Americans tend to have a deep ambivalence toward sexuality as a normal, healthy part of life. We simultaneously trivialize it and obsess about it, fear, avoid, and problematize it. This ambivalence is evident in the many domains in which sex has an impact (Noonan, 1996, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c). But, most recently, it has achieved unprecedented national prominence and notoriety with the public events surrounding, and subsequent publication of, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s Report, which focuses predominantly on the sexual aspects of the relationship between President Bill Clinton and a former intern, Monica Lewinsky. The result is a collision of cultures and sexual politics that threatens to undermine the national security of the Nation and our system of governance, as well as our notions of personal privacy and fairness, along with our sexual health and psychology.
Many Americans’ failure to accept the normative aspects of human sexual behavior has oftentimes set us on a collision course with national disaster. The partisan political toying with possible impeachment proceedings against the President is only the most recent to capture and divert our national attention. Our persistent schizophrenic attitudes with respect to sexual health and education, as another example, have caused and continue to cause countless catastrophes in the lives of many young people, often justified under the guise of “morality.” Such attitudes are partially rooted in our religious and cultural traditions, with their often-contradictory perspectives on sex and gender (see, e.g., Francoeur, 1997, 1998; Francoeur & Perper, 1997, 1998). They are further influenced by the various political factions of society, each often vying for the establishment of their own interpretations of sexuality as the best for everyone.
Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, we often fail to acknowledge the crucial components of human sexuality—the human sexuality complex, as I have termed it in my systems-oriented philosophical study of sex in space (Noonan, 1998b). The human sexuality complex is comprised of both biophysical and psychosocial aspects. The colder biological and physical aspects are often the easiest for us to accept, whereas the warmer intra- and interpersonal psychological and social aspects are usually more difficult, particularly those concerning sexual diversity and eroticism, the hot and wet parts that touch us emotionally. The difficulty is even evident in our language, as John Money (1995) has noted, where the “politically correct” now often try to separate sex (the “dirty” part) from gender (the “clean” part). How often do we see demographic forms asking our gender, when what they really want to know is our sex?
Yet, the attention given to the Starr Report and Mr. Clinton’s and Ms. Lewinsky’s relationship is different from other sex-related issues. And it’s also different from other public and private manifestations of power politics. The quasi-morality that has been called upon to defend the attacks on the President is deeply rooted in the magical power of sex—a power that is now being misused and abused to subvert the best interests of the United States. Thus, for the sake of our Nation, this article is not just an analysis of sexuality in the age of Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Kenneth Starr. It is also a call to action for Americans to repudiate the hypocritical posturing that undermines both our sexual sanity and the best of the American political process.
The Power of Sex in Public and Private Life
What might a trained sexologist see in the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship and the Whitewater investigation that later came to be concerned solely with sexual morality and behavior? While I certainly cannot speak for all sexologists, I believe my insights into the human sexuality complex might be of value for those Americans seeking a reasonable resolution and end to this national crisis. I will read between the lines, as it were, to look at what the events described in the Starr Report actually tell us about the nature of their relationship, and the impact that the intense public scrutiny of their relationship might have on the Nation’s sexual health. I will also look at the likely sexual motivations for such scrutiny and the energy that is derived from the power of sex to sustain public and political interest in it.
First, considering the graphic published details of Mr. Clinton’s and Ms. Lewinsky’s relationship, I was immediately struck with the humanity of the participants and their behavior: The chronology and the events appear all too human. The chain of events seem too normally chaotic to have been planned or scripted, following a course that many people must surely find familiar in their own lives and relationships. (Thus, I would tend to reject the many suggestions I’ve heard from some people that Ms. Lewinsky was simply placed there as a setup by political enemies to capitalize on Mr. Clinton’s “weakness” for women.) The chronology is typical of most new relationships, as are the differing perceptions of men and women about the relationship, the Mar-Venus continuum. There are overtures and tentative first steps, doubts about the self and other, the process of discovery and disclosure, the introspection about the place of the new relationship within their social sphere, among a myriad of other factors that characterize most intimate relationships, secret, open, or in between. All of these normal aspects of developing relationships are trivialized or ignored in the Starr Report and most of the commentary that has appeared about it. Thus, what is reinforced in the public’s mind is that normal human sexual behavior, regardless of whether it might be considered right or wrong in any given social context—and regardless of the personal enrichment derived by the participants—is rendered abnormal, contaminating the possibility of building or sustaining their own future relationships. It also ignores the many other emotional factors that characterize human relationships, as if the sexual aspects are the only defining aspects of all relationships, as the Starr Report appears to assume.
Looking at the President’s actions with Ms. Lewinsky (as presented in the Starr Report), it is clearly evident that Mr. Clinton was struggling with his own incongruous behavior and his inclination to respond sexually and to reconcile them with his core religious and/or moral beliefs. Thus, his behavior might be described as a manifestation of ego-dystonic heterosexuality, which many people try and fail to overcome. The fact that their liaisons occurred so infrequently over a period of years, the on-again, mostly off-again nature of their relationship, and the usual incompleteness of the sexual interactions further support this conclusion. What appears to some observers to be his overly pious appeal for spiritual redemption and guidance actually corresponds perfectly with his failure to have a complete sexual relationship with her. This is not an uncommon conundrum that many individuals create for themselves when their all-too-human sexual desires and behavior conflict with their spiritual ideals. Thus, they honestly believe that they really did not have a sexual relationship, although, from my broader perspective of the human sexuality complex, I would vehemently disagree. In addition, I have the added benefit of having a philosophical perspective that doesn’t render sexuality, spirituality, and morality as inherently incompatible with each other.
At one time, for President Jimmy Carter, having sexual thoughts—lusting in the heart—was considered a sin; one did not even have to do anything to be guilty—and many people would still agree. Yet, virtually everyone thinks about sex every day. If one puts energy into controlling merely thinking about sex, one wastes valuable energy that could be put to more-effective use solving real problems. Today, that energy is being hijacked in much the same way with respect to paralyzing the presidency with distractions for partisan political gain. Similarly, little has been said of the immorality of the betrayal by Linda Tripp, who feigned friendship with Ms. Lewinsky to further her own long-standing goal of destroying Mr. Clinton. I have discussed elsewhere how morality in America today is too often equated solely with sexual behavior (Noonan, 1996). Other moral issues, such as the erosion of education, corruption in government, downsizing in corporations, unethical business practices, working families struggling to survive, discrimination in its various forms, manipulation of the legal system, and many more, are inadequately addressed. As such, those who control the various resources of society often use it to distract people’s attention from correcting the many social injustices that continue to flourish. And thus partisan Republicans are using it to distract the public as well from the many real problems that Mr. Clinton has been trying to address during his administration and to minimize his many accomplishments.
Further, even when considering the morality of sexual behavior, many people accept only a narrow, monolithic view of what sexual morality means, although alternative sexual moralities exist for many Americans (Lawrence, 1989; Noonan, 1992/1996). I would argue, for example, that lovers have a moral duty to protect each other, and those others—family and friends—we love and cherish. Might that not sometimes, perhaps, necessitate hiding or avoiding the truth, or even lying, to avoid embarrassment and unnecessarily hurting others? It seems apparent that both Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky each sought at the beginning to protect each other and their families from the public disclosure of their relationship, such that it was. Yet, the special prosecutor used the power of the courts to coerce both of them by intimidation and threats of harm to obtain only the answers he wanted to hear that supported his political agenda.
It’s time for those who have avoided extramarital sex or emotional attachment as well as those many others who have not—or anyone who has failed to live up to her or his own expectations in any sexual or other realm—to speak out against the legal manipulation inherent in the Starr Report. This manipulation is even clearer in the supposedly secret grand jury videotape that has now been released, as well as the dumping of raw evidence into the public domain, for which the public is generally educationally unprepared to process. In particular, it’s important to highlight and decry the abuse of power exhibited by the special prosecutor and, for their part, the subsequent and premature responses of some members of Congress, some leaders in other spheres, and some of the media to all of this material. The Bible, in its admonition from antiquity concerning casting the first stone, explicitly recognizes the moral failings of human beings and our individual responses to the failings of others. Supposedly God-fearing, publicity-seeking, partisan Republicans, however, appear to be ignoring that teaching. Even the reports of congressional extramarital affairs beginning to make headlines, have not dampened the zeal with which many are seeking to damage the President by using the power of sexuality to draw publicity and moneyed political support for their often-unrelated conservative agendas.
The congressman who severely criticized Mr. Clinton and who later admitted that he fathered a child in the early 1980s is important here. He admitted it only because of published reports that the indiscretion had occurred. This is similar to the case of Senator Hyde—who is important in this situation because he potentially would be the leader of any impeachment proceeding against Mr. Clinton. Mr. Hyde acknowledged to the online publication, Salon Magazine, that he had had an extramarital affair in the 1960s just before the story appeared on the Internet. This potential conflict of interest, thus far, has not caused him to indicate that he should not be the one to sit in judgment of another in these matters? Who believes that they are the only ones? So far, such reports have only surfaced about three members of Congress. Having various sexual relationships has always been a perk of power, money, and celebrity, in which most people who have these benefits indulge. I’ve often argued that power is one of the most potent aphrodisiacs we know; this would explain Ms. Lewinsky’s apparent fixation with the man, the president. I believe it’s good that information about the sexual indiscretions of Senator Hyde and other members of Congress are being made public. The holier-than-thou attitudes they and some others have exhibited are sickening and silently mock the principles of democracy and the Constitution. All are potentially more damaging to the United States than any of the underlying behaviors the individuals involved each may have in common.
Still, partisan political advantage is only one factor that is driving the charge against the President. The prurient interests of a significant percentage of the American public, as well as, in all likelihood, that of the special prosecutor and some members of Congress, are also probably key factors driving the frenzy that has taken center stage since the release of the Starr Report. Such interests are reflected in the fascination that the public seems to have in the sex lives and other intimate matters of celebrities and others. Perhaps our own lives are insufficient in some way, and lack adventure and excitement, so that we live vicariously through the lives of celebrities. In addition, few commentators have noted that the $40-plus million Starr Report is probably the most expensive pornography ever produced—or that this pornography was taxpayer-financed! What the Starr Report actually gave the politicians was an acceptable form of pornography that they could read without the guilt associated with the fear of discovery that other pornography might bring. One is reminded of an ironically funny and insightful description of one of his court appearances by the comedian and social satirist Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s. His expletive-peppered speech on stage caused him to be arrested in numerous cities, before zealous prosecutors finally drove him to bankruptcy and possible suicide. In one of his most famous monologues, he noted his discovery that the judge and prosecutors seemed to particularly relish saying the forbidden “obscene” word that Bruce was arrested for saying on-stage in San Francisco.
This brings us to the muddy waters of the issue of sexual harassment, which provided the legal justification for Mr. Starr’s expanding his inquiry into finding other impeachable offenses against the President, having not found such evidence in the Whitewater probe. Consensual sexual relationships, such as that which appears to have occurred between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky, have nothing to do with sexual harassment. No one has condemned—or even acknowledged—the fact that the initial questions about Ms. Lewinsky and the President in the Paula Jones case were improper. Few people—dare I say no one—could withstand the intense scrutiny of their private lives to which President Clinton has been subjected in the name of partisan politics. Even Congress wanted its privacy protected about its deliberations about the release of the usually secret grand jury testimony of Mr. Clinton. A transcript or videotape of their debate about the President’s sex life has not been released with the tape. In addition, the Report shows that Mr. Clinton has misled the American people about his health, specifically his bad back, apparently for some time, while simultaneously pretending to be fit by taking numerous jogging stints over the years. Surprisingly, that fact was not scrutinized for possible misrepresentation by the President to support a pattern of deception of the American people; not surprisingly, it does not have the sexual energy needed to make it valuable political fodder for destroying the President. Yet irrelevant questions about consensual sexual behavior in a sexual harassment suit did have the sexual energy that could be exploited.
If the witch-hunt is permitted to continue, it may be time to declare open season on the private lives of those who participate in the degradation of the presidency or who actively condone or manipulate it for partisan gain at the expense of the democratic process. If I were to invite readers to submit allegations of sexual “misconduct”—or even ethical or criminal lapses of judgment or actual criminal behavior among senators, congressmen, and other public officials, including the judiciary—perhaps we could argue for a special prosecutor to investigate fully, with Mr. Starr’s unbridled zeal and limitless budget, the private lives of them all. Perhaps we could get impeachment proceedings moving on 75% of those in public office. Of course, since the underlying sexual behavior may not be criminal in itself, all we would need to do is to ask them under oath if they ever lied about it or misrepresented it, and their professional careers might be destroyed! It doesn’t even really matter that some charges would be found—true or not—to be unsubstantiated. The digging for dirt is likely to turn up something with which some of them could be removed from their positions and disgraced.
Americans should now be primed for a radical reassessment of their government and the legal process. It is likely that the American public will see the present charade for what it really is, a malicious concerted attack on the President, the presidency, and the American people. The disgrace of the Nation lies in the existence of the Starr Report, far more than in its substance. If nothing else, the events surrounding the Starr Report, along with other travesties of legal justice, show the need for serious legal reform in America. Almost anyone who has been forced to deal with the legal system to rectify wrongs has encountered how bankrupt our legal system actually is. The best way to make a bad situation worse is to involve lawyers, whose motives too often are for personal gain at the expense of true justice, often gained through semantic legal quibbling. Thus, the outcry over the semantic arguments made by Mr. Clinton in his grand jury testimony by some of the same people who have used similar arguments to win legal cases or to construct laws is clearly self-serving. If the media maintains an attitude of fairness in reporting and analyzing the videotaped grand jury testimony and other supporting evidence, most Americans will surely see the extreme unfairness of it all—and the incalculable damage it will do to America. The human sexuality complex mandates that sexuality in its many manifestations be considered as an interacting system whose facets have profound ramifications within the whole system. To dissect the sexual aspects of this national crisis solely in legal terms as the Starr Report has done is to dehumanize both the President and all Americans. It’s time to call an end to the mockery of the political process, allow the President to do the job he was elected to do, and to nourish our national sexual sanity.
Francoeur, R. T. (1990). Current religious doctrines of sexual and erotic development in children. In J. Money & H. Musaph (Eds.), Handbook of sexology. M. E. Perry (Ed.), Vol. VII. Childhood and adolescent sexology (pp. 81-112). Amsterdam/New York: Elsevier.
Francoeur, R. T. (Ed.). (1997). International encyclopedia of sexuality (Vols. 1-3). New York: Continuum.
Francoeur, R. T. (Ed.). (1998). Sexuality in America: Understanding our sexual values and behavior. New York: Continuum.
Francoeur, R. T., & Perper, T. (1997). General character and ramifications of American religious perspectives on sexuality. In R. T. Francoeur, (Ed.), International encyclopedia of sexuality (Vol. 3, pp. 1392-1403). New York: Continuum.
Francoeur, R. T., & Perper, T. (1998). General character and ramifications of American religious perspectives on sexuality. In R. T. Francoeur, (Ed.), Sexuality in America: Understanding our sexual values and behavior (pp. 18-29). New York: Continuum.
Lawrence, R. J. (1989). The poisoning of Eros: Sexual values in conflict. New York: Augustine Moore Press.
Money, J. (1995). Gendermaps: Social constructionism, feminism, and sexosophical history. New York: Continuum.
Noonan, R. J. (1992/1996). Survival strategies for lovers in the 1990s. In P. B. Anderson, D. de Mauro, & R. J. Noonan, (Eds.), Does anyone still remember when sex was fun? Positive sexuality in the age of AIDS (3rd ed., pp. 1-12/2nd ed., pp. 1-12). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.
Noonan, R. J. (1996). New directions, new hope for sexuality: On the cutting edge of Sane Sex. In P. B. Anderson, D. de Mauro, & R J. Noonan (Eds.), Does anyone still remember when sex was fun? Positive sexuality in the age of AIDS (3rd ed., pp. 144-221). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.
Noonan, R. J. (1997). The impact of AIDS on our perception of sexuality. In R. T. Francoeur (Ed.), International encyclopedia of sexuality (Vol. 3, pp. 1622-1625). New York: Continuum.
Noonan, R. J. (1998a). The impact of AIDS on our perception of sexuality. In R. T. Francoeur (Ed.), Sexuality in America: Understanding our sexual values and behavior (pp. 248-251). New York: Continuum.
Noonan, R. J. (1998b). A philosophical inquiry into the role of sexology in space life sciences research and human factors considerations for extended spaceflight. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, New York University.
Noonan, R. J. (1998c, in press). The psychology of sex: A mirror from the Internet. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal and transpersonal implications. New York: Academic Press.
[Dr. Raymond J. Noonan’s 1998 “Save the Presidency! Stop the Insanity!” Campaign was just one of several grassroots efforts opposed to the intrusion of politics into our private sexual lives, and reflected the historic outcry against how sex was being used to bring about the attempted virtual assassination of the President and the overthrow of our democratic ideals.]
Volume 4 of the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality (IES4), including 17 new countries and places, Robert T. Francoeur, Ph.D., Editor, and Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D., Associate Editor, published in May 2001 by Continuum International Publishing Group: Includes my chapter on “Outer Space,” which highlights cross-cultural sexuality issues that will have an impact on the human future in space, based partly on my dissertation. For the table of contents or more information, see the IES4 Web site: http://www.SexQuest.com/IES4/, including supplemental chapters available only on the Web. Order from amazon.com!
“The Impact of AIDS on Our Perception of Sexuality” and “Sex Surrogates: The Continuing Controversy,” in Robert T. Francoeur’s Sexuality in America: Understanding Our Sexual Values and Behavior, published in August 1998 by Continuum Publishing Co. This new book contains an updated version of the chapter on the United States contained in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Vol. 3 (in the set below). Now available in paperback at amazon.com!
Two articles in Robert T. Francoeur’s International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, published in August 1997 by Continuum Publishing Co.: “The Impact of AIDS on Our Perception of Sexuality” and “Sex Surrogates: The Continuing Controversy” in the United States chapter in volume 3, and additional comments (with Sandra Almeida) in the chapter on Brazil in volume 1. Encourage your library to purchase this three-volume, 1737-page set—the most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of sexuality in 33 countries ever published. Order from amazon.com.
“The Psychology of Sex: A Mirror from the Internet,” in Jayne Gackenbach’s Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Implications, published by Academic Press in October 1998. Visit the publisher to see the table of contents and more information, then come back here and order it from amazon.com.
The third edition of the book, Does Anyone Still Remember When Sex Was Fun? Positive Sexuality in the Age of AIDS, 3rd edition, edited by Peter B. Anderson, Diane de Mauro, & Raymond J. Noonan, published by Kendall/Hunt in September 1996. Click here for more information about the book.
The latest on positive sexuality from the first book to address the issue: For anyone concerned about the increasingly negative ways in which sex is being portrayed in public life—and who wants to do something positive about it.
Now out of print, but available soon in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format! However, used copies might be available at amazon.com.
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