In 1998, the professional moral scold William Bennett published a book titled “The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals.” In it, Bennett described blasé attitudes toward presidential adultery as corrosive.
Clinton’s promiscuity, he argued, implicated his fitness for governing: “Chronic indiscipline, compulsion, exploitation, the easy betrayal of vows, all suggest something wrong at a deep level – something habitual and beyond control,” he wrote.
I was reminded of Bennett’s words by David Friend’s fascinating recent book, “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido,” about the sexual scandals and cultural upheavals of that decade. In retrospect, the dynamics of the Clinton-era culture wars seem blissfully simple, pitting a sexually libertarian left against an aggressively prudish right.
It is a cosmic irony that, 20 years later, it is conservatives who’ve finally killed off the last remaining unspoken rules about presidential sexual ethics.
The Wall Street Journal last week reported that, a month before the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen arranged a $130,000 payout to porn star Stephanie Clifford, known by the stage name Stormy Daniels, to stop her from discussing a 2006 dalliance with Trump.
The New York Times confirmed the story with additional details. The Daily Beast then reported that another porn actress, Jessica Drake, who accused Trump of offering her $10,000 for sex, signed a nondisclosure agreement barring her from talking about the president.
In any other administration, evidence that the president paid hush money to the star of a porn film during the election would be a scandal. In this one it has, so far, elicited a collective shrug.
Liberals, in general, can’t work up much outrage, because the encounter between Trump and Daniels was by all accounts consensual. And few social conservatives are interested in criticizing the president, since they’ve talked themselves into a posture of hardheaded moral realism in order to justify their support for him.
In 2016, for example, Bennett himself condemned “Never Trump” conservatives for their “terrible case of moral superiority.”
If there’s a significant scandal, it will lie in the origins of the $130,000, or in other encounters Trump has covered up. There’s a sentence in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
It comes toward the end, when Steve Bannon is praising Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz: “Kasowitz on the campaign – what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.”
If it turns out there were payoffs to hide non-consensual behavior, there may be an uproar. But sleeping with a porn star while your wife has a newborn, then paying the porn star to be quiet? That’s what everyone expects of this president.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the right’s tacit embrace of a laissez faire approach to sexuality – at least male, heterosexual sexuality – coincides with attempts on the left to erect new ethical guardrails around sex.
In the 1990s, many feminists defended untrammeled eros because they feared a conservative sexual inquisition. Elements of that inquisition remain; attacks on reproductive rights have grown only more intense. Still, Trump has reconciled reactionary politics with male sexual license. In doing so, he’s made such license easier for feminists to criticize.
This weekend, the sex scandal that captivated people I know involved not Trump but comedian Aziz Ansari. On Saturday, an online publication called Babe published allegations from a young photographer, pseudonymously called Grace, about a date with Ansari gone wrong.
Speaking to writer Katie Way, Grace seemed to be disappointed that Ansari didn’t live up to his nice-guy feminist persona. “You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances,” she texted him.
Among feminists, reaction to the piece broke down roughly generationally. Grace interpreted her experience as sexual assault, but several older writers saw it as a story about caddishness and bad sex, neither of which justified the invasion of Ansari’s privacy. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan described it as “3,000 words of revenge porn” inspired by romantic disappointment.
I agree with Flanagan that the bad behavior Grace described doesn’t rise to the level of assault or harassment, and I don’t think Babe should have published the story. Still, I can sympathize with the younger feminists who are pushing the limits of the #MeToo movement.
They are, it seems to me, trying to impose new norms of consideration on a brutal sexual culture, without appealing to religious sanction or patriarchal chivalry.
“A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction,” tweeted feminist writer Jessica Valenti. “But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
Maybe feminists feel free to express their fury about the path sexual liberation has taken because they no longer need to defend sexual liberation itself from conservatives. In the 1990s, porn culture seemed subversive and chic. Now it’s become repulsively presidential.