be asked to meet the Governor and that it might lead to an enhanced employment opportunity, plaintiff states that she agreed to the meeting. . . . She states that a few minutes of small talk ensued. . . . [T]he Governor then “unexpectedly reached over to [her], took her hand, and pulled her toward him. . . .”

After a bit of groping at her thighs and breasts, according to her “all without her consent,” Jones informed Clinton that she was “not that kind of girl.” This did not impress or deter the Governor, who “approached the sofa where she had taken a seat and, as he sat down, ‘lowered his trousers and underwear, exposed his penis (which was erect) and told [her] to kiss it.’ ” When she refused, “the Governor, ‘while fondling his penis,’ said, ‘Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.’ ”

Like Clarence Thomas before him, Clinton denied that any such event had ever taken place. But there all resemblance between the two cases comes to an end. So far as anyone then knew, or knows to this day, Thomas had never previously engaged in the type of behavior of which Anita Hill accused him. Clinton, by contrast, had already become so notorious for his sexual escapades that during his campaign for the presidency, a special staff person named Betsey Wright had been assigned to deal with the “bimbo eruptions” that everyone around him fully expected to occur.

The most troublesome such eruption involved Gennifer Flowers, who presented tapes on which Clinton was heard advising her to deny the long affair she said she had had with him. Clinton, accompanied and vehemently backed up by his wife, then went on national television to deny the affair himself. We have since learned from his sworn deposition in the Jones case that he was lying about Gennifer Flowers. Yet even in the absence of such proof, and even though the voters twice decided to elect him President anyway, Clinton—again in sharp contrast to Clarence Thomas with regard to Anita Hill—had already established himself as the kind of man who might well have done what Paula Jones accused him of doing.

There was even less resemblance between the attitude of the feminist sisterhood toward Anita Hill and the way it treated Paula Jones. Edmund Burke, lamenting the death of chivalry, once thundered that a thousand swords should have leaped from their scabbards to prevent Queen Marie Antoinette from being dragged to the guillotine by a mob of French revolutionaries. Just so—considering the totally credulous and even reverential backing Hill had enjoyed from the sisterhood, as well as the relentless insistence with which it had subsequently pressed forward in its great crusade against sexual harassment—one might have anticipated that a deafening clatter of feminist keyboards would fill the American air in support of Paula Jones. But no more than one or two could be heard throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Remaining silent was bad enough from the point of view of the putative principles of the feminist movement. But some members of the sisterhood went further, expressing the same dismissive attitude toward Jones’s story that they themselves had scoffed at as a form of “not getting it” where Anita Hill had been concerned. Even Betty Friedan, the godmother of contemporary feminism, blasphemed against the sacred dogma of the movement that “the personal is political” when she suddenly discovered in herself an abhorrence of “the use of a sexual issue in this way.” Besides, Friedan huffed, Paula Jones “wasn’t killed, she wasn’t harassed, she wasn’t fired”—quite as though Anita Hill’s body lay a-moldering in its grave or was now sprawling jobless on a street in Washington, D.C.

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Departing still further from what was supposed to be their own sense of the realities of life, other members of the sisterhood even derided Jones—sometimes almost in so many words, sometimes by implication—as nothing but a piece of Southern white trash looking to make a buck They could not even bring forth a bit of indignation when Clinton’s smearer-in-chief, the egregious James Carville, came crawling out of the sewer that seems to be his natural habitat to shake off Jones with the ineffably cruel remark that when you “drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, . . . there’s no telling what you’ll find.”

At least some of this anti-Jones activity, be it well noted, occurred before she was taken up and financed by a conservative legal organization. Which is to say that the feminists had refused to rally around her even when they had no real basis for suspecting her of being an instrument of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against Clinton that the President’s wife would later conjure up to such great effect.

Yet even if Jones had been adopted by conservatives from the first minute, the feminists should by their own lights still have sprung to her defense as readily and as rapidly and as unquestioningly as they had done with Anita Hill. Hath not a big-haired woman lips? Hath she not breasts, thighs, genitals, senses, affections, passions? If you prick her, doth she not bleed?

Evidently not—and especially not if she also dresses like “trailer trash.” Quoth Barbara Ehrenreich who, writing in Time, was one of the very few feminists to dissent from the rest of the movement on Paula Jones:

Organized feminism lost valuable moral capital when it appeared to blow off Jones as a right-wing operative or conniving tramp. If sexual harassment is a crime—and it was feminists who fought to make it one—then it’s just as much a crime when nice-guy Democrats do it to right-leaning women with the wrong kind of hair.

Ehrenreich, however, was a little foolish in assuming that there were any principles that “organized feminism” would put ahead of its loyalty to a Democratic President like Bill Clinton. Someone once quipped that the Jewish community was the Democratic party at prayer, and in much the same sense the feminist movement was now unmasked as the Democratic party in drag. Wherever the feminist interpretation of the interests of women served the interests of the Democrats (as with Anita Hill), it was invoked instantaneously and with a fury that could shake a nation. But that interpretation simply had to take a back seat whenever it ran counter to the interests of the Democrats (as with Paula Jones).

On this issue, Noemie Emery, in a piece in the Weekly Standard, was as realistic as Barbara Ehrenreich was naive. “The feminists,” declared Emery,

stand exposed as a partisan pressure group, which is not what they said they were. They said they were a universal moral movement acting on behalf of all women. They claimed, very loudly, that harassment was an outrage and a horror. But as it turns out, they are for women selectively, and against harassment only now and then. It was never a principle—merely a hammer, a tool used to bludgeon political enemies.

Every word of this was true, and yet not even Emery saw quite how far the partisanship went and how narrowly focused it was. After all, Senator Robert Packwood had been bludgeoned by the same “hammer” in spite of the fact that he had been as faithful a follower of the feminist agenda as Bill Clinton himself. Moreover, the acts of harassment he was charged with (mostly lunging drunkenly at female staffers and trying to get them to kiss him—on the lips, it seems necessary to add) were pathetically infantile as compared to what Clinton was accused of doing to Paula Jones. As a Republican, however, Packwood simply did not qualify for a free pass (in either sense of the word).

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But even the “moral capital” lost by the sisterhood through Paula Jones proved to be chump change as measured by the plunge its stock took in the wake of its handling of the most sensational bimbo eruption of them all. This was the one featuring Monica Lewinsky, who was heard on tape confiding to her friend Linda Tripp that as a White House intern then barely into her twenties, she had earned her “presidential knee pads” by repeatedly servicing Clinton in the Oval Office (or the Oral Office, as it came to be called in one of the hundreds of jokes spawned by this great gift to all late-night comedians).

Again Clinton, following his own spurned advice to Flowers, issued denial after denial, and again he was backed up by his wife. But this time he was also backed up by the object of his extramarital attentions. Ingrate that he was in referring to Lewinsky as “that woman,” she had sworn in a deposition that she had never had sex with the President. In doing so, she contradicted everything she had told Linda Tripp. She also flew in the face of all the evidence (such as, among many other details and circumstances, the 37 otherwise inexplicable visits she made to the White House after being transferred to the Pentagon) that led practically everyone to doubt her deposition. Practically everyone also believed that her denial in this deposition had been purchased by the job offers she had received from Clinton’s UN ambassador (who had actually visited this lowly intern for the purpose of summoning her to be interviewed) and from companies like Revlon and American Express on whose board the President’s close friend Vernon Jordan sat.

“Practically everyone” included the feminists. Yet they were reluctant to admit it. Some of them took refuge in the White House line that the “facts” had not yet all come out. But very few if any feminists not on the administration’s payroll had the nerve or the gall to travel the whole distance in expressing confidence that when the light was finally trained on all these obscure facts (which, they conveniently neglected to notice, remained obscure only because Clinton refused to divulge them), the President would be vindicated. The most they could work themselves up into doing was to pretend that they were responsibly refusing to rush to judgment. “What is important for the American people to know,” intoned Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, “is that there is a process in place to deal with these allegations.” But so blatantly in conflict was this ploy with the storming-around by Senator Boxer herself during the “process” that was then “in place to deal” with the allegations against Clarence Thomas that uttering such words should have brought a blush to her cheeks if only there were shame enough in her to supply the color.

The hypocrisy here was seen and then raised by the outright dishonesty of yet another ploy. This amazing tactic, adopted by feminists no less fiery than Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and Susan Estrich, was to stipulate that the President had probably had an affair with Monica Lewinsky but then to argue—with a straight face, yet—that what had transpired between them did not amount to an offense against feminist principle. Unlike the Boxer tactic, the Steinem-Faludi-Estrich maneuver did bring a blush, if not to their own cheeks, then to the cheeks of a number of their followers and admirers.

One of these was Marjorie Williams, who in the piece she did for Vanity Fair expressed her “fury” at the failure of many of her sisters and fellow Democrats to protest the trashing of Lewinsky’s reputation by the White House, and instead to pile on themselves. For instance, she quoted Faludi’s derisive description of Lewinsky as “sleeping her way to the bottom of the Revlon empire.” Williams also quoted Estrich, the well-known feminist law professor, who was even more sarcastic than Faludi:

Lewinsky at least appears to have flirted her way to a job at Revlon and, when that disappeared, a $2-million modeling offer and the status of the most-sought-after woman in the world. Not bad, some might say, for someone who can’t type.

But the most startling statement of all was a piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times by Gloria Steinem, co-godmother of contemporary feminism and its famously pretty face. Probably taking her cue from an earlier article on the same page by the self-proclaimed creator of the law of sexual harassment, Catharine MacKinnon (about whom more in a minute), Steinem wrote that even if “all the sexual allegations now swirling around the White House turn out to be true”—and “for the sake of argument” she was willing to accept that they were—Clinton was not guilty of sexual harassment. Why? Because, unlike Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood, the President had taken no for an answer from Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey (about whom more in a minute as well), and yes for an answer from Monica Lewinsky. Hence he was following “the commonsense guideline to sexual behavior that came out of the women’s movement 30 years ago: no means no; yes means yes.”

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Along with most other readers of this piece, male and female alike, I had to rub my eyes. Could Steinem be serious in saying that this was what the women’s movement had been telling us all along? If so, she had clearly been struck with the same bout of amnesia that had come over Susan Estrich, who seemed to have forgotten what she herself had written back in 1987: “Many feminists would argue that so long as women are powerless relative to men, viewing ‘yes’ as a sign of true consent is misguided.” There was also the ferocious littérateuse Andrea Dworkin, again in 1987: “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally: occupied even if there has been no resistance, no force; even if the occupied person said yes please, yes hurry, yes more.”

Admittedly, Dworkin was more radical than most of her sisters, not too many of whom could talk themselves into accepting her idea that no essential difference existed between normal heterosexual intercourse and rape. Yet being so far-out did not prevent Dworkin from exerting an enormous influence over the thinking of her less radical sisters about the nature of rape. In the past, rape had meant imposing sex upon an unwilling woman by the threat or the use of physical force. But with more than a little help from the writings of Dworkin, force had been removed from the equation, or else was defined so expansively as to include a whole range of actions that traditionally fell under the rubric of courtship, verbal cajolery, and seduction.

Under this unprecedentedly elastic definition, not even a woman’s uncoerced consent necessarily precluded the charge of rape (not to mention the lesser offense of harassment). In “Non-Violent Sexual Coercion,” a paper included in a much-circulated collection called Acquaintance Rape: The Hidden Crime, two feminist academics explained why yes so often meant no and why an apparently voluntary act of sexual intercourse could be equated with rape:

There could be many reasons why a woman might not resist a man’s advances so that unwanted intercourse could occur without force. The woman may fear that resisting will make the man violent. She may be confused. Her socialization may make it difficult for her to resist.

There was a time, then, when Gloria Steinem and Susan Estrich and Susan Faludi and every other self-respecting member of the sisterhood would almost certainly have regarded Monica Lewinsky’s going down on her knees in more ways than one to Bill Clinton as a perfect case in point (particularly if the President involved had been a Republican). And even if the enthusiasm Lewinsky expressed over the great privilege of servicing Clinton sexually were to have made these feminists reluctant to call it rape, they would never before have hesitated for a second to call it sexual harassment.

After all, Lewinsky’s affair with the President satisfied in every jot and tittle the criteria of sexual harassment that the feminist movement had forced American society to accept. For openers, this new affair had been conducted in the workplace, which feminists had labored long and mightily and successfully to establish as an area where the mere telling of an off-color joke could get a man fired and his company sued for damages. But, in what should have been an even more compelling consideration from the feminist point of view, the sex Lewinsky had engaged in with the President had been between a boss—indeed, the boss of all bosses—and the most subordinate of all his subordinates. In sum, Barbara Ledeen of the Independent Women’s Forum—a group highly critical of the official feminist sisterhood—was entirely right when she told Marjorie Williams that “The CEO of a corporation wouldn’t have had time to pack up his briefcase before he was fired” for doing what the President of the United States had done with Monica Lewinsky.

Yet this was not the position most orthodox feminists took on Clinton and Lewinsky. “If anything,” sneered Susan Faludi in exoneration of the President, “it looks like she put the moves on him.” Seconding the motion, Katha Pollitt of the Nation added that “there’s no evidence that Monica Lewinsky was bullied or coerced or intimidated into sex and quite a bit of evidence that she was a willing, even eager, participant.” And then Gloria Steinem, keeper of the feminist imprimatur, made it official by absolving Clinton on the ground that Lewinsky had said yes.

Besides proving too much even for several prominent members of the sisterhood, Steinem’s piece was a godsend to the critics of the organized feminist movement who naturally seized on this golden opportunity to expose the almost incredible inconsistency and hypocrisy manifested here. Fortunately for the movement, however, a number of men rushed chivalrously forward to defend its own principles against Steinem, to whom, as the syndicated columnist Richard Cohen earnestly confided, he had “looked . . . over the years for cues, advice, and just plain wisdom.” Another male columnist, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times, paid his own, though thankfully less enthusiastic, respects to Steinem but then proceeded, as did Cohen, to express not just disappointment but even anger at the position she was now taking on the issue of sexual harassment.

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Which brings me back to the role that men have played in relation to the feminist movement both in the past and now with regard to the Clinton sex scandals.

Anyone paying attention to these matters over the years was bound to have become aware that the feminists’ success in infecting our culture with their ideas about the relations between men and women owed an immeasurable debt to the supine acquiescence of most men themselves in the sisterhood’s assault upon the entire male sex as nothing but oppressors and predators. And I mean supine: scarcely a male voice was raised in protest when feminists issued such proclamations as this by Susan Brown-miller: “Rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (the italics were all hers). Or this one by the editor of the Journal of Sexual Assault and Coercion: “Rape is not that different from what we see as socially acceptable or socially laudable male behavior.” Or the even more outlandishly outrageous one I have already quoted above from the mother of all feminist enemies of men, Andrea Dworkin.1

In bowing their heads humbly while such accusations were being hurled against them, men were being “wimps,” to adopt the epithet the feminists themselves were wont to use whenever they were in a mood to complain about the difficulty they had in finding husbands or even a member of the opposite sex willing to “commit” short of marriage. (Naturally, they could perceive no connection between the mysterious disappearance of eligible and/or desirable male prospects and their own ideas and behavior.)

Yet no one would ever have taken Cohen or Rosenthal for a wimp. Rosenthal especially had shown much courage over the years in challenging accepted orthodoxies on a wide range of subjects. This was why I would have expected him, as well as the not-always-kneejerk liberal Cohen, to use Steinem’s piece as a good occasion for raising questions about the validity of the feminist doctrine of sexual harassment and other key ideas of the movement. But no, what they both did was reaffirm these ideas by chastising her for being unfaithful to them—and just when the intellectual and moral weaknesses that had been there from the beginning had revealed themselves for all to see.

What especially riled Cohen was the case—getting now, as promised, to her—of Kathleen Willey. A long-time supporter and friend of the President, Willey, Cohen wrote,

had come to ask [Clinton] for a job. She and her husband were broke; Edward Willey, Jr. would in fact commit suicide that very day. It’s hard to imagine a woman in a more vulnerable position. . . . You cannot, you dare not, you must not make a pass at a woman who has come to you for a job. Everyone knows that. . . . It is that awesome imbalance of power that, in [Clarence] Thomas’s case, caused so many women to wail their outrage at what he was accused of doing. But where are their voices when it comes to Clinton? Silent.

Actually, Cohen was being premature in complaining about feminist silence over Kathleen Willey, since it would be broken a few days later after her appearance on 60 Minutes. Willey was an elegant and well-spoken woman, entirely different in social standing and demeanor from the tacky likes of Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones and even Monica Lewinsky (who, though an upper-middle-class girl from Beverly Hills, was, as Marjorie Williams could not resist unkindly characterizing her, “a creature from an Aaron Spelling show”). As a Democratic supporter of Clinton, Willey was also above the suspicion of being an instrument of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Faced with such a woman, a few leading members of the sisterhood finally got over the “laryngitis” that Barbara Ehrenreich had attributed to them and recaptured the use of their normally raucous voices. The most highly publicized instance was Patricia Ireland, the current head of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who conceded that if the President really had groped Willey and put her hand on his genitals, he was guilty of the crime of sexual assault: “Now we’re talking about, really, sexual predators and people who in positions of power use that power to take advantage of women.”2

If it was Kathleen Willey who was the cause of Richard Cohen’s disappointment with Gloria Steinem, for A.M. Rosenthal it was Paula Jones. Rosenthal, who blamed the premature death of his own older sister many years earlier on her encounter with a flasher on the street, was fit to be tied when one of the grounds on which Judge Susan Webber Wright threw out Jones’s lawsuit was that even if Clinton had exposed himself to her, the act did not rise to the level of an “outrage” as that term was defined by the law. This provoked enough outrage in Rosenthal—and not only in Rosenthal—to make up for the lack of it in Judge Wright’s decision.

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And so we come to the lawyers: the third group of people who have not only sown their share of confusion about the Clinton sex scandals but have played a large role in the evolution and dissemination of feminist ideas about the relations between men and women.

As it happens, I think Judge Wright was right to throw Paula Jones’s case out of court. But I think so only because Jones failed to present any plausible evidence of having suffered any damage through her brush with Clinton. My own guess is that this encounter took place, possibly even as she described it. I would also guess that Jones knew very well what she was letting herself in for when she entered Clinton’s room in that hotel, but that she then changed her mind because his approach was so precipitous and so gross that, even if we assume (which I do not) that she really was the “conniving tramp” and “slut” that Clinton’s defenders said she was, she might well have been insulted and turned off by it.

But whatever may or may not have happened in that hotel suite, I find it deplorable that the conservative lawyers who took up Jones’s cause relied on the very feminist ideas about sexual discrimination and harassment they should, as conservatives, have been trying to fight. I realize that they may have had no viable legal alternative to this strategy; but if so, they should have stayed away from Jones altogether. At least then they would have been spared any need to peddle the newly invented disease of “sexual aversion” that she had allegedly been suffering from ever since Clinton exposed himself to her. Therefore I also applaud Judge Wright for giving the back of her judicial hand to the “purported expert with a Ph.D. in education and counseling” who had made this preposterous diagnosis.

But here is where the applause has to stop and the booing must begin. For in deciding that, even if Paula Jones were telling the truth, Clinton’s behavior toward her did not rise to the level of what the law considers an “outrage,” Judge Wright reconfirmed an old dictum that many of us have come to recall in this age of criminal trials like that of O. J. Simpson and a thousand civil cases in which ridiculous claims of damage have been first sustained and then reversed and then reversed again. The original author of this dictum was Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, and it consisted of seven little words: “the law is a ass—a idiot.” Mr. Bumble let loose with this immortal outburst upon being instructed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.” But I feel sure that if he were still with us today, he would agree that his dictum applies with equal pertinence to what “the law supposes” about sexual harassment.

Having just read about a dozen articles and learned papers on this subject, I confess that I am even more confused about what the law is than I was before I started. But my confusion is a form of blazing clarity as compared with the law itself. No one seems able to provide a simple and coherent definition of sexual harassment, and things have been made even murkier by the crazy inconsistencies between the decisions of judges and juries from one case to another.

In one of its multifarious aspects, sexual harassment is just another form of discrimination in employment, and as such is forbidden under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 19643 But there is little agreement on the question of when such discrimination against women in the workplace can be said to have taken place. So-called “quid-pro-quo” sex, or what the leading feminist legal poohbah Catharine MacKinnon—arriving at last to her—translates as “put out or get out,” is relatively easy to define; and such sexual extortion should, even in my retrograde opinion, be illegal and subject to severe punishment.4 But to repeat (and it bears repeating), most feminist lawyers and legal scholars contend, or did until Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky came along, that virtually any sexual interaction between a man and a woman in the workplace—even a pass or a verbal innuendo, let alone an actual act of intercourse—constitutes harassment, and all the more so if he is higher up in the hierarchy than she.

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Then there is the question of when sex is “unwelcome” as opposed to “consensual,” assuming that there can ever be such a thing as consensual sex on the part of women. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote in the New Yorker:

MacKinnon has long argued that in a patriarchal society, the notion of consent has no real meaning for women. The real question, as she put it in her book, is “whether women have a chance, structurally speaking and as a normal matter, even to consider whether they want to have sex or not.” In the light of the argument of her book, MacKinnon’s question is clearly rhetorical. But her implication is clear: consent is a myth; all sex is harassment.

As I can testify at first hand from having made an analogous point about her idea of rape in the course of a debate with MacKinnon, she immediately begins shouting (and I mean literally) that she is being misrepresented even when one quotes from her own writings. It therefore did not surprise me when she did the functional equivalent on paper to Toobin in a letter to the New Yorker, and then again in a letter to the New York Times answering a criticism of her aforementioned op-ed piece there.

But with her Times piece itself, MacKinnon finally did manage to surprise me. Under some interpretations of this slippery and itself opaque law, she may have been technically correct in acquitting Clinton of harassment because Monica Lewinsky had evidently not found sex with him “unwelcome.” Still, never would I have dreamed of hearing such a verdict drip so approvingly off the lips or the pen of Catharine MacKinnon, who had often collaborated with Andrea Dworkin herself when legal ballast was needed to anchor Dworkin’s demented ideas about all matters sexual.

Another lawyer, by the name of Anita Hill, also weighed in around this time. I for one had come to think of Hill as the Alger Hiss of sexual harassment—the liar who would never own up to the truth, no matter what, and whose supporters had so great a stake in the issue involved that they would defend her to the death, also no matter what. Like Hiss, too, Hill wrote in the arid style of an undistinguished legal brief, and it was in just such utterly bloodless prose that she composed a piece asking whether “we” had forgotten what sexual harassment was really about. My own answer was no: I remembered all too well that it was really about a coke can, a pubic hair, and Long Dong Silver. But apparently this was a false memory, since Hill now instructed us that “the laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace are not about sex. They are about employment discrimination.”

Employment discrimination? That was what Anita Hill was claiming to have suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas? The mind reels and the head spins.

In action, the law of sexual harassment has been as full of heedless inconsistencies as the writings of its self-proclaimed creator and its principal martyr. An article by John Cloud in Time provided the details:

Since 1991, juries have returned over 500 verdicts on sexual harassment—decisions that often contradict one another and send mixed signals about how we should behave any time we meet a co-worker we’d like to see after five. . . . Meanwhile employers fearing lawsuits are stopping harassment before it starts.

This was what the Miller Brewing Company was trying to do when it fired that employee for talking to a female fellow worker about the Seinfeld episode. But to confuse matters further, he then turned the tables by suing the company, and won. Many (most?) other cases have gone the other way, and yet even some of them have been reversed on appeal only to be reversed again by a higher court.

The most consequential example here was the suit brought by one Mechelle Vinson against her boss at the Meritor Savings Bank who, she charged, had repeatedly pressured her into sex. But since she was neither demoted nor fired when she objected, she lost the case. Vinson (one of whose lawyers was none other than Catharine MacKinnon) then appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1986 ruled in her favor on the ground that her boss had created a “hostile environment.” Of this new legal construct, Thomas Sowell wrote in his syndicated column:

Many other laws have been declared “void for vagueness” without being nearly as murky as laws about sexual harassment. When a law forbids you from doing something, it ought to be clear what it is you are not supposed to do. But when the law forbids an employer from having a “hostile environment,” that can mean anything a judge and jury want it to mean.

The long list compiled by John Cloud decisively confirmed Sowell’s assessment. One item told of the clerk in Montana who was awarded damages because smutty pictures passed around by her fellow workers, mostly women themselves, were adjudged to have created a hostile environment for her. In Tennessee, by contrast, after a painting of a partly nude woman displayed in a city-hall rotunda was removed because an offended employee filed a complaint, a judge decided that this violated the First Amendment. Even then, however, the city attorney in charge, with the artist’s concurrence, refused to put the painting back because as a lawyer he quite reasonably feared that another judge might overrule the first one.

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The law of sexual harassment, then, is indeed “a ass—a idiot.” And yet that is not even the worst of it. The worst of it is that as a nation we have given judges and juries, together with committees in corporations and colleges, jurisdiction over a large and central part of life that cannot be codified in laws and written into regulatory codes without having the juice squeezed out of it. This is the part that comprises the endlessly complex rituals of courtship, the stages of flirtation, the nuances of resistance and submission, the tangled interplay between seducer and seduced. The law of sexual harassment “supposes,” in Mr. Bumble’s word, that the seducer is always the man and the seduced is always the woman, and he would surely have extended to this supposition the same reasoning and the same wish he applied to the notion, written into the law of his own day, that wives are always dominated by their husbands: “If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor, and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The young Leon Trotsky, before becoming a Marxist himself, once pronounced “a curse on all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life.” For doing precisely that, the female propagators of the law of sexual harassment in America deserve to have the same curse called down upon them, just as their male fellow-travelers deserve to have Mr. Bumble’s wish come true for them.

On top of taking the life out of sex, the feminist theory of harassment has injected more poison into the relations between the sexes than was ever there before (and God knows there was enough to be getting on with). It has in this way contributed in some indeterminate measure to what, if we can credit the latest medical statistics, has become a veritable plague of impotence among young males and a correlative condition of single unblessedness among young women. For all we can tell, it may also have given a push or two to the spread of that other expression of the male retreat from women known as homosexuality.

And there is still more. As the columnist Paul Greenberg has astutely observed, in substituting the law for what used to be governed by manners and morals and informal codes of socially approved or sanctioned behavior, we ensure that the “intrinsic standards that should be acquired from youth” will fade. The only questions asked will be legal ones; and anyone who is found not guilty under the law will be entitled to claim vindication, which is exactly what President Clinton did when the Paula Jones case was thrown out of court. “Your President is not a crook,” Richard Nixon once notoriously announced, as though that were the whole or the only issue, and Bill Clinton has in his own area of specialization followed suit.

More’s the pity, therefore, that conservatives in general did not seize on the Clinton sex scandals to attack the feminist theory of sexual harassment and to press for a rollback of the laws and regulations that have been spawned under its malignant influence. Instead, blinded by rage against Clinton and eager to take political advantage of his womanizing, some on the Right lost sight of one of the great conservative adages: that civilization depends not primarily on laws but on what a British judge once called “obedience to the unenforceable.” Forgetting this, they followed Paula Jones’s lawyers and columnists like Cohen and Rosenthal in rushing to defend the very positions abandoned (for the moment, anyway) by Gloria Steinem, Catharine MacKinnon, Anita Hill, and the rest of their noisy and noisome tribe.

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It was a truly remarkable reversal of roles. First the feminists, who had previously worked so hard and with such great success in stretching the definition of sexual harassment to cover practically any pass made by any man at any woman, suddenly started singing a strictly and narrowly legalistic tune. The reason was that they wanted to do what Hillary Clinton had denied doing in 1992 when, in backing her husband’s lie about Gennifer Flowers, she spoke contemptuously of the country singer Tammy Wynette’s signature number: they wanted to stand by their (political) man. Then other feminists joined in the chorus with another new tune that was even more jarringly dissonant to anyone who had been listening to what the movement had been trumpeting over the years. Thus Margaret Carlson, earning herself a spot for disingenuousness in the Guinness Book of World Records, warbled in Time:

Feminists didn’t want to end sex in the workplace. After all, to paraphrase bank robber Willy Sutton, that’s where the men are—not to mention where we spend most of our time. Many women want to date up on the organization chart and don’t like the welter of regulations from the human-resources department that caution executives against it.

Yet no sooner had these new ditties reached the ears of a number of conservative commentators than they began talking as though there were great value in the laws of sexual harassment and waxing indignant over the fact that Clinton was being let off the legal hook. Among the few exceptions was John Leo, who wrote in U.S. News & World Report:

Somehow, fairness and manners in the workplace have become purely legal issues, framed by the inventors of harassment doctrine, who are famously certain that all males constitute a permanently oppressing class. Judges who have gone along with all this really ought to try scaling it all back, so the serious cases of exploitation wind up in court, while acceptable levels of gossip, joking, and flirting are set by the culture of the workplace itself.

An even bigger exception was supplied by the libertarians (assuming that they can still be considered conservatives), who were represented most visibly and vocally by Cathy Young. Young both edited a report under the auspices of the Women’s Freedom Network entitled “Rethinking Sexual Harassment” and published a piece in the New York Post under the headline “Now Can We Rein in Sex-Harassment Law?” in which she said:

Seven years after the Anita Hill debacle, there is growing resentment against a regime that strains relations between the sexes, holds men guilty until proven innocent, and encourages women to play the victim.

Yet, Young went on, “newly sensitized conservatives” were now wringing their hands over developments like the dismissal of the Paula Jones suit, and Jones’s adviser, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, was lamenting that feminist leaders had “ ‘ruined the issue of sexual harassment.’ [But] as framed in this decade, the issue of sexual harassment is a farce that deserves to be ruined.”

I hope Young is right about this “growing resentment.” But if she thinks the soft feminist reaction to the Clinton sex scandals is a sign of it, I fear she will soon discover that the sisters can, and will, turn around again on a dime the next time a Republican or some other bad guy is foolish enough to imagine that the women’s movement has become an equal-opportunity indulger.5

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In moving now toward a conclusion, I arrive at the last of the five groups I have singled out for examination: the American people as seen through the polls.

One of the most intriguing of the questions raised by the Clinton sex scandals was why his job-approval ratings kept going up as the scandals multiplied. In spite of the forgiveness that had been accorded him by the electorate over Gennifer Flowers in 1992, everyone of every political stripe was sure that the latest bimbo eruptions would damage, and perhaps even destroy, Clinton’s political standing with the American people. Consequently, when his numbers went up instead, there was much scratching of heads within the punditocracy.

Was it, after all, a matter of “the economy, stupid”? Was the prosperity the American people were enjoying on Clinton’s watch the only thing they really cared about? Or was it that, contrary to what we had been led to believe by all the statistics demonstrating how religious Americans were, they had become more tolerant about sex, willing to live and let live? Were they now prepared to make a distinction between a public official’s private life and his public performance?

If so, cheered the liberals, including those who hastened to express disapproval of or even disgust over Clinton’s sexual habits, this was a healthy development, signifying greater civility and maturity. Like the feminists’ reversal on sexual harassment, this new satisfaction with the American people, whom liberals had been maligning for years as bigoted and repressive, represented a big change. But there was also a commensurately obverse change among conservatives, who had all along been proclaiming that the American people were on their side of the great divide in the “culture wars,” and especially on issues of “character” and sexual morality.

The most important of these conservatives was William J. Bennett. In extemporaneous remarks before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), Bennett gave vent to a concern that had not previously seemed warranted to him:

Here’s one thing conservatives need to be clear about. We have been on a Washington-bashing spree for a few years now, talking about the moral vacuum in Washington. Let us now, clearly and unambiguously, state the unstated fear: the moral decline in Washington is not only in Washington, it is outside the Beltway, too. . . . Those opinion polls are . . . from all over the country. . . . That is an erosion. That is moral decline.

Now I have rarely disagreed with Bennett on anything in recent years. I also believe he has been doing the Lord’s work through the many books and articles and speeches, including this latest one to CPAC, in which he has stressed the crucial role played by virtue in the thinking of the founding fathers and in the continuing viability of a free society like our own. And I am with him to the last syllable in that part of his CPAC speech where he speculates that some people who claim not to be disturbed by Clinton’s sexual escapades are only saying so because they are afraid of being “considered prigs, old-fashioned, unchic, uncool,” and that this submission to bullying is in its own right a serious moral problem. I can even heighten Bennett’s worries by referring to the evidence out there—which he himself does not mention—that, far from disapproving of Clinton, a fair number of men (by no means all members of the “decadent” elites) envy the President the chance and the power to indulge his sexual appetites, and that plenty of women (ditto) find him so attractive that they dream of becoming one of his “bimbos” themselves.

A gaggle of famous feminists, brought together for a colloquy by the New York Observer, even confessed to entertaining such fantasies themselves. Patricia Marx, late of Saturday Night Live, cooed that Clinton was “cute and getting cuter all the time,” and the novelist Erica Jong, clearly determined to prove that age cannot wither her original incarnation as an enfant terrible, trumped everyone else at the meeting by chiming in with: “Oh, imagine swallowing the presidential come.”

I grant that such famous and highly-placed women are irrelevant to Bennett’s fear that the country at large is now caught up in a moral decline. But in their own way, they strengthen the case he makes. It is, I also grant, a powerful case. Nevertheless, my own take on how and why the American people have responded to the Clinton sex scandals does not lead to the unambiguous conclusion that we are witnessing a “moral decline” in the country at large.

_____________

 

There are three considerations I wish to explore in this connection. First, I would say that Robert J. Samuelson of Newsweek is right in arguing that the prosperity-driven “optimism” of the American people is not the only factor by which Clinton has been shielded. There is also their “dislike of politics.” Personally I prefer the word “indifference” to Samuelson’s “dislike,” but under whatever name, this attitude in my judgment deserves greater emphasis than the present American optimism. And as Samuelson himself recognizes in quoting James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, such indifference is a venerable American sentiment. After visiting this country from England in 1881, Bryce remarked:

I never once heard American politics discussed except when I or some other European brought the subject on the carpet. . . . [The American] has been heavily pressed by his own business concerns during the day, and . . . when the hour of relaxation arrives, he gladly turns to [lighter] topics than the state of the nation.

Bryce’s observation seems to me as true of the Americans of today as it was of their forebears over a century ago, and it helps explain why (except in periods of great crisis, like wars or depressions) they demand so little of their political leaders.

Here is where the second consideration arises. Another Englishman, Harold Macmillan—who was Prime Minister of his country during a time when many issues that had previously been thought to belong outside the realm of politics were being dragged into it—said that if people wanted a sense of purpose in life, they should go not to their political leaders but to their bishops. In the even more politicized America of the 1960′s and 70′s, those who tried following Macmillan’s advice were sent by their bishops right back to the politicians. But in the America of the late 90′s, people—and even bishops—have learned better than to look to politicians for moral guidance or as moral exemplars.

Where Clinton in particular is concerned, the general opinion of his supporters, and even of many of his opponents, has been that he is a charming and likable rogue. As such, he is not asked to provide moral leadership; he is only asked (as he himself likes saying) to do the “job” for which he was “hired.”

To be sure, the historian Forrest McDonald is on the mark when he writes in National Review that the most important part of a President’s “job” is the one at which Clinton has miserably failed: “the ritualistic, the ceremonial, and symbolic.” McDonald also fears that in “flouting” this side of his responsibilities, Clinton may even have done lasting damage to the office of the presidency itself.

Worried though he is about this, however, McDonald also reminds us that the office has “been thoroughly discredited” several times before, only to bounce back again later. David Gergen in U.S. News & World Report similarly reminds us that “In the late 19th century, writers like Henry Adams thought there was only one way to look at a President, and that was down.”6

But this too changed with the ascension of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the major crises—from depression to hot war to cold war—that endowed the presidency with greater power and prestige than it had ever enjoyed before. Now, in an (undoubtedly temporary) era marked by the absence of any comparable crises, the presidency would have been cut down to size no matter who was occupying the Oval Office. This is not to say that its present incumbent has made no contribution of his own to the process. He has, and it has been to deprive the presidency so completely of gravitas and weight that no one expects much more of it than routine administrative competence.

In any event, unlike Bennett and other conservatives who perceive in these diminished moral expectations a flaw in the American people, I am inclined to regard them as on balance a realistic and salutary drift away from the misplaced dependence on Clinton’s most admired recent predecessors—misplaced not only because they were not “bishops” but because in their personal lives, whether as husbands (Roosevelt and Kennedy) or fathers (again Roosevelt and also Reagan), they hardly deserved it much more, if at all, than Clinton himself.

This, then, is the second reason I disagree that the reaction of the American people to the Clinton sex scandals is a symptom of “moral erosion.”

_____________

 

The third and final reason is that I think the American people are in a much more complicated moral condition than Bennett does. I am as great a believer in the polls as the next man, and no more than Bennett do I question the accuracy of the job-approval numbers they have yielded for Clinton in tandem with the latest series of bimbo eruptions. But neither do I regard the polls as the last word on this or any other development, and when we are trying to pin down something as elusive as the moral climate of the nation, they can be—as it seems to me they have been to Bennett—highly misleading. A better indicator, I believe, is such products of the popular culture as movies, television shows, and radio programs. Since they live or die by their appeal to huge audiences, we are entitled to infer that the successful ones are a good reflection of what many millions of people want to hear and are inclined to accept.

What then can we learn from these successful specimens of mass culture? I would contend that, on the one hand, they tell us that people are trying to hold on to the traditional moral standards and that they wish to be reassured about the continuing validity and viability of these standards. The huge sales of Bennett’s own books about virtue can be placed into evidence here; and on a lower cultural level I would point to the rise of the aggressively traditional moralizer Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose radio talk show—in another sign that we are experiencing a Brycean withdrawal of affect from politics—has just surpassed Rush Limbaugh in popularity and is now number one in its category.

Yet at the very same time that “Dr. Laura” is achieving such great popularity, her polar opposite, the raunchy and obscene Howard Stern, is coming up fast on the inside. Stern is also about to be launched on network television, which—in his own cheerful estimation—has sunk to the point where it can tolerate the likes of him. And indeed, the sexual content of mainstream television sh


Footnotes

1 For further details, see my article “Rape in Feminist Eyes,” COMMENTARY, October 1991.

2 Willey, however, lost a goodly amount of credibility with Ireland and the others when the White House countered by releasing a number of complimentary letters she had written to the President after the alleged incident had occurred. Here was another show of hypocrisy, since needless to say, similar gestures by Anita Hill toward Clarence Thomas had been explained away by the sisterhood.

3 The role of Title VII in this area was first spotted more than 25 years ago in an article by Paul Seabury in COMMENTARY (“HEW & the Universities,” February 1972). In explaining how women had come to be added to blacks as beneficiaries of the then still infant regime of affirmative action in the universities, Seabury told the story of the Southern Congressman Howard Smith, who “in a fit of inspired raillery devised a perverse stratagem.” This consisted of proposing “an amendment to the bill to include women as an object of federal protection in employment.” Smith thought that the amendment would kill the bill, but to his surprise it passed. He thereby made another field vulnerable to even more types of mischief than Title VII was soon to do in the area of race, where its explicit prohibition of quotas was interpreted by the bureaucracies and the courts to mean the exact opposite of what it said.

4 Here too, however, feminists are trying to obfuscate the issue by claiming harassment even when the woman who refuses to “put out” is not kicked out, and may, in fact, as in a case currently before the Supreme Court, even have been awarded a promotion.

5 When Paula Jones decided to appeal Judge Wright’s decision, there was some talk that feminists, worried about the implication that men now had a license for “one free grope,” would join in the appeal. But NOW’s Patricia Ireland immediately quashed this talk by declaring that her organization had “decided not to work with the disreputable [right-wingers] advancing [Jones's] cause.” So much for the prospect of any feminist reconsideration of the whole range of issues involved here.

6 To document Gergen’s observation, I would cite the character modeled by Henry James on Adams who says, “Hang it, let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President.” Of course this was not how Adams felt about the two Presidents who were his grandfather and great-grandfather.

_____________


About the Author

Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.




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