Clinton: a common male practice

By Robert Jensen

Published in Daily Texan · September, 1998

[This article appeared in the Daily Texan, newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, September 17, 1998, p. 4.]

The way to understand what’s important about the Bill Clinton scandal is to
quit obsessing about what this means about Bill Clinton and pay attention to
what it means about our society. With all this talk about sin, we forget to
think about the systems and structures, about how power made what Bill
Clinton did commonplace.

So, let’s look at the facts.

A middle-aged man with a lot of power in an organization decides to get
sexual gratification from a much younger woman who works for him. In short,
what Bill Clinton did was normal.

By normal, I don’t mean good. I don’t mean his behavior should set the norms
for others. By normal, I mean that it happens a lot, and it happens for a
perfectly predictable reason: The behavior is in line with the norms of our

Now, by norms, I don’t mean what we say we believe as a society, but instead
the actual rules that govern our lives. I’m referring not to rhetoric, but

We live in a world structured by, among other things, male dominance. In our
world, male dominance is expressed through, among other things, sex. Sex
becomes one way in which male power is made real. In such a society, sex
becomes most sexy when it is an expression of power and dominance. And in a
society in which men hold the vast majority of positions of power, the
results are not difficult to predict.

What Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky did was, by all accounts, consensual
on both sides. Clinton’s actions appear not to rise to the level of sexual
harassment, in a legal sense. Apparently, he did not create a hostile
climate, nor did he use a quid pro quo demand to get sex.

But simply because Clinton did nothing illegal does not mean his actions
were not an abuse of power. I’m not talking in Ken Starr terms here. I am
talking about the routine abuse of power that countless politicians,
business executives, professors and ministers commit when they poach on
younger women who are subordinate to them in an organization.

In my own world, higher education, such abuse goes on daily. Faculty
members, almost exclusively male, use their power and position to sleep with
students. Every professor I know can cite at least several examples, and I
wouldn’t have to walk very far in my own building to bump into a male
colleague who has had sex with a student.

The common response to this kind of critique is that when the women consent
to, or perhaps even initiate, such relationships, how can we call it an
abuse of power? Is it not an insult to a woman to suggest she is a dupe of
patriarchy? Can’t women choose for themselves?

Of course they can. I have no doubt that woman engage in such relationships
for a variety of reasons. Some may love the man they become involved with.
Others may do it to gain some advantage in the organization. Some may do it
because they feel flattered, others because they’re afraid to say no.

But it is not insulting to anyone to acknowledge how systems of power
structure the world in which we live. We all make choices under varying
levels of constraints and freedom. My point is that in trying to understand
and resist those unjust systems of power, we should focus on the actions of
those with the most power, not the least, because it is the powerful who
should be most accountable.

So, asking why the woman does it is the wrong question. The more important
question is, why does the man do it? What is it about our society’s
definitions of masculinity, power and sex that lead to such routine abuse of
women? Why do men poach on younger women? Why do men use pornography and
prostitutes? Why do men rape and beat and sexually harass women? Why is male
sexuality so fused with self-indulgence, conquest and domination? And, most
importantly, how do we change it?

It is the choices that men make that I am most concerned about. As a man, it
is my actions that should be scrutinized the most closely. In any system of
power, it is the decisions of those on top, of those who abuse their power,
that should be our focus.

Bill Clinton, and every other man who abuses power in this way, should be
held accountable. But the current hand-wringing over Clinton’s behavior, as
if he were the only man in this position, blocks us from learning from the
scandal. Whether or not he is impeached is, to me, a rather trivial matter.
More important is whether we learn anything from it about ourselves.