How Clinton is both a victim and perpetrator of puritanism
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
Atlanta, Jan. 31, 1998)
Can we have a break?
I want a break from America's long-rooted, tedious puritanism -- that sexual
prissiness and denial of pleasure that caused the early settlers of this
country to pillory wanton women and outlaw flower gardens, that causes media
circuses every time Bill Clinton drops his pants.
Don't get the idea that I come to praise Clinton, even if I'm not yet prepared
to bury him. I see Clinton as both an example of and victim of modern puritanism.
His embarrassing fibs about his sexual peccadilloes are the least of my concerns.
What irks me is the way people like Clinton continue to act like textbook
cases of psychoanalytical theory. Unable to control their own impulses, they
compensate by trying to control everyone around them. The best recent example
of that in our own state is Mike Bowers, the former attorney general who
successfully defended the state's antiquated sodomy laws before the Supreme
Court. Then he fired a lesbian hire for violating the sodomy law and potentially
"discrediting" his office. As it turns out, of course, Bowers all along was
conducting an adulterous affair, just as illegal as sodomy.
Clinton, likewise, has been no advocate of sexual liberation. Remember that
this is the same president who, having made a campaign promise to the nation's
gay men and lesbians to end discrimination in the military, retreated into
the incredible position of legalized moral hypocrisy: the so-called "don't
ask, don't tell" policy. This, as it turns out, is exactly how he tries to
conduct his own sexual life. Unfortunately, hypocrite that he is, he seems
to have a taste for sexual partners with large mouths (and I will leave exploring
the dual psychosexual implications of that to you, for I do mean it literally
But the moral posturing doesn't stop with official hypocrisy. He also has
campaigned against "smut" on television and for sexual "abstinence" by teenagers.
He's "concerned" about Internet sex. As I recall, he even delivered a few
choice words about sexual wantonness when he signed the bill that caused
thousands of American children to lose welfare benefits.
It ought to be clear to everyone by now that people who engage in moral posturing
and legislating the sexual lives of others are always hypocrites. (Please
don't confuse the issue by bringing up bestiality and pedophilia. I'm not
talking about abuse.) This doesn't mean that the sex lives of politicians,
as some falsely unctuous media critics claim, should be exempt from public
Quite the contrary. People who attempt to control other people's sex lives,
to shame them or legislate against them, deserve to be scrutinized publicly
in the media. Only by exposing the hypocrisy of men like Clinton, Bowers,
John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Swaggart, Eddie "I-Give-Taxi-Rides-to-Transvestites"
Murphy, a third of the Catholic priesthood, and Gary Hart will puritanism
ever begin to lose its suffocating grip on the American psyche.
Of course, the popular argument in the Clinton case is that his satyriasis
might be forgiven but that his alleged effort to convince his latest woman
to lie on his behalf is unforgivable, as it constitutes the obstruction of
justice. Absurdly, people are comparing this to Watergate, as if the cover-up
of Bill Clinton's penis is analogous to the cover-up of Tricky Dick's systematic
campaign of illegal political manipulation. (I've seen this tempest called
And, of course, tedious Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr has managed to
extend his investigation of a land deal nobody cares about to Clinton's sexual
life, appropriating the Paula Jones "affair" to his own agenda. The argument,
again, is that the concern is the possible obstruction of justice, not the
sex life of the Prez itself.
That, quite naturally, is bull manure. Starr, whose own sex life deserves
media scrutiny, has well-known connections to the Republican Christian right,
and we are seeing nothing less than a war by the extreme puritans against
the moderate puritans. Sexual hypocrisy should be exposed but the enforcement
of dumb laws is a waste of money. It is highly unlikely that were Clinton
not a sitting president we'd be going through this. The man has no sexual
impulse control. He allegedly had an affair with a young woman. He allegedly
asked her to fib about it because he's too cowardly to oppose our puritanical
laws and ethics. Perhaps that's realistically impossible. Then, for God's
sake, follow the pre-Charles European tradition and find women who can have
affairs without running to Oprah. And, please, keep it out of the damn White
Of course, millions of Americans -- themselves under the spell of puritanical
fantasies -- no doubt are clucking about the violation of Bill and Hillary's
marriage vows. Puritanism requires a kind of self-blinding to, for one example,
the fact that the majority of American marriages end in divorce, that fidelity
and true monogamy are fantasies lived by a decreasing percentage of the
population. (If infidelity were better tolerated, we'd have longer marriages
and relationships with deeper roots in the truth. That is undeniable since
"adultery" is the cause of so much divorce.)
In the view of finger-waggers, a marriage that tolerates outside sexual
peccadilloes is indicative of willful self-destruction. I even read somewhere
a ludicrous essay in which the author attempted to link Kennedy's sexual
excesses with his bringing the world to the verge of nuclear holocaust during
the missile crisis. In other words: Having lots of sex and tolerating outside
sex within a marriage are destructive to the self and society.
How could Jackie have loved John? How can Hillary love Bill? Very well and
quite deeply, I imagine, although I'm guessing they were both aghast at their
husbands' complete lack of discretion and taste in the exercise of the libido.
But this is the fate of hypocrites in power. Unwilling not only to oppose
the silly laws and values they defy, they create new ones and, of course,
end up undone by their own moral cowardice before the juries they have helped
keep in power.
It is a pity that there is no cohesive movement against puritanism in our
society. (The Libertarians, who are self-conflicted and dogmatic themselves,
are as close as we get.) It is a great irony that the one group in America
that most defies sexual norms -- gay men and lesbians -- has now itself become
awash in puritanism and hypocrisy.
Gay journalists (including Atlanta's) now attack multi-partner sex, call
for stigmatizing open relationships and write the same kind of exposés
of promiscuous sexual culture that straight columnists did 20 years ago --
with the excuse of battling AIDS, of course. (There is always an excuse.)
Some, like Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, make the
incredible claim that the gay rights movement will be over when gay people
are granted the right to marry.
In other words: The inclusion of gay people in the crumbling mainstream moral
fantasy will somehow end the movement's political goals. Give gay people
the right to marry and then they too can have legal recourse against their
cheating spouses so that fidelity to a norm, rather than the appreciation
of differences, matters most.
That is the function of puritanical agendas, of course: conformity and sameness,
the denial of pleasure, which, if fully granted, makes people quite unwilling
to be controlled politically, religiously, socially or in any other way.
It is a tragedy of American life that so many of us feel that we all have
to be controlled.
Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan 31,
Archetypal Advice |