It’s not often that I can be called an apologist for President Clinton. Then again, it’s not often that a sitting president gets accused of having an affair with a 22-year-old intern. However, because of the premise of this entire situation—that because of the ages and marital status of the participants consensual sex acts are somehow the business of the American people—I am stuck defending Bill. Why?
Stay with me here: We all know that the real problem, legally, is not the supposed affair but the alleged lying and subornation of perjury. And those are serious charges. But that lying never would have taken place had the president thought that he would not suffer tremendous political damage from public revelation of the affair. Of course, had he actually believed he could admit to his screwing around and get away without censure from the electorate, he would have been, to put it bluntly, totally and completely deluded. Of course he would suffer—is suffering—immense political damage. But why? Because the American people are shocked and disgusted that he would cheat on his wife with a young, naive, impressionable intern. And why is that? Because the American people have an inadequate appreciation for consent in a wide variety of relationships. They simply cannot believe that (1) Bill’s behavior is not an unforgivable betrayal of Hillary and (2) Monica Lewinsky was not somehow taken advantage of in her liaison with the prez. (The New York Times commented that the scenario could send “chills down the spine of many American parents” whose children have worked as interns.) Puh-leeze.
Let’s get a few things straight. On point (1): The Clintons have been married for 22 years. Bill has acknowledged having had at least one affair—which lasted a number of years—and he’s been accused of many more. Hillary’s a smart woman; she must know what her hubby’s up to. She has made a choice—an informed, adult choice—that this is acceptable to her. Maybe she just doesn’t care about his indiscretions. Perhaps the first couple even have some sort of agreement. Whether or not she has her own affairs is an open question. (I sure hope she does—but that’s a whole other story.)
On point (2): Lewinsky’s behavior is no one’s responsibility but her own. She is an adult and thus fully capable of making a decision about who to have sex with. Yes, I know that the president is a powerful man. Yes, I know that there are indeed situations in which those with scads of power use it to take advantage (not always sexually, though, let’s not forget) of those with less. But being turned on by power—as Lewinsky allegedly was—does not automatically make her a victim of it. (No doubt, the notion of an affair gave Lewinsky her own power trip; the leader of the free world willing to risk the current political firestorm to put his penis in her mouth.) Women can—of their own free will—be motivated by lust. The only problem with that is that people still have trouble believing it.
It’s no surprise that the president might have lied and now faces the potential collapse of his administration. He did it because he needed to: political expediency tinged with a wee bit of shame, a result of the American voting public’s moralism and a retro belief that women must be protected from the base desires of men. And that’s hard to, um, swallow.
Lisa Jervis is the editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, an uppity little ‘zine printed on pulped trees.