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Monday, May 05, 2008

Sexual Politics

by digby

We are seeing the first of the inevitable navel gazing feature stories purporting to look at the subtext of the campaign from the perspective of the always perceptive political press. And just as inevitably, they say far more about the press than they do about anything else. (This one's headline is so unintentionally funny, I couldn't stop giggling for 15 minutes.)

But the one that is bound to be remembered as one of the most inane of an inane lot, is this one by Michael Wolff in the new Vanity Fair:

Politics is now about sex. Not just scandalous sex, not just who is having what kind of sex, but what we think about the sex each politician is having, or not having. Sex (sex, not gender) in politics is as significant a subtext as race.

That's right. Politics is really all about an image we form in our minds of politicians having sex. According to Wolff, it's all anyone ever talks about in private.

Now, I don't know about you, but among my friends, this just doesn't come up. Even among my female friends, where after a few margaritas we often become a little bit salty and indiscreet, it's rarely brought up. We might mention a little recurring George Clooney fantasy we have or speculate about the waiter, but I don't think it would have ever occurred to us to even think about the presidential candidates and their spouses in bed. We do know, however, that at least one major Village chatterer can speak of nothing else:

X. told me that, the whole night, all Maureen could talk about was which women Bill Clinton was sleeping with. Literally. "Do you think he's having an affair with B.? I think he is. But maybe they did and it's over now and he's moved onto someone else. Ya think? Maybe he's messing around with C. -- she seems more his type. I'd bet he'd love to have an affair with D., but I'm not sure she'd fool around with a married man." And on and on and on and on and ON in this vein. The whole night long. X tried to engage her on other topics. The world, after all, is full of a number of things: Books. Movies. Theater. Travel. Music. Food. And how about, not what Bill Clinton was doing with his penis, but what he was doing with his policies?

But alas, in spite of my friend's ministrations, he could not get the lady off Topic A.

Wolff obviously sees the world the same way Dowd does --- the way they all do. Even the Village elder of Village elders, David Broder, is obsessed with the sexual lives of politicians in a way that is more than a little bit odd. (But then, that's the way provincial villages operate, isn't it?)

But Wolff doesn't stop with just speculating about the politicans' sex lives. He makes the assumption that voters are as obsessed with politicians' sex lives and speculates that their own sexual "deficiencies" are dictating their presidential preferences:

The Hillary story is—and how could it not be?—largely a sexual one. This is not so much a sexist view as a sexualist view: What’s up here? What’s the unsaid saying? What’s the vibe? Although it’s not discussed in reputable commentary, it’s discussed by everyone else: so what exactly is the thing with Hillary and sex, with the consensus being that she simply must not have it (at least not with her husband; there are, on the other hand, the various conspiracy scenarios of whom else she might have had it with). It’s partly around this consensus view of her not having sex that people support her or resist her. She’s the special-interest candidate of older women—the post-sexual set. She’s resisted by others (including older women who don’t see themselves as part of the post-sexual set) who see her as either frigid or sexually shunned—they turn from her inhibitions and her pain.

It's not the first time I've heard this theory. In fact, several correspondents have shared with me the supposedly hilarious observation that Clinton is the "Joan of Arc of the dry pussy demographic" and her "neck looks like a badly folded quilt." We are all familiar with Rush Limbaugh's memorable statement that nobody wants to see a woman age before their eyes. (Those last weren't explicitly sexual observations, but one can assume they refer in some way to the phenomenon that Wolf says he and his friends can't stop talking about.)

Why Wolff thinks his immature, locker room talk represents anything meaningful is beyond me, but the fact that he writes it in a national magazine, apparently never realizing the multiple levels of insult at a large swathe of American voters is baffling. Perhaps an even greater mystery is why he didn't realize that these allegedly "post sexual" and "older women who don’t see themselves as part of the post-sexual set" probably make up substantial number of Vanity Fair readers. (However you parse it, it's a pretty mean way to categorize middle aged and older women.)

Lance Mannion does an excellent job of unpacking this kinky lunacy here, remarking:

We want our politicians to represent us but that's far from saying we want them to stand in for us as surrogate selves. We hire them to do a job and our interest in them is in how well they do that job and that's why, to the consternation of the professional scolding class in the Media, we often don't care at all about their personal oddnesses.

Wolff, though, believes otherwise. Stranger than this, however, is Wolff's contention that while we're all imagining our political leaders naked we're creeped out by what we're imagining and what creeps us out is the fact that all these naked politicians are middle-aged.

Middle-agedness is in itself creepy. To be middle-aged is to be grotesque, repulsive, and ridiculous, and all of this creepiness, grotesquery, repulsiveness, and ridiculousness is, tautologically, both caused by middle-aged sexuality and makes sex in middle-age creepy, grotesque, repulsive, and ridiculous.

Which, according to Wolff, is why folks like Barack Obama so much. He's not middle-aged.

There is next to no speculation about Barack Obama’s sexual secrets. This is a seismic shift in racial subtext. The white men are the sexual reprobates and loose cannons (while Mitt and Hillary are just strange birds) and the black man the figure of robust middle-class family warmth.

Against these middle-aged people, he’s the naturalist, the credible and hopeful figure of a man who actually might be having sex with his smiling, energetic, and oomphy wife. (During the Spitzer affair, a friend of mine, a middle-aged white doctor and an active Obama supporter, curiously dropped into something like street talk to say Obama would never have the sex problems of middle-aged politicians, “because Michelle would whip his skinny ass.” A good man, in other words, is a controlled man.) He’s the only one in the entire field who doesn’t suggest sexual desperation. He represents our ideal of what a good liberal’s sex life ought to be.

A couple more paragraphs for Wolff to talk over with a professional, but note that, besides the strange racial and marital hang-ups, Wolff is saying that we don't have to worry about Obama making himself ridiculous or creepy in our dirty minds' eyes because he and his wife are young and good looking, as if no one with an "oomphy" spouse would ever be tempted to anything besides healthy, uncreepy, monogamous and conjugal sex.

Mannion sees the implications in Wolff's bizarre take on Obama's marriage too:

Actually, look over his description of the Obama marriage and you'll see that he doesn't seem to think that even a young woman like Michelle Obama has a real interest in sex for the sake of pleasure or love---young women use sex to keep their men in line; older women, having lost all sexual desire, no longer have control over their men, and that's why those men make fools of themselves in the beds of younger women or men, which would seem to imply that Mrs Senator Larry Craig could have kept her husband out of airport bathrooms if she'd still been willing to get nasty with him.

Actually Wolff isn't alone in that particular view. Here's a picture from last night's Jefferson Jackson dinner:

It's tiresome and, frankly, kind of jarring to have to deal with this. I yearn for the days (a few months ago) when I foolishly believed that even though I knew the culture was full of creepy sexual hypocrites, that we had gone beyond the point where this kind of thing was acceptable in the public discourse. I certainly didn't think I'd read such things blithely bandied about in a mainstream magazine that, judging by the advertisements, is mainly aimed at women. I admit that I'm a little bit gobsmacked at the sheer casualness of the ageist misogyny that's bubbled up in this campaign. My bad. I'm fairly sure I just wasn't paying proper attention.

I don't know how much this affects politics. I would imagine not much. I honestly don't think most people really give a damn about the sex lives of these people and if they do it's not for the reasons Wolff cites but more for the reason that lovely young man made that homemade sign --- simple assholishness. But this stuff does seem to be something of an obsession among the Villagers, which then trickles into the media culture and into our lives whether we like it or not.

It's a problem. In more ways than one.

* Do read Lance Mannion's thoughtful meditation on this if you find the subject intriguing.