Poll numbers indicate shift in attitudes toward sex

October 15, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON TUESDAY, the day Parris Glendening decided it was socially acceptable to be seen in public with the president of the United States, it was possible to drive into verdant Carroll County, the county of lush farms and treasured conservative values, to gaze upon one of the most expansive collections of sexual videos this side of Baltimore's Block.

The president of the United States, as everyone knows, has his own sexual background, not (yet) on video but otherwise examined in all conceivable modern media. The governor of Maryland, having taken previous, disapproving note of such unsavory presidential sexuality, brushed it aside because of election considerations (and the most remarkable poll numbers) and met with Bill Clinton in traditionally friendly Silver Spring.

In Silver Spring, you expect people to like Glendening and Clinton. Around there, in the D.C. suburbs' Montgomery and Prince Georges counties, they tend to vote Democratic and think Republicans on Capitol Hill are making far too much of Monica Lewinsky.

In Carroll County, life is a little different. They voted against Clinton and voted against Glendening. They voted for Ellen Sauerbrey four years ago and probably will again. They went for George Bush six years ago, and Ronald Reagan before him, and Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon before that, and many of them moved out here specifically because of a perceived breakdown in American morality.

And yet, if you believe some of the newest poll numbers, and believe that Carroll County is part of America, you will note the changing tone of the Clinton argument, and the changing attitude about sex and privacy in America, which includes not only the Monica scandal but also the largely unspoken live-and-let-live tolerance of such cultural outposts as porno video houses. The two are not unrelated.

"You have had a great six years," Glendening declared Tuesday, gesturing toward Clinton and uttering not a word about the chief executive's sex life.

"One of the most innovative state governments in America," Bill Clinton said, gesturing toward Glendening and uttering not a word about Glendening's previous remarks about that famous sex life.

The governor's previous remarks included the words "inappropriate" and "wrong" that Glendening declared when he first examined the Lewinsky story and imagined the dangers forthcoming in Clinton's poll numbers.

But the numbers have fooled everyone. Last week, Clinton's job approval rating was 67 percent. Congress' was 45 percent. A Washington Post poll said 62 percent of voters disapproved "of the way Republicans in Congress are handling the issue of impeachment."

A sense of bullying is in the air, a notion that this president's sex life is distasteful and dishonest but still his own business and nobody else's outside his family. Americans are not unaware of the vulnerabilities in many people's sex lives. Witness the divorce rate, the private eyes making a living tailing wandering spouses, the traffic on Baltimore's Block, the trade in prostitution in various parts of the metro area, even in an age of great nervousness about sexually transmitted diseases.

Also, witness the porno shop in Carroll County, at this little strip shopping center on the Route 140 main drag heading toward Westminster. It's a little slice of Americana: an auto supply shop, a pet store, a veterinary center, a hair boutique, a tanning salon, a computer store -- and, in the midst of it all, hundreds and hundreds of pornographic videos.

And folks walk in, mostly men but some couples, and head past a modest selection of "family" videos, straight to the back room. Eye contact is avoided; this is, after all, sex. It's private.

Many in Carroll County obviously aren't happy with such a business. Politicians have grumbled about it. But the store has been there for five years, and its owners say they've had no pressure from the police and little pressure from others in the community.

"When they first moved in," Wade Opper, president of ATG Computer Net, said yesterday, "we were a little concerned." Opper's located next door. "We thought, 'Oh, what kind of crowd are they gonna bring here?' But it's been no problem."

The crowd that arrives is just people who want to see this kind of product, and who keep their eyes down because they want this part of their lives private. But porno in America is a $4 billion a year industry. A lot of people, eyes averted, seeking privacy, are partaking. And they understand the vulnerability involved in all sexual pursuits.

In Carroll County, and elsewhere, they might hate Bill Clinton for his politics and his irresponsible sex life. But, on some level, many must understand his problem: Something he thought was private has instead been horribly exposed to the whole world.

Those poll numbers tell us a backlash has developed against those pursuing him. It's so clear, even Parris Glendening has figured it out and is willing to brush it aside. At least, until Election Day.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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