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The Clintons' marriage remains a Rorschach test for sexual anxiety

The relationship trips up hypocritical conservatives — and feminists, too.

Bill and HIllary Clinton at the 2011 annual meeting of the Clinton Foundation Global Initiative.
Were it not for his sense of propriety, Donald Trump might raise questions about the Clinton marriage.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

"I'm really happy I was able to hold back on the indiscretions in respect to Bill Clinton," Donald Trump commended himself following the first presidential debate. He then spent the rest of the week tweet-threatening that he might let Hillary have it about Bill’s sex life and unleashing to reporters about the topic.

It would have been an amazing feat if Trump had done anything else, given what an enchanting Siren’s call to sexual hypocrites the Clinton marriage has been — especially preening marital hypocrites for whom its dangerous temptations have proved, time after time, the rocky shoals of political shipwreck. One of the more gratifying lessons of late-20th-century history was how many of the Republicans voting to impeach Bill were soon exposed as adulterers (and worse) themselves, including a rarely spotted American subspecies, the adulterous female politician (Rep. Helen Chenoweth).

It was a three-ring circus of sexual malfeasance: When two exposed adulterers were forced to step down as House speaker, a serial child molester was installed (Dennis Hastert). It doesn’t get much better than that for those of us who suspect the loudest moralizers in the room are always the ones trying to project their own sexual shame onto any nearby target.

Shame is obviously not a trait one associates with Donald Trump. Some might say it’s not the world’s brightest move for a known adulterer to batter his female running mate about infidelity, though maybe Trump will prove more insulated than last century’s Clinton impeachers. His own marital foibles are out in the open, and his hypocrisy is apparently, at least to his supporters, among his main appeals as a candidate.

He’s also been — I say this grudgingly — far smarter than either Clinton at handling press queries about his sex life. "No, I never discuss it," he said last week, when asked if he’d cheated on his wives. If only Bill Clinton had used that line!

But he didn’t, and clearly the subject of Hillary’s relation to Bill’s "indiscretions" isn’t going away anytime soon. In the lurid imaginations of the hard right, Hillary practically held down virgins for Bill to deflower; in the unmeetable-expectation zone of the feminist blogosphere, Hillary should have allied herself with Bill’s female accusers — including the ones who sold stories about him to the tabloids.

The Clinton marriage is a mirror of our own conflicts about sex and fidelity

Speaking as a feminist, I’m no more a fan of feminist moralizing than of the right-wing varieties. As to whether Hillary did indeed actively join the efforts to trash Gennifer Flowers and others, the evidence seems mixed, and I have no idea. Someday, when Russian hackers have exposed all our email accounts and posted the contents of our hard drives online, and everyone’s private proclivities and foibles can be easily cross-indexed with her or his public pronouncements, maybe easy sanctimony will come less easily. In the meantime, I suspect pronouncing righteously upon the Clinton marriage will remain a national pastime.

But what if it’s really not marital virtue we want from our politicians? Maybe it’s a mirror of our own conflicts about sex and fidelity we’re seeking, precisely to have the kinds of conversations we’re currently having.

Wasn’t it always obvious that Bill Clinton’s so-called "character issues" were part of the attraction, that he was elected twice not in spite of his glaringly apparent flaws as a husband, but because of them? The charismatic personality doesn’t typically stem from a reconciled inner life, and Bill’s charisma was, of course, legendary. The interesting question to me, instead of just bashing Hillary, would be: "What kind of relation should a feminist have to infidelity, male charisma, and ‘other women’?"

To try to answer it — and because there are probably a few millennials out there puzzled about the events known as Monicagate — let’s turn to the account of someone well-placed on what happened back then: Monica Lewinsky herself. What younger voters may not know — what may even come as a surprise, given how much the sexual culture has changed in the intervening years — is that Monica saw the relationship with Clinton as her choice.

Sexual power is not a one-way street

As recounted in Monica’s Story, in her early days as a White House intern Monica thought of Bill as just a gray-haired old guy, until she encountered the Clinton effect up close. "I remember being very taken aback. My heart skipped a beat … there were butterflies in my tummy. He had a glow about him that was magnetic … I thought to myself: ‘Now I see what all the girls are talking about.’"

She responded, famously, by flashing her thong at him. Soon there were longing looks, stolen moments in back corridors of the Oval Office, shared Diet Cokes and childhood stories — they’d both been chubby kids — presents, and late-night phone calls. Though Bill wanted to "be good," he never really mastered the skill. Instead he conducted a lot of internal bargaining about what did and didn’t count as sex (oral sex didn’t, luckily), which would later expose him to widespread ridicule.

Still, before they kissed for the first time, he asked her permission. And during the course of the quasi-affair he actually wasn’t a shit: He acted like a real person and put up with a fair amount of crap from Monica who, by her own account, could be a pushy brat — cajoling him to help her find a better job, wanting more attention, and getting mad when he was preoccupied with other things, like Congress.

Did Bill lie? Undoubtedly. Did he jettison Monica? Yes — when he was under political siege and trying to save his skin. I don’t have a hard time putting myself in his shoes: Lying about sex is what we’re all trained to do. Especially when it comes to the well-known fact that sexual desire often doesn’t sustain itself over the course of a long-term marriage. It’s not exactly a secret that libidos flag, or one person wants to have sex and the other’s lost interest, or endless variations on the theme of erotic discontent. So what’s the solution, assuming you don’t care to divorce? A lifetime of sexlessness?

It was the one question I never heard honestly discussed when all this was unfolding. Who knows whether the Clintons had a sex life, but the Starr Report kindly included Bill’s remark to Monica that he hadn’t had oral sex in a long time. I suspect not a few married people, men and women both, find themselves in the same situation and aren’t happy about it either.

The dark side, and the attractions of, male charisma

The other issue about which Monica’s Story is admirably frank is on the seductive pleasures of sexual charisma. Bill’s been looking a bit shrunken lately, but back then he was someone who set fantasies in motion, and there wasn’t much difference in form between Monica’s romantic fascination and the nation’s. Her daydream that Bill might leave Hillary and wind up with her was hardly less fantastical than America’s fantasy that Bill, once in office, would suddenly become a faithful husband.

Dennis Hastert on trial in 2015.
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert at his trial in 2015. In retrospect, the Clinton impeachment was "a three-ring circus of sexual malfeasance."
Scott Olson/Getty

I suspect the country’s love-hate relationship with him contained no little identification, intermixed with the rote disapproval.

Which is why Bill Clinton remains a vexation to this day, not least for feminists. Feminist theory has a lot to say on the evils of male sexual power; there’s been far less self-acuity about its attractions. It’s no secret that male charisma, whatever its derivation — political office, sexual magnetism, real estate fortunes — is a sexual draw for a lot of women, even at this late date in the male-female situation.

I hope this is the first and last time in my life I’ll be citing Henry Kissinger, but yeah, power is an aphrodisiac. Henry meant for women, of course; it’s not apparent the lure so easily flips around. Certainly the endless vituperation aimed at both Hillary and Monica over their relations with Bill conceals much resentful self-contradiction on this score.

As it happens, no one was more disgusted by Bill Clinton’s sexuality than the lady who set his impeachment in motion. But was it really only disgust?

Yes, I’m about to reopen an ugly national sore: the matter of Linda Tripp, Monica’s supposed girlfriend who recorded their phone calls, egged on Monica’s tearful confessions, maneuvered her to pressure Clinton for favors (especially on the job front), then trotted over to Paula Jones’s lawyers with her illicit bag of tapes. Later, trying to rehabilitate her image on the talk show circuit, Tripp would try to paint this as a feminist act and mouth platitudes about having acted in Monica’s best interests.

What I love about this story is how empty easy clichés about male "abuse of power" become. Power is never simply a top-down affair, and it’s not the province of one gender alone. It’s dispersed and unpredictable. And no one makes the case better than a midlevel Pentagon employee who nearly brought down a presidency armed with nothing more than a Radio Shack voice recorder and a bottomless well of malevolent rectitude.

Taking up with a sitting president was a risk undertaken by an adult woman

What happened to Monica at the hands of Kenneth Starr (and girlfriend Linda, who’d wear a wire to help the obsessional Starr set Monica up) was shocking and vicious. This included having her car rammed on an LA freeway by photographers looking for a photo op. But the casual murderousness of the media pales compared with her treatment by Starr’s federally funded goons, whose legally dubious harassment included threats of 27 years in prison, to sic the IRS on her father and imprison her mother if Lewinsky didn’t cooperate.

Still, what has to be said is that Monica was an adult who made her own choices, and taking up with a sitting president — one being hounded by enemies — was a risk.

But that’s what life is: taking risks whose outcomes you can’t necessarily foresee. Calling a 22-year-old "virtually a child" or other solecisms I’ve seen circulating lately is neo-paternalism masquerading as feminism. Sexual harassment is one thing; consensual relations are another.

There was never any charge that Clinton either harassed or pursued Monica. There may be different ideas about the propriety of workplace romances at present, but as Monica herself said at the time, the relationship was her choice. And either women over the age of consent have sexual agency or we’re handing back every hard-won advance that previous generations of feminists struggled to bequeath us.

And there’s another hard political truth at stake here: Playing the sexual blame game about the Clinton marriage means being a right-wing patsy. The reason Monica’s story became a political football in the first place is because right-wing thugs like billionaire Richard Scaife paid millions to dig up dirt on the Clintons — see chief dirt digger David Brock’s apologias about the "Arkansas Project." This led to the Paula Jones lawsuit — always designed as a perjury trap for Bill — which gave Starr the rationale to expand his jurisdiction from the Clintons’ finances into Bill's sex life, and onward toward impeachment.

But the real political lesson of recent years is that dirt doesn’t even need to be true to be effective, whether it’s "swift boating" John Kerry, or the "birther" lies about Obama, or Trump’s latest scurrilous tweets about Hillary.

What matters is the smear. In the case of Bill’s sex life, there was dirt to dig. Some percentage was true; much was — and remains — un-disprovable, which is different (the Juanita Broaddrick story falls in this category). Some dirt was disproven over and over, including the old accusation that Hillary played some nefarious role in White House aide Vince Foster’s suicide — rumors Trump is also currently trying to revive. Which is why I think that to keep invoking Bill’s infidelities as ammunition against Hillary, or to keep faulting her — yes! — flatfooted, unstrategic responses to them, even out of some misbegotten sense of feminist virtue, is keeping the smear machine alive. Somewhere Richard Scaife is smiling.

Also: Come on. It’s not incumbent on anyone to be supportive and charming about people your spouse is sexually involved with. I’m not saying this as some big Hillary fan, by the way. I was a Sanders supporter who will vote for Hillary with no great love of her politics (for all the usual leftish reasons), to prevent a lunatic pig from being elected.

Personally, I don’t get the sentimentality about the prospect of a woman president — Margaret Thatcher was a woman too, and so what? But Hillary has been a tough advocate on international abortion rights and stood up heroically to Republican sexual dinosaurs trying to control women’s bodies globally by yanking UN and NGO funding for reproductive health. That should qualify her in anyone’s book for the Feminist Hall of Fame. You say she should have been nicer to the women boffing her husband? I say get some perspective.

Laura Kipnis is the author of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. Her next book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, will be out in April from HarperCollins.


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