The Rise and Fall of Sexual Politics in the Public Sphere: A Transatlantic Contrast
The Desexualization of the American Public Sphere
Merely a few days before his election as governor of California, on October 7, 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was exposed, first in the Los Angeles Times and then throughout the media, nationally and internationally, as a brutal “groper” — at best a cad, at worst a sexual harasser. There was something distinctly familiar about this story. Ever since accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas had been aired in October 1991, a few days before the Senate vote on his nomination as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, such revelations had become a hallmark of the public sphere in the United States. Henceforth, sexual indiscretions were not to be met with media discretion: from Bob Packwood to Bill Clinton, the private conduct of (mostly male) politicians was considered publicly relevant, even significant. Throughout the 1990s, sexual politics was thus part and parcel of politics — as American, so to speak, as apple pie. Sex mattered.
Not any more. The point is not simply that Schwarzenegger was elected governor, despite the allegations. After all, both Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton survived the sexual scandals they were engulfed in: the former was soon confirmed and joined the Supreme Court, and the latter won the 1998 midterm elections and then his Senate trial. More fundamentally, such accusations did not seem to matter any longer in 2003. “Gropergate” turned out not to be a scandal — barely a ripple in the media frenzy surrounding the movie star’s campaign. The stories against Schwarzenegger had been out for years, but the press had not bothered to revive them until the last moment. Polls were to confirm that voters hardly cared. The allegations did not influence them, whether they had made up their minds before or after their surfacing. Finally, in the aftermath of the election, the accusations did not in the least weaken the new governor — if anything, their instantaneous vanishing into oblivion may have encouraged his triumphant display of masculinity. This is even more remarkable if we consider that the candidate all but admitted the truth of the accusations when acknowledging that he had “behaved badly sometimes.” This was no he said/she said situation — as had been the case for a decade. The question was not “Is this really true?” but rather “Do we really care?” Not “What happened?” but rather “So what?”
On the eve of the election, Susan Faludi, whose denunciation of an antifeminist “backlash” had fueled women’s anger during the Thomas hearings, was quick to point out this new, disturbing indifference in the Los Angeles Times (October 5, 2003): “Now that it’s made the press, will it matter? Probably not.” Sure, the candidate did “say that what ‘I thought then was playful’ he now recognized had ‘offended people’ ” — but then, “Why are so many not offended?” Faludi’s answer to the question is inspired by her analysis of the American culture of masculinity: “Tarred with the same sexual-harassment brush, Schwarzenegger and Clinton emerged with mirror-opposite gender gaps.” Not surprisingly, women favored the touchy-feely president, while men preferred the manly actor: “The gender gap is really between those afraid of bullying and those afraid of intimacy. Women will forgive a politician’s lapse if it at least seems motivated by a susceptibility to desire or emotion. Men afraid of sensuality will forgive the same act (and actor) as long as the behavior can be laughed off as winner-take-all sport.” American gender culture explains it all.
Or does it? Such a “cultural” interpretation does leave out something: the element of surprise, resulting from what could be precisely described as a “cultural” transformation. For the question also reads: “Why are so many not offended”1 — any longer? Political culture has changed. The difference between “Monicagate” and “Gropergate” is not just a contrast in gender gaps. It signals a shift in public reaction, from scandal to indifference, as sexual politics sinks back into public irrelevance. Throughout the 1990s, both men and women in the United States were more likely to think that sexual politics mattered in political life than they did in the early 2000s. Today, once again, “character” seems to be defined in public rather than private terms. It is perhaps no accident that this new persona should be embodied by an actor — a public personality who is not known for the psychological complexity of his characters.
The desexualization of the public sphere was first noticed by conservatives as their “Monica strategy” failed in public opinion. They mourned the “death of outrage” when they realized that sexual immorality was no (political) silver bullet. William Bennett actually complained of a “Europeanization” of American culture. The United States, he claimed, was becoming more like France (no compliment, to be sure), that is, more cynical about sexual morality and political character. In addition to the permanence of gender culture, the transformation of public culture must indeed also be taken into account — but the conservatives’ culturalist approach may be misleading. For if America is not what it used to be (at least in the good old 1990s), how can one assume that nations like France have remained the same — despite a more literal Europeanization, thanks to the European Union, in a broader context of globalization, and at a time of growing worries over the “Americanization” of European societies?
The Sexualization of the French Public Sphere
Remarkably, the shift in the United States took place at a time when the French public sphere had just started to change — equally dramatically, but in the opposite direction. Take the recent resurgence of the controversy around the “Islamic veil” (sometimes called hijab and sometimes head scarf, with different political connotations). It is clear that two recent events invest this recurrent polemic with new significance: September 11, 2001, on an international scale; and April 21, 2002, on the French national stage that is, both the terrorist menace exploding in New York City and the threat from the extreme right, as Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election. However, at first sight, the revival of the debate in 2003 (leading to the February 2004 law banishing all “ostensible” — i.e., conspicuous — religious signs from public schools) can give an impression of déjà vu for those who remember both the first round of battle in 1989 and the second round in 1994. The headlines and magazine covers look identical: the same symbol (a piece of fabric), similar girls (the daughters of immigrants from Maghreb) from equivalent schools (in the French version of inner cities: the banlieues), and yet again the identification of the French Republic with secularism — once threatened by the Catholic Church, now undermined by Islamic fundamentalists.
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The comparative argument sketched here is based mainly on the studies I have developed of recent sexual politics in the United States (see my article, “Sexual Events: From Clarence Thomas to Monica Lewinsky,” trans. James Swenson, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 : 127 – 58) and in France (see my book with Clarisse Fabre, Liberté, égalité, sexualités: Actualité politique des questions sexuelles, 2nd ed. [Paris: 10/18, 2004]).
- See my piece, “Démocratie sexuelle et bio-pouvoir” in Comprendre, ed. J. Cassien Billier and Ruwen Ogien (Paris: PUF, 2005).