The Magazine Club

Feminism, Moralism, and That Woman

Actually, I don’t agree that feminism as a broader political force is “kaput.” I mean, to put it in perspective, feminism is a long-term, worldwide social revolution, like democracy. It comes together, makes enormous changes, comes apart because of opposition and its own limitations and contradictions, is eclipsed for a while, bursts out again in different forms and different places. What I’m saying is that right now in the U.S., the second wave of feminism has exhausted itself and there isn’t a political context for a third wave; so in the cultural snapshot of the Maxim-Cosmo generation, political feminism is out of focus, as it was in the ‘50s, when for women my age or a little older–I started college in 1958–the image of a “feminist” was a little old lady brandishing an umbrella. (In fact, the term women’s liberation was invented to avoid feminism, which was thought to have conservative and unsexy connotations.) It’s a moment, that’s all. Not that I think we’re going to have a big feminist revival tomorrow. If anything, fascism seems more likely.

Your Howard Stern comparison suggests to me that the ‘90s sexual sensibility you describe is not only a matter of guys rejecting “sensitive man” hypocrisy but of women rejecting feminist neo-Victorian moralism and of both sexes rejecting the general miasma of moral righteousness that became the liberal-lefty substitute for politics in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s a more deadpan and apolitical version of the rebellion of a lot of young people who embraced right-wing libertarianism in the ‘80s, which I always thought was a response to the fact that whatever liberal-leftist sentiment they had personally encountered (in school, say) had taken the form of haranguing people to improve their characters and clean up their language. In reaction, they equated freedom with being “bad.”

Under the influence of the anti-porn movement, the mainstream of the women’s movement lost a lot of credibility with young women by fudging the distinction between consensual and coercive sex. The campaign to expand the definition of sexual harassment to include virtually any form of sexual expression in the workplace and any sexual relationship between a male boss and female subordinate, or a professor and a student, has been based on the idea that women need protection against sex and that an environment into which the erotic is permitted to intrude is by definition hostile. It’s about policing sexuality, not ending discrimination. It implicitly denies women’s sexual autonomy. There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that the right has now embraced this deeply flawed conception of sexual harassment and has put liberal feminists on the defensive for their resistance to getting with the program. But the truth is it was a fundamentally conservative program all along.

If I follow your logic, you are saying that Bill’s affair with Monica was sexual harassment not of Monica herself but of the other women who worked in the White House, who were thereby subjected to a hostile environment. But a sexual harassment case needs a complainant. Have any of the other female workers actually claimed to have suffered from a hostile environment? Assuming they didn’t know about the affair, can they be said to have been subjected to a hostile environment without knowing it? Certainly if a boss can be shown to systematically favor women workers who have sex with him over those who don’t, this is a form of discrimination–though I’d argue it is not “harassment,” which connotes overt acts of mistreatment, not simply withholding especially favorable treatment. But it’s really a stretch to claim that anything Clinton did for Lewinsky was designed to reward her for getting sexually involved with him and by omission punish others for not doing so. His efforts to help her get a job, for instance, were clearly motivated by the desire to placate her and get her out of his hair.

So what does Mark Golin think of Monica Lewinsky, I wonder?