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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.?
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.