Power Is Viagra for Today's Women

By Maitland, Sara | New Statesman (1996), September 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Power Is Viagra for Today's Women


Maitland, Sara, New Statesman (1996)


From Clinton to Cook, we are happiest when our politicians are seducers. It's a complicated brew of envy and hypocrisy

My mother, who is now in her late seventies, always maintains that the most socially significant consequence of the Christine Keeler/Profumo affair in the early sixties was that it made talking about sex at dinner parties (in mixed company, in respectable society) possible. "Inappropriate" sexual liaisons were mixed with politics from the moment at which they became part of public social discourse.

For those too young to remember, the Profumo scandal was about a politician, a member of the government, having extramarital sex and lying about it - not under oath as it happens, but in the House of Commons which was much the same thing, in those sweet and far-ofttimes before the Belgrano sinking - inter alia - made it a perfectly acceptable political ploy.

My father, to my mother's annoyance, taught a 12-year-old me a "dirty" limerick about the business: "There was a young girl called Christine/Who shattered the Party machine./It isn't too rude/To lie in the nude/But to lie in the House is obscene." Shame, really, that it is hard to think of anything useful that rhymes with Monica.

Why is the sex life of politicians such a fascinating subject? Leave Bill Clinton aside for the moment. The Telegraph last week started a serialisation of a biography of Robin Cook: it gave two whole pages to its first extract - and was it about his childhood formation? Was it about his notable mishandling of the Queen's tour of India? Was it about his leadership ambitions? Of course not; it was about his sex life. As it happens his sex life is particularly dull (no cigars, no Chelsea strips, no stains). He was not particularly faithful to his wife of many years, who had a fairly high-powered job in the provinces. For the last four years in opposition he had an affair (clearly more than a sexual liaison) with his secretary, which was known to his friends, and to some extent to his wife, but was still moderately discreet. He was not conspicuous among those who spoke fervently of "family values" or the "sanctity of marriage". Shortly after he became Foreign Secretary he was outed by the press, and, forced to choose, chose a divorce and remarriage; after a brief and media-led kerfuffle he continued in his job.

This is a common enough story in a society which has no overarching problems with divorce. There is nothing in this that is criminal, there is nothing that is kinky, there is nothing that has any political implications at all. There is nothing in this that is interesting, actually.

Except that he is a senior government minister; a man with real political power.

If we want people to go on standing for public office, if we want people to desire political power, we had better work out quickly what is so sexually titillating about that power and what we are going to do about it.

The standard defence of this prurient fascination is that personal conduct says something important about public character: there is no point beyond which activities do not affect the whole personality and thence, by a sort of ripple effect, the personality's performance in apparently unrelated areas. This was the basic meaning of the feminist slogan "the personal is the political". A man who lies to his wife will lie in other circumstances. A woman who bullies her children will be a bully elsewhere. Or whatever. We have more than a right, we have a need to turn the spotlight on someone seeking our votes. We want to know who we are getting.

Put like this it makes good sense - the only way I can judge a person's likely future actions is by looking at their past: it is called taking up references and is considered sensible. If someone has not been a cabinet minister before it is not unreasonable to look at other areas of their life and try to calculate what sort of person they are as a way of guessing how they might behave.

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