The Sex Files

The scandal displays America's continued

confusion about the mysterious matter of sex.

Roger Scruton

To an outside observer, nothing is more striking in the scandal surrounding President Clinton than the fact that everyone involved is completely bewildered by sex. Indeed, we can see in this humiliating episode the cost that America has paid for the sexual revolution. We in Europe did not escape this revolution; but we did not make it the basis of our lives. Nor did most of us adopt, as so many Americans have adopted, the Kinsey view of sex, as a tingling of the genitals, with orgasm as the goal and the partner as the means to it.

Nor did we draw, as official opinion in America has drawn, the inevitable conclusions of Kinseyism: for example, that there is no difference in principle between heterosexual and homosexual intercourse, that there is no distinction between pure and perverted desire, that chastity is an available choice but not a virtue, and that the only moral questions that surround the sexual act are questions of consent and safety.

But if you draw those conclusions--and the public culture of America, being shaped by the liberal consensus, tends inevitably in this direction--then you cannot condemn the President for what he did; you can condemn him only for the ties that he told about it later.

If, on the other hand, you don't draw those liberal conclusions, you will probably judge the President more harshly. But then you will also be pretty harsh toward Monica Lewinsky, the willing partner in his adultery, and harsh toward Linda Tripp, who taped confidential words about the most intimate details. You would be appalled too by the American media, and by a Congress that has decided to release videotapes of the President's testimony to be broadcast to the eager eyes and ears of the nation's children. You would be amazed that the President has been blamed for evading questions so insolent that no court of law should even consider asking them. And you will, for the thousandth time, recognize what America has lost through the sexual revolution--namely, its innocence.

The first result of the sexual revolution was not to change people's behavior but to change their conception of sex. Following their "liberation" people no longer made love: they had sex. Having sex does not involve any emotional tie or long-term commitment. It involves nothing more than pleasurable sensations, mutually induced. Once you see sex in this way, the moral landscape changes. The man who has 365 partners a year, all of them strangers, is not for that reason more wicked than the man who confines his attentions to his wife, whom he loves. For, in liberated eyes, they are doing the same thing. If there is a relevant moral question it is that of consent--though why it is so much worse to have sex with an unwilling victim than it is to tickle her, no advocate of sexual liberation has ever explained.

The second result of the sexual revolution was to undermine feminine defenses. If sex is nothing but a tingling of the genitals, why all the fuss? Why the shame and modesty and hesitation? This was Dr. Kinsey's sinister message, and it was greedily lapped up by men, not so greedily by women, who were, however, shamed at last into being shameless. As a result the barrier between the sexes became permeable: the shield which should be breached by love was eaten away by curiosity. Women are now expected to behave like bath-house homosexuals. However, when women, encouraged to behave in this way, wake up to what they have done, they often experience that peculiar retrospective withdrawal of consent which inspired the new species of female litigation.

This depressing series of events called "date rape" by the feminists--is taken as further proof of the exploitative nature of men. It is no such thing. It is a proof of the destructiveness of sexual liberation, which has jeopardized everything that gives a woman confidence in her sexual feelings love, commitment, marriage, and the family. The fury of the American feminist conveys the heartbroken recognition that those things are no longer available except on temporary loan to the very attractive.

A third result of the sexual revolution, and one which is displayed in the personality of Mr. Clinton, is the dwindling of erotic sentiment. That intense concentration on the object of desire, that mysterious longing to possess what cannot be possessed but only cherished, is rapidly going from the world. In place of it has come a simian lust. The focus has shifted from the particular to the general, from the human gaze to the animal function, from the immortal soul to the mortal envelope. The sexual partner is no longer the object of sexual feeling but the means to it--a component in the pleasure machine. We find this view of sex in those who wrote the Starr report, those who gave evidence for it, those who are condemned by it, and those who believe they have the right and need to peruse it.

There is no going back on the sexual revolution. But, as ordinary decent Americans have always known, there is no living with it either. The saddest thing, to the outside observer, is the seeming inability of American liberals to oppose the source of decay--which is the view of sex that has held them in thrall. Whether a Kinseyite or Freudian, whether a disciple of Marcuse or a follower of Erich Fromm, whether steeped in the counterculture of the Sixties or newly recruited to the cause of gay liberation, the American liberal sees sex in just the way that has led to the current confusion: as a force that must be "liberated," and which harms us when "repressed." By seeing sex in that way, the liberal changes its nature.

In natural human societies, sex is an existential choice, a source of the deepest desires and the most lasting commitments. The forces which feed our sexual adventures are repressed because they ought to be. Release them from the moral playground and they run wild. And because Americans remain puritans at heart, unable to cultivate the fine art of hypocrisy which pays tribute to virtue in the midst of vice, they have to pretend that this is all okay.

They have to display their sexual insouciance to the world. Hence, throughout American culture--from comic strips to academic journals, from pop songs and chat shows to novels and plays--we find a weird and humorless parody of childish smut. People talk in a deadpan scientistic way about the organs, sensations, and secretions of sex, believing that they free themselves thereby from the mysterious power of erotic feeling. By disenchanting sex they hope to discard their old morality, and the guilt that came with it.

But, as they discover, you do not free yourself from guilt by becoming shameless. You merely open yourself to guilt of another kind. Those who make love secure the loyalty and trust of another person; those who have sex can never be sure that they are so richly rewarded. On the contrary, their sexual adventures are fraught with suspicion. And the cost of this is a new kind of guilt: the guilt of self-betrayal, as the world withdraws its trust, and friendship and respect seem unobtainable.

This is the guilt that stalks America, and which can be seen in the haunted face of Mr. Clinton. It seems hardly fair that he should be expiating a fault that so many of his critics share. But there is a disturbing logic in it too. Clinton's calvary will not redeem American; but it shows the cost of living as thought redemption will be never be required.

Mr. Scruton is a writer living in England. His most recent book is The Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy.

National Review, 10/12/98