Lipstick Feminists

That’s a hard thing for me to admit, and a difficult word for me to use. But over the last few months, I’ve been horrified to hear a soprano chorus of “lipstick feminists” crow over the exploits of Monica the Power Babe. In one recent New York Times op-ed, headlined “Monica Lewinsky, Career Woman,” Katie Roiphe complained that we lack a term for “the opposite of sexual harassment, when a person of less power uses her sexual attractiveness or a personal relationship with a person of greater power to get ahead.” Frustrated by her stalled career, Roiphe reports, Lewinsky “used her personal power over the President to get results,” threatening him with public exposure if he didn’t land her a new job, pronto.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with Ms. Lewinsky’s way of thinking, or with her attempt to translate her personal relationship with the President into professional advancement,” comments Roiphe, who is apparently unfamiliar with the legal concept of blackmail. “It is a time-honored female tradition to use sexual power as a way to try to improve one’s position in the world…”

That vision of the sexually unrestricted female as power broker has been getting a lot of play lately, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it dangerous. God knows, we’re all now painfully aware that powerful men can be rendered foolish and incompetent by sexual desire. And we’ve all seen second-rate Cleopatras convert their perilously high heels and profoundly deep decolletages into cars and condos – or at least, a promotion from bus girl to waitress.

But sexual power is a pistol loaded with only one bullet. Sure, Monica probably felt like Wonder Woman the first time the President beckoned her toward his gaping zipper. And when their sordid little liaison petered out, I’m certain she lay awake at night constructing elaborate scenarios in which L’Affaire Lewinsky would tumble the presidency, leaving her perched triumphantly atop the New York Times bestseller list. But look how it’s all turned out: She’s housebound and unemployable, while he still gets to decide which women are Secretary of State material and which are merely potential humidors. So how much real power did Monica ever wield?

The problem with Roiphe and the sisterhood of sluts is that they lack historical perspective. A couple of generations ago, the halls of government teemed with Lewinskys – called “monkey girls” (at least in Illinois), because they hung on to their jobs with their tails. Down in Springfield, the monkey girls observed a touching Sabbath ritual: Every Friday night, they’d line up at the railroad station to kiss their lawmaking lovers goodbye as they left to spend the weekend at home with their constituents – and their wives.

Back then, the definitions were clear – the men were studs, and their women were sluts. And when the monkey girls found themselves on the mossy side of 35 with neither resums nor reputations, society’s judgment was bleak: You made your bed, now lie in it.

That double standard became a rallying cry for the women’s movement, which battled to redefine sex roles and insisted on women’s equal right to sexual gratification. But when the sisters declared sluthood obsolete, they found themselves lacking the vocabulary to describe fetching young women who managed to snag jobs as statehouse typists and stenographers without submitting to the drudgery of secretarial school.

It was a dilemma with an obvious solution – blame the men. So radical feminism redefined all of heterosex as a species of rape. On paper, it all made perfect sense: Sex is power, men are oppressors, women are victims. So the feminists set out to save the monkey girls from themselves.

That crusade continues even today. In a rather sweet news release issued last January, the National Organization for Women called on the nation’s male public officials to swear off the sexual spoils system. “Whether the boss is a county supervisor or the President of the United States, no public official should take advantage of the aphrodisiac of power,” NOW President Patricia Ireland insisted. “We must demand that public officials, at all levels and in all branches of government, pledge to reject sexually intimate relationships with employees/volunteers.”

Certainly, there were always plenty of feminists – myself included – who managed to draw a distinction between consensual sex and rape. But the insistence that women who traded sex for other types of favors were really victims put off a generation of younger post-feminists who couldn’t reconcile the sex-as-rape paradigm with their own lusty manipulation of befuddled menfolk. They went public with the once-guilty pleasures of mascara and silk stockings, and filled long reams with swaggering accounts of their own sexual appeal and exploits.

In short, they were a bunch of horny broads, looking for a few good men. And the President definitely qualified on that score. As Roiphe cooed in a New York Observer panel discussion, “This virile president is suddenly fulfilling this forbidden fantasy of this old-fashioned, taboo aggressive male. I think women are finding that appealing.” Any suggestion that Lewinsky was at a distinct power disadvantage during her Oval Office amours was just old-fashioned.

Unfortunately, the details of the Lewinsky-Clinton sexual encounters don’t support a vision of Monica as Mata Hari. Despite her eagerness and her Altoids, Lewinsky failed to squeeze any favors – political or sexual – from her ever ambivalent partner. Instead, she ended up with no penny and no candy, marking “Dump Day” with a tearful temper tantrum at the White House gates. It’s a real stretch to define that relationship as a mutual exercise in passion and pleasure.

I can understand why young women are impatient with a blanket definition of sex as exploitation. But to substitute a new stereotype of sex as aerobics is equally unsatisfying. While it may soothe your self-respect to redefine your sexual misadventures and miscues as simple exercises in self-discovery, the lipstick feminists don’t seem to understand that it takes two, not only to tango, but to distinguish a tango from a foxtrot.

Sex can never be unilaterally defined. If one of you thinks you’re redefining yourself as a sexually vivid and liberated person, and the other is rejoicing in disbelief that he got some without even having to pop for dinner – you’re both right. And society has a legitimate interest in helping the two of you figure out precisely what you’re up to.

Because we’ve been dealing with definitions based on ideology rather than reality, we get all discombobulated when we try to talk about sex and power. Instead of addressing a case like the Clinton-Lewinsky affair on its own demerits, we try desperately to twist the facts to make it fit our own sexual doctrines. But in looking at this particular pair of sexual nincompoops, we don’t really see an exploiter and his victim, or a temptress and her prey, or even two adults freely engaging in some mutually enjoyable hanky panky. What we have here are a couple of sluts.

Back during the Clarence Thomas debacle, women used the catch phrase: “They just don’t get it.” Well, in this case, nobody gets it. Because sexuality isn’t an it. Sex is a them, a those, a this, that and the other. It means different things to different people at different times. What Clinton and Lewinsky were doing together had nothing to do with rape – and nothing to do with the high poetry of the Book of Common Prayer’s “With my body, I thee worship.” It’s incredibly easy to make that distinction – once you accept the basic premise that we as a society are entitled to make sexual judgments, of both men and women, when their behavior affects our own lives.

In our own experience, we know that sex is sometimes completely private, and sometimes overwhelmingly public. (If you’ve ever been nine months pregnant, you know exactly what I mean.) Sex can be healing and life-affirming; sex can be degrading and disgusting. We’ve all known plenty of men who use their positions of power to take advantage of vulnerable women. We’ve also known misguided sexual opportunists like Lewinsky, and we’ve seen the damage they do to themselves and others.

We have no trouble denouncing Clinton’s sexual escapades; he’s the original Venus fly-trap, and most of us despise him a little for it. So why do we get all tongue-tied when we try to describe women who behave the same way? If it’s wrong for a man to demand oral sex during a job interview, it’s wrong for a woman to offer it. If it’s wrong for a man to unzip his trousers in front of an employee, it’s wrong for a woman to show her boss her underpants. If it’s wrong to be a womanizer, it’s wrong to be a manizer. It’s that simple.