Sexual politics: The real thing

Lisa Schiffren

December 04, 1992|By Lisa Schiffren

TWO Sundays ago I stumbled to the door to retrieve my Washington Post and, like most Washingtonians, scanned the headlines to see what was happening -- a local euphemism meaning, "What politician has been caught doing something outrageous or disgraceful?"

I didn't expect much because transitions are dry periods for scandals, but habit is strong and, anyway, my search was rewarded.

The front-page headline screamed that several women had accused Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon of making unwanted sexual advances to many women. I read on with the nonpartisan schadenfreude that all lowly Washington staffers reserve for the troubles of the mighty.

The article sparked a few entirely personal observations.

This was no everyday scandal such as Congress' bounced checks or eavesdropping on political appointees. Unwanted sexual advances are, of course, sexual harassment, the hottest scandal category of the moment.

Nor was this the same old sexual harassment we've heard about continuously from the Thomas-Hill hearings through the election.

The article called the allegations a genuine paradox because the senator has, by feminist standards, an excellent record on "women's issues."

This paradox was so complicated I didn't quite get it, so I skimmed the rest of the article, more than a full page of descriptions of various women's complaints that Senator Packwood had lunged at or grabbed them in inappropriate circumstances.

Surrounding these allegations were testaments to his advocacy of abortion rights, hiring of women for important jobs and devotion to pet feminist causes. Senator Packwood has been an exemplar of that quaint breed, the socially liberal Republican.

"Accusations Run Counter to Record," stated the headline.

Could this possibly mean that it is considered inconsistent (therefore paradoxical, even hypocritical) for liberals, who believe unfettered sexual autonomy, especially for women, to make overtures to women who might not reciprocate?

Evidently so. I guess I had missed this important socio-linguistic evolution. Last I'd heard it was only hypocrisy when conservatives -- who talk about morality, favor "family values" and oppose abortion -- were found to have personal interests in sex beyond marriage.

Perhaps there were other new paradoxes I had missed. Indeed, close study of the reporting on the Packwood story has revealed several worth noting, just in time for the forthcoming Senate ethics investigation.

* 1. The greatest paradox involves the politically driven inversion of morality.

Men who profess traditional moral views on sexual issues, who believe that sexual liberty is bad and committed monogamy good, that abortion is sinful, that women deserve respect, which shown by treating them like ladies, even if that means forgoing an amount of familiarity and comfort, are considered condescending, insensitive and therefore "evil."

Because they are evil, it is said to follow that they would be sexually predatory toward the women with whom they worked.

* 2. On the other hand, men who advocate abortion rights and absolute sexual equality are considered virtuous.

This despite the fact that these feminist achievements make intimate relations more convenient for men, by releasing them from traditional obligations and considerations toward women. Nonetheless, it is considered paradoxical to find these new men treating women insensitively.

* 3. Though political correctness requires that men support all demands for sexual freedom but forgo any personal benefits from the ensuing sexual free market, that old moral failure -- womanizing -- is, paradoxically, no longer a vice.

We have many impressive Democratic leaders who are known to be virtuosos in the art of seduction. Yet they have not been held to public account by feminists.

Until recently we had a definition of sexual harassment that included some obvious use of power to obtain sex. That would include threats of firing, promises of promotion and professional retribution. But sensitivities have evolved.

In Bob Packwood's case, all of the complainants alleged that he made inappropriate, sometimes physical advances at them, but that when they said no firmly, he accepted it. Though they felt uncomfortable, there were no ramifications in their professional lives -- no threats of firing, no vengeful behavior.

So our paradox here is that those of our public men who have mastered the art of seduction, and thereby slept with and discarded many women, are blameless. The inept, the less attractive and therefore unsuccessful, however, are guilty of the new crime -- sexual harassment.

This is more than a paradox. It is a new standard: Unwanted sexual advances will get you disqualified from high office. Wanted sexual advances will get you -- sex.

* 4. So far our paradoxes have concerned male behavior. But women are capable of paradoxical -- or is it hypocritical? -- behavior as well.

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