Feminists and the Sex Scandal

Feminists and the Sex Scandal

For the past year, feminists have taken a lot of heat for supporting President Clinton in Zippergate. What about that most basic of feminist insights: the personal is political? If people are politically accountable for their personal lives, why put up with a politician who does the “lip limbo,” as Don Imus put it, with an intern? How can you excuse that behavior while insisting that sexual harassment laws be broadly enforced? Isn’t it hypocritical to attack a conservative Supreme Court nominee for talking dirty to his staff but excuse a liberal president who actually had sex with his?

As a feminist, I flinch every time someone explains that because sex is personal, and therefore private, the president should not have to answer publicly for his sexual conduct. If we say that personal conduct has political implications, we can’t also argue that all personal conduct should be shielded from public comment. Stopping sexual harassment and domestic violence, for instance, depends on the notion that personal behavior sometimes warrants public intervention. Of course the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was personal; what we are trying to figure out is whether this personal conduct should be treated as entirely private or if it requires a public response.

For every person who considers the Clinton-Lewinsky affair categorically private because it was sexual, there’s someone else who thinks it’s absurd to talk about protecting the privacy of public employees’ conduct in a government office. That simplistic view is equally unconvincing. Personal behavior in public places is often treated as private. Sexual-harassment law regulates only unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace. Conversations in public phone booths are protected from government surveillance. Parents discipline children on playgrounds and lovers quarrel in restaurants, yet there is no public obligation—or prerogative—to get involved in these personal relationships unless the nature of the behavior itself warrants public intervention. The question for feminists is whether President Clinton’s personal conduct demands a public political response.

There are some ways public officials might behave in their personal lives that would seem to preclude feminist support. Suppose the president had physically forced Lewinsky to perform oral sex or threatened to fire her if she refused his advances. In the first case he’d be subject to criminal prosecution and in the other to a slam-dunk sexual-harassment suit, provided Lewinsky alleged it was the reason for her sexual compliance. But an act’s political importance can no more be determined by saying the conduct was illegal than by saying it was private. For feminists, as for legislators deciding what constitutes an impeachable offense, the problem is more complicated. Suppose we learned that President Clinton had agreed to pay for his daughter’s college education only on the condition that sh...