Rescuing Heteronormativity

Part and parcel of hegemonic masculinity is heterosexuality. Gayle Rubin’s twenty year-old sex hierarchy delineates the “charmed circle” of “good, normal, natural, blessed sexuality” as “heterosexual, married, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial, in pairs, in a relationship, same generation, in private, no pornography, bodies only, and vanilla.” The “outer limits” of “bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned sexuality” violates each element: homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, commercial, alone or in groups, casual, cross-generational, in public, pornography, with manufactured objects, sadomasochistic” (Rubin 281). Just what were the Presidential sex acts with Lewinsky over two years and ten encounters? According to the Starr Report, here are the Clinton/Lewinsky sex acts:

The President and Ms. Lewinsky had ten sexual encounters . . . On nine occasions, Ms. Lewinsky performed oral sex on the President. On nine occasions, the President touched and kissed Ms. Lewinsky’s breasts. On four occasions, the President also touched her genitalia. On one occasion, the President inserted a cigar into her vagina to stimulate her. The President and Ms. Lewinsky also had phone sex on at least fifteen occasions.

Clearly, Rubin’s “charmed circle” needs an upgrade to account for the infractions that centered the social drama: the problematical issue of sexual consent at work between superiors and subordinates; the moving target of “vanilla” sex which now includes oral sex as commonplace among certain age and racial groups; phone sex as a vexed public/private issue with masturbation at its center [13]; and the overriding question, “What constitutes sexual relations?”

Indeed, the jokes on the Internet work very, very hard to remember heteronormative sex acts, specifically vaginal penetration by a penis and Masters and Johnson’s “human sexual response cycle” (excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution).

• What was Clinton’s excuse this time? I didn’t impale.
• If you smoke dope but don’t inhale, it doesn’t count as drug abuse. If you get a blow job but she doesn’t come, it doesn’t count as sex.
• It isn’t sex unless you smoke a cigarette.
• If the sex is just oral, it is not really immoral.
• If she is not spread eagle, then it is not illegal.
• Bill was asked, “Do you consider oral sex adultery?” Bill replied, “Not unless someone talks about it.”

These jokes and turns on Johnny Cochran’s famous phrase (“If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”) are telling for their construction of heterosex. Penetration, orgasm, even the cigarette afterwards, point to the processual stages and acts of heteronormativity. Nor does heterosexuality exist in a vacuum: religion (immoral) and law (illegal) are two systems called upon to legitimate or condemn sexual relations and sex acts. Adultery is a transcendent term for both religion and law; adultery requires someone to “talk about it” to produce its effects.

My favorite graphic is a new caption for Clinton’s infamous January 26, 1998 denial of sexual relations with “that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” captioned Eating Ain’t Cheating. This text captures the seriousness and sincerity of Clinton’s performance that day. Erving Goffman writes that lies demand a special kind of performance: slightly imperfect, elastic enough to be reinterpreted later as "Just kidding" (Presentation 64). A sincere, perfect performance of a lie leaves no room for that interpretation. When Bill Clinton claimed--quite sincerely, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky," he left himself and us no room for other readings of that performance—except on the Internet in cultural critique. At the same time, this text captures the centrality of institutions that sanction sex and the acts that determine heternormativity. While the indicative social drama debated the nature of the breach, the subjunctive cultural performances debated these competing definitions of “sexual relations.”[14]

One read of the Presidential sex acts, however, finds them overwhelmingly within the “charmed circle” of heternormativity. The new questions, however, are very much about power within sexual relations and the power to “name” sex in ways that perpetuate privileged sexual positions. Indeed, the texts on the Internet paint hegemonic masculinity and its sexuality through sex acts that always fulfill heternormative assumptions, and the jokes conveniently forget elements of these acts that contradict these assumptions. The best way to remember heteronormative sex acts is to remember Monica Lewinsky.

The thousands of jokes paint Monica Lewinsky in three complementary ways: as a whore, as an accomplished fellatrix, and as worthy of congratulation for her sexual exuberance. Many of the jokes on the Internet graft her name onto tired “whore” jokes, the too frequent accusatory label applied to sexually active women.

• So Bill stopped playing his saxophone; now he plays the whoremonica.
• What’s Kenneth Starr’s opinion of his chances of prosecuting the President? It’s an open and slut case.
• Johnny Cochran’s two closing arguments for the impeachment trial: Lewinsky’s a whore, and Bill’s better than Gore; and Bill is not sleazy, Lewinsky’s just easy.
• Nixon had Ho Chi Minh; Clinton had a ho.
• Ad in the Washington Post: Hor-Monica For Sale, Cheap, Slightly Used, Still Blows.

The censure of Lewinsky, however, seems to end with that simple label—with no additional attention paid to heaping further moral judgments upon her for her sexual exuberance.[15] If there is one condemnation of Lewinsky, then it’s for her “kiss and tell-all” admissions. This item delineates just two questions from numerous examples of the “White House Intern Job Application.”

Do you or any of your friends own a tape recorder?
No ___
Grand Jury Alert ___
Do you keep a diary?
No ___
Yes ___
If yes, do you lie to it?

Instead, perhaps in keeping with the most popular service provided by prostitutes to their male clients, hundreds of the jokes deal with oral sex.[16] Several sites kept tabs on the most popular Clinton joke. For several months in early 1998 it was, “Why can’t they prosecute Bill Clinton? Monica swallowed the evidence.” Monica's autobiography titles include: All the President's Semen, One Blew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and How to Suckseed in the Oval Office Without Really Trying. The jokes celebrate the act itself and congratulate Monica for her talents.

• What do you get when you cross Monica Lewinsky and Timothy McVey? A bomb ass blow job!
• There’s a rumor circulating that Monica has been arrested. The charge? Receiving swollen goods.
• Paula Jones asked her advisors, “Why is Monica more popular than me?” To which they responded, “She was busier than you.”
• What was Monica’s favorite childhood game? Swallow the Leader.
• What was Monica’s official title? Head Intern.
• Secret Service code name for Monica: The Hoover.
• Bill’s just proven there’s one job he wants more than being President.
• When asked about Monica’s best feature the President replied, “She’s got the whitest teeth I’ve ever come across!”

Given the frequency of fellatio in their encounters (nine times out of 10), perhaps the abundance of blow job jokes is an accurate reflection of the indicative social drama; what the jokes conveniently forget is that the President climaxed only in the last two encounters, according to the Starr Report.[17] If the President only came twice, then the jokes fix that: “In Kennedy’s time we had Camelot. In Clinton’s time we have CAME-A-LOT.” All these jokes remember and feature masculinity’s stakes and pleasures in the heteronormative performances that perpetuate it.[18]

Many of these blow job jokes are recycled from a cultural storehouse of “blue” material, dirty jokes, and double entendres. If there’s anything new in the jokes, then it is attention paid to Monica’s playful invitation to incorporate a cigar in their sex acts. In a refreshing deflection from Monica as whore, the folk on the Internet take up Monica’s invitation with a vengeance, incorporating the cigar into a variety of cultural genres, famous phrases, and formulas for jokes: from the t-shirt, “My grandparents visited the White House and all they got me was this slimy cigar,” the reframed Johnny Cochran couplet, “If the cigar fits, you can’t acquit,” the Republicans are searching for the “smoking cigar,” Clinton’s cigar “has gone where no cigar has gone before,” when asked to compare Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton said, “Close, but no cigar,” to song lyrics sung to the tune of the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby.

Monica Lewinsky picks up cigars in the Oval Office where the president has been
Lives in a dream
Waits under the desk, wearing the stained dress that she keeps on a hanger by the door
Who is it for?
All the lovely bimbos
Where do they all come from?
All the lovely bimbos
Where can I get me some?

An entire section of the web site, “Tasteless Clinton/Monica Lewinsky Jokes,” was dedicated to cigar jokes and graphics, entitled, “Give that Woman, Ms. Lewinsky, a Cigar.” The constant inclusion of the cigar in graphic form draws the quick association between the cigar/phallus and weaponry, whether the light saber of Starr Wars, or the Time Magazine cover featuring Clinton’s own version of the Cuban missle (sic) crisis.

As hard as the Starr Report worked to present Lewinsky as a victim of an oversexed, underscrupled man, I could find only one item that presented Lewinsky as the injured party in the affair; she is victim of the cigar, however, not the President.[19] The graphic line-up of cigar perpetrators has two captions: “Ms. Lewinsky, can you point out the suspect that raped you?” and “Ken Starr: Ok, I know one of you was in the Oval Office. We’ll stay here all night if that’s what it takes.” Measuring cigars in inches, not unlike erect penises, is a wonderful visual pun.

The cultural fascination with this sexual “prop” is a telling moment for hegemonic masculinity. The abundant humor available in the cigar deflects attention from a tremendous ellipse in the cultural storehouse of material. That is, the jokes conveniently forget images of the masturbating President. I could find only two references, out of thousands of jokes and images, to Lewinsky’s testimony that she saw “the president masturbate in the bathroom near the sink,” and observed “the President ‘manually stimulating’ himself in Ms. Hernreich’s office.”

• First we had Whitewatergate, then Travelgate, then Filegate. Now we have Masturgate.
• So what did we get for $40,000,000? More comic material than Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Dan Quayle put together.—We’ve gone from “lusting in my heart” to “beating off in a sink.”

This missing merchandise in the subjunctive storehouse testifies to the “powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation [that] lingers in less potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered encounters” (Rubin 279). While the president’s penis is exaggerated and venerated in the jokes, the president’s hand on that penis is too potent, too painful, and too disruptive an image to lampoon for it strikes at the heart of the faultline in constructions of the masculine. That is, Clinton is not responsible for his urges or his acts, as long as Lewinsky is involved. Mary Holmes hits the nail on the head when she writes, “In the discourses surrounding hegemonic masculinity sexual responsibility is routinely displaced onto women so men can supposedly function as rational politicians. . . . It is the sexualized ‘wild ladies’ who are at fault” (311). Clinton is thoroughly masculine as long as Lewinsky is servicing and shoring up his performance of hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality. The moment she moves out of the sexual picture, however, we are left with Clinton—alone with his erect penis. Sallie Tisdale writes of masturbation,

There is a wonderful and awful moment for each of us when we practice masturbation as a conscious act—when we know what to do and why we want to do it, and make plans. Though I’d been chastised for my unconscious masturbation when quite young, it was not a sin until I planned and carried it out consciously. And ever afterward, masturbation has been accompanied by a strange, potent mix of emotions: desire, guilt, excitement, shame, fantasy, and, especially, the fear of getting caught. (21)

While “fear of getting caught” is implicit in Rubin’s “in private/in public” continuum, presidential sex acts are not of the public parks or bathrooms variety. Instead, U.S. presidents live in “total institutions,” the term Erving Goffman (Asylums) applied to prisons, nursing homes, and residential care facilities—“whole life” settings in which individuals, unable to leave, are under constant observation. “Don’t be overwhelmed by all this,” Clinton supposedly told Paul Begala during a private White House tour. “The White House is the crown jewel in the American penal system.”

The image of the masturbating President—in a bathroom or on the telephone during phone sex—is not fodder for parody for it thoroughly undermines the power produced by the material and discursive institution that is the Presidency and its attendant social and political power. Pat Califia’s analysis of sadomasochism is relevant here:

Our political system cannot digest the concept of power unconnected to privilege. S/M recognizes the erotic underpinnings of our system and seeks to reclaim them. There’s an enormous hard-on beneath the priest’s robe, the cop’s uniform, the president’s business suit, the soldier’s khakis. But that phallus is powerful only as long as it is concealed, elevated to the level of a symbol, never exposed or used in literal fucking. A cop with his hard-on sticking out can be punished, rejected, blown, or you can sit on it, but he is no longer a demigod. In an S/M context, the uniforms and roles and dialogue become a parody of authority, a challenge to it, a recognition of its secret sexual nature. (Public Sex 166)

While the folk of the Internet are more than willing to parody and to challenge Bill Clinton’s performance of hegemonic masculinity, the absence of masturbation jokes reveals a terrible duplicity about “self” gratification. While S&M unlinks power and privilege, solitary masturbation reveals the sociality of heteronormativity; it takes two to produce heteronormative identities, discourses, and institutions of gender and sexuality. Masturbation’s ties to adolescence, furtive secrecy, lingering “shame,” and singularity, are exacerbated in Clinton’s White House “total institution.” His demigod status—as the most powerful leader in the Western world—is perpetuated by Lewinsky’s physical presence and thoroughly undone by his own hand.

These cultural performances rescue and remember heteronormative sex acts—as penetrative, as processual, and as centered on male orgasm as completion—and return them to the indicative social drama that denied them. The jokes revel in blow job jokes, forgetting that the President came only twice; the jokes revel in the cigar, forgetting that the President never “penetrated” Lewinsky with his penis; the jokes revel in great heterosex, forgetting that the President masturbated without her. Shoring up Clinton’s masculinity depends on heteronormativity. And Monica is only one of the “President’s women” who accomplishes those feats.

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