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Public Lives and Private Lives – January 14, 2018

People puppets

A whole slew of public figures—mostly politicians, actors, and journalists, but what other kind of “public” is there anymore?—have recently been brought down by accusations of boorish behavior, inappropriate touching, lewd comments, harassment, and other activities that border on, but usually don’t meet the qualifications for, the Rape of the Sabine Women.

I don’t condone this behavior. I believe that women are not disposable pleasures but fully actualized people who should be treated with respect and courtesy, especially the closer a man gets to them and the more intimate their relationship becomes. If a man wants to interact with a woman at the closest level, it should be as friend, companion, and lover—not an object of pleasure. A man who deals intimately with a woman, entering into a position of responsibility for her, and then mistreats or abandons her is lacking in commitment and a sense of personal honor. A man who willfully injures a woman either verbally or physically shows himself to be a diminished person.

But that said, something has changed in our world having to do with relations between the sexes. The 1960s and the sexual revolution, driven by the convenience of the pill and other forms of birth control, and clouded by a haze of pot smoke, cheapened and trivialized love and commitment in the interest of physical pleasure. Self-restraint, caution, and deeper feelings of caring and responsibility were thrown to the winds. If it felt good, you did it, and thought about the consequences later.

Now, in the 2010s, the diminishment of sex has come full circle. Using sexual activity for self-gratification (on the man’s part) and for personal enhancement and career survival if not advancement (on the woman’s part) has become commonplace. It is the quid pro quo of the entertainment and journalism industries and in power politics. In fact, the circle has turned so far that we have suddenly entered a newly puritanical era. In the space of the past year, dating to the upsets of the 2016 election, but with significant outbreaks from the years before, a man’s sexual history and his boorish behavior have become worse than criminalized. His touches and gropings, his comments, his unwanted moments of closeness—let alone any calculated rapes—have now become grounds for public humiliation, economic execution, and spiritual exile.

When I was growing up, in the decade and a half before the sexual revolution, sex stayed in the bedroom. It was nobody’s business what went on in a private home and behind closed doors. Yes, there were laws about incest, sodomy, and other public taboos, but the cops never broke down the bedroom door looking for infractions between consenting adults. You had to perform the unlawful act in public—or solicit it from a member of the vice squad—in order to get arrested. And although most people weren’t exactly comfortable with homosexual activity and other relationships that were considered vices at the time, they tolerated the situation so long as the acts remained between consenting adults and stayed behind closed doors, along with the rest of human sexual activity.

The press offered public figures a measure of polite silence and turned a blind eye to their personal proclivities and weaknesses. That is a far cry from the howling chorus we have today. Yes, John Kennedy had affairs, most notably with the actress Marilyn Monroe. And who can say that all of those affairs with a popular president were free of the taint of gross or subtle coercion? Kennedy also suffered debilitating back pain for most of his life and probably was dependent on opioid painkillers. Yes, Dwight Eisenhower took a mistress while he was stationed in Europe as Supreme Allied Commander. Yes, Franklin Roosevelt had a mistress while in the White House. Roosevelt was also crippled with polio and confined to a wheelchair that his aides artfully concealed. All of these failings were known to insiders and to the press. But none of them was made explicitly public, because wiser heads decided it was proper to judge the man on his political skills and his public policies, not his private life.

I think the hue and cry started with Bill Clinton.1 His lecheries with staffers, and even women with whom he only briefly came into contact, became the stuff of public ridicule in the media. His reaction to questions about these lecheries became the stuff of political obsession by his opponents, which culminated in an attempt at his impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton’s private life became a political liability.

Was Bill Clinton a sexual predator? Probably. Are the men who are now being publicly tarred and feathered sexual predators? On a case by case basis … probably, many of them. While I think sexual predation is a low form of behavior and personally dishonorable, I also understand how the world works, and how it has always worked. The pattern goes back to the Bronze Age and probably to our earliest hunter-gatherer beginnings—as soon as one man in the tribal band became socially powerful and started being treated as a decision-maker and chief.

In any given social or interpersonal situation, one person will always have the advantage and psychological, if not actual physical, power over another. Usually, the person who wants something puts him- or herself in a subordinate position, and so becomes vulnerable to, the person who can bestow the gift, benefice, or advancement that is desired. Similarly, the partner in a relationship who loves the most subordinates him- or herself to the person who cares the least. Men in public office who can grant favors, even if it is just proximity to the wheels of government, or those who can make or break careers, like a movie producer, will always have power over those who need favors or want to boost their careers.

In the human world, unfortunately, the women who need a favor, are attracted to power, or have a career to make usually end up putting their sexual persona, or sometimes just their personal submissiveness, at the service of powerful men who can grant those favors and build those careers. This is the disadvantage of being a women, not just in 20th-century American society, but in all societies going back to hunter-gatherer tribes. Still, it can also be an advantage because, for most adults in our sexually liberated age, contrived intimacy is no longer that big an issue and need have no lasting consequences. A man in similar need of favor or advancement would have to compensate the power broker with a pound of uncut cocaine, a box of Cuban cigars, unlimited personal loyalty, or performance of some legally or morally questionable service.

There is no way to stop this kind of transaction. It is built into human nature, which derives from the social interactions of all primates and all mammals who happen to gather in groups or herds. The big gorilla, the alpha male—or the alpha female—gets what he or she wants. The only way to stop this transactional relationship is to eliminate all positions of power, all distinctions between people, and the basis of all human interactions. Either that, or impose horrendous penalties on all persons engaging in extramarital sexual activity—and enforce existing laws about cocaine and Cuban cigars.

Or, we could return to a culture that holds a man—or a woman—to a standard of personal behavior and expects him or her to follow a code of personal honor. We don’t have to turn a blind eye to the mistresses and the addictions. But we also don’t have to bribe doormen and sift through other people’s diaries looking for infractions, because we can trust that most members of society, even those in positions of political or economic power, are decent, honorable, and living according to such a code.

You can’t enforce decency by civil or ecclesiastical law. But you can make it personally attractive and … perhaps even expected once again.

1. However, the public shaming of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, over an extramarital affair that surfaced during his bid for the presidential nomination in 1988, was a precursor to the outing of Clinton’s follies. Treatment of the Hart affair set a precedent for the next stage of journalistic voyeurism.