The right to ask and the freedom to say "no"


MOST men and women in the English speaking world know that the President of the United States is accused by a young woman of shocking her to the point of injury by asking her to kiss his penis. Paula Jones, aged 24 or 25 at the time, says Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas, sent his bodyguard to ask her to come to his room in a hotel. "The governor said you make his knees knock," the state trooper is said to have said.

She went to the room and Clinton, according to her, attempted to kiss her on the neck and slid his hand towards the hem of her culottes. When she took refuge on a sofa, he sat down on the sofa, lowered his trousers and asked Paula Jones to "kiss it". She declined. He said, according to her: "Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do." She was shown out and went away, stepping out of his room and into a lifetime of the limelight.

Paula Jones is suing the President for $700,000 in damages for sexual harassment and assault. What is fascinating to me is that she's taking the case under a civil rights statute. It is not that criminal charges have been laid. She's saying, rather, that the pass Clinton made at her violated her constitutional rights. At the moment, the Supreme Court in the States is cogitating whether she can proceed against a sitting president or whether she must wait till he leaves office. The court will publish its decision between now and July. The President must be on tenterhooks, waiting for it.

I'm assuming, for argument's sake, that the then governor Clinton did something much like, what Paula Jones says. The portrait of a presidential candidate who does that kind of thing in the wonderful novel Primary Colours was completely convincing. The man in that book is warm and brilliant and remarkable but also incorrigibly promiscuous. The "real" Clinton may be that way or not: I'm taking the character in the book as the nearest I can get to the real. But not even Joe Klein, the author, would have dared to invent the present situation.

The world's most powerful man is in check, his place in history held in suspension by a nobody on a matter that until very recently in history wasn't deemed problematic, much less outrageous. Powerful men and the few powerful women such as Catherine the Great, were granted any sexual favour they asked for - and that was that.

The usual whingers and drivellers will see this as a further gross erosion of male power by nasty feminists. But arguably, President Clinton is in this trouble not because Paula Jones is a woman - he'd be a lot worse off if he had exposed himself to a man. And not even because the encounter was about sex. He is in trouble because of the emotions that lie behind our concept of democracy, and the conventions of behaviour through which we express those emotions.

The same American democracy that in its wonderful impartiality has delivered Clinton to the Supreme Court says one person is as good as another. She is as valuable as he is. Her rights are as substantial. An important man can't snap his fingers and send a minion for a sexual servant - that's the kind of thing the American Republic was established to supersede. Sexual relations in the first world culture of the late 20th century are meant to aspire, at least, to egalitarianism; in popular opinion to mutuality, at least, of lust.

THERE are other possible responses. For instance, Bill Clinton is a married man and his wife is his business and political partner. The Paula Jones affair doesn't seem to affect how the Clintons honour and work for each other in public, any more than the Gennifer Flowers affair had. If her husband is unfaithful, Hillary Clinton condones his infidelity. This is, obviously, a decline from one of the ideals of marriage.

Most people, on their wedding day, intend to be faithful to their partner, and millions and millions of people achieve this goal. The Clintons strike one, however, as being in a line of grand marital alliances where the terms of the agreement are different. I'd be surprised if, even when his second term is over, they divorce.

And a lot of people indict him for foolishness. "Why did he risk so much for so little?" kind of thing. There is apparently no connection between intelligence and desire. Paula Jones turned him on. I like it in the President that he's not uppity. He shares the down home taste of the majority of white American males. "I love your curves," she says he said.

I wish other kinds of women besides young ones with big breasts and a lot of hair were thought attractive. I wish all women and men were thought attractive, during most of their lives. But then I wish, too, that people would find all the sexual satisfaction there is with their partners and not hurt each other. But wishing is of no more relevance to whatever happened in Arkansas than the word "should".

Clinton shouldn't have sent for Paula Jones. She shouldn't have gone to the room. He shouldn't have asked for the service he did. But for the purposes of this speculation anyway these things did happen and it is their meaning, in a democracy that strives to be perfect, that matters now.

Paula Jones has, of course, a right not to be pressured or threatened or coerced into anything - that goes without saying. But has she a right not to be shocked or offended? Suppose President Clinton has an understanding with his wife and believes he is free to make passes at women he fancies. Is the freedom to make a pass not also a civil right? The manner of the doing - the sending a minion, and the haste, and the lack of human curiosity, and the absence of even a pretence of mutuality - these aspects may lie somewhere between the deplorable and the repulsive. (Though how, in fact, can someone as well known as a governor arrange casual sex, if casual sex, not committed sex, is what he chooses?) In general, in any sexual harassment case, the woman really is the harassed one, because of the imbalance of power between men and women. But there are different powers at different levels.

The governor of Arkansas asked a lowly state employee for a sexual favour. But was she not in the end as free to say "no" as he was to ask? And didn't she in fact say "no"? "The relentless urge to define deviancy has obscured the core meaning of sexual harassment," as an article in the New Republic puts it. It is very important to keep on proclaiming the reality of harassment.

At the same time, sex makes people do the most embarrassing things. I thought Mary Ellen Synon was wrong, and damaged the sexual trust between grown men and women, when she published her lover's intimate fantasies. I think Paula Jones's situation is nearer to the weight of the Rupert/ Mary Ellen situation than, say, to the creepy and sustained aggression of Clarence Thomas's harassment of Anita Hill. But it's up to people to think this out for themselves. This is new territory.