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Jesse, You Should Have Used a Condom


Cynthia Peters

Jesse

Jackson has begged our forgiveness for his extra-marital affair, which produced

a child born about 20 months ago. But it’s none of our business who Jesse

sleeps with (assuming his relationships are consensual). If the public has

anything to be disappointed about, it is the fact that we have lost yet another

opportunity to hear someone be real about sex and sexuality. The greatest cost

of Jesse’s infraction isn’t the broken trust in his family, his public embarrassment,

and an unplanned pregnancy – though those are surely costs. The true cost is

that, once again, and very publicly, sexuality is shrouded in equal parts

mystery and moralism.

With

another “fallen” leader, sexuality looks like some sort of unfortunate urge

that seems to possess even the most capable of public figures – true

grown-ups! Men, even! — and causes them to do seemingly ridiculous things.

(Remember the pubic hair on the coke can, thanks to Clarence Thomas? And new

uses for cigars, thanks to Bill Clinton?) It’s a dark force that must be

battled, driven away, conquered by moral rectitude. It merits punishment,

humiliation, embarassed giggles, and a lot of praying.

Imagine,

for a moment that instead of all the mystifying and moralizing, somebody stopped

and spoke reasonably and honestly – perhaps grappling with the complex

relationship between pleasure and responsibility. All the trumpeting about

Jesse’s having “done wrong” creates a wall of noise that ultimately cuts

us off from dialogue that might actually be enlightening.

For

example, what exactly did Jesse do wrong? He lied to his wife? He lied to the

public? He had sex outside of marriage? He didn’t use a condom? He got caught?

He landed a woman in a situation where she had to make life-altering choices –

abortion is, after all, at least a legal option. Which of these “wrongs” is

the wrong he is contrite about? We don’t know because we don’t ask those

questions. We don’t bring sexuality out into the light very often, and talk

about what it means to us, how it moves us, the choices we make about it.

Don’t

get me wrong. Sexuality is not hidden. It’s out there in full force

everywhere, all the time: It’s a “drive” that men, particularly, can’t

control; it’s Britney Spears strutting her stuff; it’s Hallmark-type

romance; it’s heterosexual sex; it’s the stuff of fairytales; it’s sluts

and whores and teen celibacy pledges; it’s “fallen” public figures

offering up contrite apologies; it’s tolerant wives; it’s kissing and

groping as portrayed by Hollywood; it’s…

In

other words, there’s a lot of noise about sex, but mainstream venues don’t

offer us much of an opportunity to think about it as a form of self-expression

that we can take pleasure in as well as take responsibility for. Wait. Stop

right there. “Pleasure” and “responsibility” – those are two words you

don’t hear in the same sentence too often. What if Jackson came out and

admitted he and his lover were seeking pleasure – that they are adults who

made a decision with repercussions? What if he was frank about the decisions

they did or didn’t make about birth control? What if he was frank about birth

control, period, which is often messy and mechanical – a nuisance with a

failure rate? What about the really difficult question — what they would do in

the event of an accidental pregnancy? Instead of taking up the public’s time

begging for forgiveness, how about doing something useful, like shedding some

light on how couples might negotiate this tricky terrain. How about giving us a

language to talk about sexual pleasure as a need, a right, or maybe nothing so

grandiose as that, but still something that has physical and emotional

consequences, and sometimes even generates new life (at least when it happens

between heterosexuals). How about exploring the unequal assumption of roles

Jesse and his former lover must now take on – she as full-time custodial

parent, he as writer of a monthly check?

How

about the next time Jesse talks to a bunch of young people, he lingers for a

moment over the complicated path they have to walk – becoming sexual beings in

a culture that gives them no road map except the ubiquitous dead-ends of

commercialized “tits and ass,” and the equally ubiquitous roadblocks of

judgemental, moralistic thinking? How about he elevates the discussion to

something a little more complex? How about he acknowledges the pleasure, the

power, and the desire underlying sexual feelings, and mixes it with a good dose

of reality – negotiating consent, birth control, protection from sexually

transmitted diseases, etc.?

Affairs

aren’t going to go away. Nor should they necessarily. Everyone from our

presidents, to our “moral leaders,” to our next-door neighbors (to our own

flawed and/or pleasure-seeking selves) will pursue flings, romance, acts we may

later seek forgiveness for – or not.

The

current model for the public’s grappling with sexuality is voyeurism: quickly

peeking into the bedroom (or the Oval Office), and then slamming the door shut

and running off to snicker about what we saw. Meanwhile, glamorized hyped-up

images of unreal sexuality scream at us from Hollywood, prime-time TV, and

Calvin Klein underwear commercials. How are we supposed to make sense of it all?

Jackson,

known to be a long-time philaderer, said, “I fully accept responsibility and I

am truly sorry for my actions.” “This is no time for evasions, denials or

alibis,” he added. Yet it sounds like one big evasion to me.

What

does he accept responsibility for? Does he accept responsibility for helping to

maintain the myth of monogamy, the moral claims about family and marriage that

don’t actually reflect reality? What does the preacher have to say to those

who might find themselves in similar situations — confronting choices about

purusing passion, using birth control, being parents. This is the man who

celebrates those “who take the early bus.” This is the man who encourages

his audiences to repeat after him, “I am somebody.” This is the man that

removes the stigma of poverty, says no to the shame of birth “out of

wedlock,” and rallies us all to “keep hope alive!” This is the man who has

pulled back the cloak and forced us to examine class divisions, racism, sexism

and homophobia.

There

is an opportunity here for him to cut a path between the false images of

sexuality a la mainstream media and the judgemental tsk-tsking of public

commentators. It seems unlikely, I know, for Jackson to have any choice but to

do as he has done: retreat for now. We live in a political culture, after all,

that couldn’t tolerate having a surgeon general mention the word

“masturbation.” (Joycelyn Elders, Clinton’s appointee, resigned in 1994

due to controversy she caused using that single word.) But there was a time when

“illegitimate” children and single motherhood were considered disgraceful,

and barely acknowledged. That changed, at least in part, because of public

pressure.

There

will be a time when public dialogue about sex and sexuality will more reflect

what people experience – the problems and pleasures, the choices and

consequences. We have the gay and lesbian movement to thank for bringing

sexuality into public debate, for showing the world how it’s possible to be

pro-sex safely, and for fighting to remove the stigma from sexual expression.

Maybe heterosexuals could stand to do a little work in the same general area –

ditch the moralizing, challenge the empty stereotypes, and come out of the

closet about this puzzling, powerful and complex part of ourselves that warrants

honest open consideration, not voyeurism, shame, grotesque exaggeration or fear.

  

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