The Rebel Girl: The New Sex Police

Catherine Sameh

IN AN INTERVIEW for the “Hungry Mind Press Newsletter” (Issue Number 3, Summer 1998), Leslie Brody, author of Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia (Hungry Mind Press, l998), a memoir of her stint in the White Panthers (a short-lived anti-racist radical youth group—ed.), responds to Dallas Crow’s question “Why a memoir of the sixties now?”

Brody comments:

I think there’s a struggle going on about who owns the sixties. A lot of it comes down to who writes history. There have been some books recently in which old lefties repudiate their youth. For a long time I’ve thought about writing a piece that might reclaim something of value for a generation which has seen its youth belittled and its bravest actions demeaned.

The poor in imagination have portrayed us—with much head shaking and tongue clucking—as the callow, unthinking victims of a permissive age. (Oh, the drugs, oh, the sex, oh, oh, oh!) What did all those hippies and radicals and students and dissenters accomplish with all their moaning and groaning?

The repudiation of your youth is certainly not original. In our own century, after the stock market crash, as many former denizens of the jazz age began publishing denials of their own youthful license, Dorothy Parker stood firm on the subject of all that illegal booze, all that sex, all that liberty. “It was fun,” she maintained despite the new spirit of moral reform that was suddenly in the air.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think of Monica and Bill. Talk about a spirit of moral reform! What Brody captures is, in essence, the context surrounding the push for Clinton’s impeachment.

With heads shaking and tongues clucking ad nauseam, those in favor of ousting old Bill have more than his affair on their minds. For years, the right has been trying to roll back some of those “bravest actions” of the feminist and queer movements—the many individual and collective struggles that pushed women (and the whole country with them) towards greater sexual freedom.

It’s no surprise that Henry Hyde is one of Clinton’s most outspoken critics. Responsible for ending federal funding for abortions in 1976, Hyde has been a formidable enemy of sexual liberation his entire career.

This is not to say that affairs (including Hyde’s or Clinton’s) are a great gauge of a more liberatory sexuality. Feminists have always challenged the double standard which grants men this trespass, but penalizes women who dare cross that line.

But these men aren’t angry about that double standard, or about Clinton lying under oath, or Monica’s hurt feelings. They’re up in arms about sex. Sex with the wrong people. Sex in the wrong places. Wrong sex.

And to think they actually believe they are being feminist about the whole thing. Calling their brothers on their shit. Holding each other accountable. Clamoring, suddenly, for THE FEMINIST RESPONSE! No one, except the real feminists, could care less if Lewinsky was used or exploited in any way. And it’s not really evident that she was.

If right-wing commentators, the media, Congress—or anyone else in favor of impeaching Clinton over his affair with Lewinsky—were really serious about listening to what feminists thought, they wouldn’t be so eager to hop in the ideological sack with us. What feminists, and anyone else who cares about a liberatory sexuality for everyone, should be saying is this:

Having an affair, and lying about it, are not impeachable offenses.

Monica was a consenting adult. She’s not accusing Bill of rape or sexual harassment.

Should men be sleeping with women who are their own adult daughters’ ages? Should men and women who work together, but don’t share the same level of power, sleep together? These are important questions feminists should ask, discuss and debate.

But we should steer clear of aligning ourselves with the right over issues of sexuality. The best this ever gets us is a creepy paternalism in the guise of respecting and honoring women—like the historian interviewed on NPR who predicted that this scandal will pave the way for a future female president.

We’re all tired of, as he called them, the “macho antics” of powerful men. A woman president would bring a higher morality to the public. She’d lift the nation up. So—if we thought nostalgia for the 1950s was annoying, now we have to contend with longings for the Victorian era.

There’s no question it’s hard to defend a guy who has betrayed women all over the world with such atrocities as welfare “reform,” deregulation and anti-immigration policies—all offenses, crimes really, we should impeach him over.

Yet the alternative is to cave in, as Clinton has with his talk of repentance and salvation, to a regressive and oppressive moralism that has been and will always be used against the left. Though it’s hard to imagine, the clampdown on us will be many times worse.