The Magazine


Apr 13, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 30 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the complex relationship between sex and politics that has preoccupied Americans for the past three months, many of those seeking to condemn the president have relied on some version of the feminist principle that "the personal is political," while those seeking to excuse or exonerate him have rallied to the libertarian idea that "the personal is personal." But to see the issue solely in these terms misses the strikingly novel and dangerous turn that American political life is taking: What the Clinton White House is actually asserting is the despotic principle that "the political is personal."

The personal is political, a cryptic phrase casually introduced by feminist theorists some twenty years ago, became one of the major slogans of the modern women's movement. It is shorthand for the feminist attack on the notion that relations between the sexes -- in dating, in marriage, and on the job -- take place in a private, non-political realm. The reality, feminists insist, is that such matters involve fundamental struggles of power and influence, which make them intensely political. And because they are political, they are legitimately subject to greater public control, be it by expanded definitions of sexual harassment, codes of sexual conduct for business corporations and universities, or censure of objectionable behavior by vigilant organs of opinion.

Long before the advent of modern feminist theory, of course, American society had (and still has) a system of public regulation of private life designed to defend traditional morality, especially as it relates to protecting marriage and the family. Under this system, there is today a modest network of laws that encourages marriage and restricts pornography and lewd behavior, and a body of religious teachings and customary beliefs that disapproves of adultery and condemns boorish behavior by men against women. Clearly, feminist proponents of the principle that the personal is political did not have this system in mind -- except as a target. Traditional morality, they argue, is an amalgam of Christian, chivalric, and Victorian values that serves merely as a polite disguise for male dominance. Yet despite the radical disagreements between feminists and traditionalists, the two have sometimes managed to work together where their principles coincide, as in opposition to pornography, which both offends decency and demeans women. Such was the uneasy coalition many perhaps expected to develop in the current White House scandal, with Gary Bauer and Gloria Steinem walking, if not exactly arm in arm, then at any rate side by side, to defend their respective causes.

The libertarian idea -- the personal is personal -- holds that consensual sexual relations are private matters that should be beyond the reach of law or custom. A prudential version of this principle, consistent with the older morality, allows traditional standards to be publicly stated, but argues that it is wisest to steer clear of discussions of such matters, except perhaps in the most flagrant cases. Otherwise, there is a risk of sliding into moralistic crusades. But it is not the mild and almost apologetic version of this principle, but the strong and positive one, that has had the greatest influence on American life. Known among the mass of middle-aged college graduates as the morality of sexual liberation, this variant moves beyond asserting a zone or right of privacy in all sexual relations to proclaiming that consensual sexual relations of any kind, where openly announced, deserve to be accepted, if not celebrated. The personal is personal means here that the personal is non-censurable. The movement for sexual liberation was a crusade to end repression of all kinds and to make the world safe for eroticism. "Make love not war" -- a cause to which the young Bill Clinton was devoutly and passionately committed -- was not just a statement of opposition to the Vietnam war, but a clarion call to fashion a new kind of society.