In 1960, the American writer Glendon Swarthout, ultimately best known for his novels of the Old West, published a sex farce about a frank, lusty Midwestern college girl named Merrit who goes to Fort Lauderdale for spring break to cruise for well-heeled ass. It’s March of 1958, and across the Straits of Florida Fidel Castro has called for a general revolt against the Batista regime, but Merrit and her several boyfriends are uninterested. “Most of us had seen stuff about it in the papers,” she admits in her frank, lusty way, “but had paid no attention because we were making our own current events.” But while getting wasted in a nightclub one evening, they meet a local stripper who happens to be a committed Castroite and imparts to them the glories of the Cuban revolution. After hearty debate among the spring breakers about whether their Silent Generation cool will suffer from the performance of too much “embarrassing” political fervor, Ivy League asshole Ryder Smith agrees to join his Big Ten and white-ethnic hipster rivals—and Merrit herself—and use his uncle’s boat to launch an Abraham Lincoln Brigade manqué: the Lauderdale Legion. The boat immediately crashes into the dock. In an epilogue, Merrit is stranded in Florida, knocked up and alone but still plucky, hoping that having her baby will somehow constitute “the spiritual equivalent” of her abortive revolutionary vacation. Citing the response of a coed asked by Time magazine why she had come to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, Swarthout called his novel Where the Boys Are.
Girls want to be where the boys are, and boys want to be where politics is. That politics is where the girls are is irrelevant in this signifying chain, because girls chasing boys is understood to be about boys, but boys chasing girls is understood to be about sex, and therefore, still about boys. “The girls are thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’” Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher in February, weighing in on why young women have been throwing their support to Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in their contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. “The boys are with Bernie.” Indulging the same semantic slippage Swarthout made more than fifty years ago, Steinem became a lightning rod in a debate that has circled obsessively around the primaries without speaking its name, about the proper role of feeling—and particularly of erotic desire—in political life. In an unacknowledged way, her gaffe revealed the contours of the terrain on which Clinton and Sanders supporters have clashed from the start. What is at stake is not just gender but sexual politics and their tangled legacy in the left-liberal sphere ever since American kids began following their erotic ambitions into the realm of radicalism at the dawn of the Sixties. Sanders, who started college and joined the burgeoning New Left a year after Swarthout’s characters hit the beach, represents a specter that has haunted respectable American politics for generations.
For months prior to Steinem’s remark (and a similarly inapt insinuation from Madeleine Albright the same weekend about “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”), the dominant meme in the debate over youth, gender, and the Democratic primaries had been the figure of the “Bernie bro,” a misogynistic white guy ready for socialist adventure whose anti-Hillary venom confirmed that the left remains an unsafe place for women—a latter-day incarnation, perhaps, of the Lauderdale Legion. The Bernie babe conjured by Steinem—the young woman who campaigns against her own interests, so great is her desire to meet bros—proved such an unconvincing character in the popular imagination that, at least momentarily, the shoe was on the other foot. Clinton supporters were forced to disown what appeared to be a rogue version of the specious and sexist logic that had shored up the construction of the Bernie bro in the first place: the idea that radical politics is, in some inherent sense, a dude sport.
A few days before Steinem rhetorically queried the location of the boys, and before female Sanders supporters replied resoundingly that they were #NotHereForBoys, I discovered that my gradually waxing enthusiasm for Sanders was about boys. By enthusiasm, I don’t mean the fact that I plan to vote for Sanders in the New York primaries. I vote in every local-ass election that comes around, most often in the teeth-gritted way of despondent leftists whose disaffection cannot overcome an addiction to even the charade of democratic process. What I mean is that I was feeling the Bern. Feelin’ it. Bernie Sanders is a 74-year-old Jewish socialist, one of my favorite categories of person, and a charming, galvanizing specimen thereof. Yet despite my attachment to that person, I live in the 21st century and would love to see the revolutionary energies that have been building through the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements attach themselves to a candidate fomented in our time, attuned to our ways of framing the problems we face. But for weeks I felt the Bern coming on. Then, the night of the New Hampshire debate, a friend sent me a picture of Sanders as a young man. His hair is a Dylanesque mop. His glasses could’ve lost him a midcentury election on egghead grounds. His corduroy jacket is rumpled. He appears to be haranguing someone. He has nice lips. Then I understood.
I wanted more pictures, so I did a Google image search for “young Bernie Sanders.” There were pictures of him speaking at a sit-in in 1962, a few dozen kids (mostly white boys, a few girls) cross-legged in a hallway at the University of Chicago. There was one from a Liberty Union Party meeting in Vermont in ’71 in which he’s distractedly holding his two-year-old son, sideburns prominently displayed; he’s endearingly maternalized by having to perform child care while haranguing. There were a bunch where he got a bit round-cheeked that I sort of skipped over. Then I found the story.
In 1972, Sanders published a piece of writing called “Man—and Woman” in an alternative newspaper called the Vermont Freeman. Mother Jones dug it up last spring; it’s the closest thing Sanders has had to an actual sex scandal, which is to say, not very close. “Man—and Woman” is roughly six hundred words long, and if I had to describe it in genre terms, I would say it is a piece of experimental feminist fiction. Insofar as it has a narrative, it follows its archetypally gendered protagonists, “a man” and “a woman,” as their relationship falls apart. It begins, jarringly, with an introduction to both characters’ sexual fantasies:
A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused.
A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.
The man and woman get dressed up on Sunday—and go to Church, or maybe to their “revolutionary” political meeting.
Here the narrator breaks the fourth wall and spends several paragraphs engaging the reader in dialogue about the way images of rape eroticize the violence of patriarchy. Things are changing; “women, for their own preservation, are trying to pull themselves together.” But the socially enforced “pigness” of men and “slavishness” of women are still locked in a death spiral that destroys them both. Engaging a highly impressionistic version of the anthropological origins of patriarchy (a common starting point at the time for feminist thinkers like Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett), he writes,
In the beginning there were strong men who killed the animals and brought home the food—and the dependent women who cooked it. No More! Only the roles remain—waiting to be shaken off. There are no “human” oppressors. Oppressors have lost their humanity. On one hand “slavishness,” on the other hand “pigness.” Six of one, half dozen of the other. Who wins?
The answer, he concludes, is no one: “Men and women—both are losers.” Women’s liberation has dredged up paradoxes that neither man nor woman can resolve. “How do you love—without being dependent? How do you be gentle—without being subservient?” Our protagonists’ romance turns sour and accusatory. In the end, “they never again made love together (which they had each liked to do more than anything) or never ever saw each other one more time.”
Just as Steinem said, I had followed the trail of boys, and just as she didn’t need to say, where the boys are, sexual violence against girls awaits. When Mother Jones dug up Sanders’s story last May, a brief controversy followed. A group called the Young Conservatives claimed that it was hypocritical for Democrats to criticize Republicans’ gender politics in light of “this atrocious Bernie Sanders quote,” then presented a screenshot from NBC News. One side of the screen displays the line, “A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes about being raped by 3 men simultaneously;” the other shows Sanders’s face.
But the juxtaposition of text and image made no sense. Huh? Which woman? The syntax alone posed a problem for manufactured outrage. Forget content—we don’t expect our candidates to write experimental fiction. Bill Kristol, sensing, perhaps, that the story as such wouldn’t scan, used it as an occasion to attack Bill Clinton’s wanton sexuality, and, by extension, Hillary Clinton’s permissiveness (“Asking several experts for comments on @SenSanders’ essay,” Kristol tweeted at the other Bill. “Care to comment?”) Liberals tried to split the difference. For NPR, to the extent that the piece was “about liberating people from harmful gender norms,” it was okay. To the extent that it averred the complexity and violence of desire—Sanders “seems to imply that men fantasize about raping women or that women fantasize about being raped”—it was not. In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley sensed that something complicated was going on that couldn’t be easily unpacked in our contemporary discourse around politics and sexuality; he concluded simply, “The 1970s were a unique time.” The story died—or seemed to.
Like Sanders’s story, Steinem’s comment summoned the ghost of debates over sexuality within feminist and left circles that remade radical politics several times over in the 1960s but have been largely forgotten since. What we remember instead is the right’s appropriation of those debates to its own ends during the culture wars, the ceaseless referendum on the legacy of the Sixties that expressed itself most vividly in the Reagan, Bush père, and Clinton years.
In the run-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama declared the culture wars over. Sensing a weariness with their rhetoric, he deftly cast himself as a fresh face without hang-ups over what he described, in The Audacity of Hope, as “the psychodrama of the baby boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.” As we have seen in subsequent years, this “psychodrama” could not so easily be dismissed as intra-generational squabbling. But Obama’s reframing did displace the wars’ boomer-centered narrative, and with it, the drama of the Clintons, who served in the right-wing imagination as generals leading the enemy flank.
The last thing Hillary Clinton could have expected in this election cycle, then, was an opponent several years her senior who would take the mantle of the Sixties and start winning young supporters with it. Sanders’s “clever strategy of shouting the exact same thing for 40 years,” as Holly Wood put it in the Village Voice, has hit an unexpected nerve, and with it, reopened wounds that had never really healed to begin with. And so in an uncanny, unspoken twist, the dig long directed at the Clintons from the right—that sexual freedom has turned America into the site of a collective rape fantasy—has been quietly transformed by Hillary’s supporters into a line of attack on Sanders. In the New York Times, feminist blogger Jill Filipovic doubled down on Steinem’s insinuations, arguing that for the frivolous college girls who support Bernie, “sexism tends to be linked to sex”—a category inclusive of everything from cute outfits to abortion—whereas grown women know that the real fight, Hillary’s fight, is about breaking the professional glass ceiling. The poet Eileen Myles, meanwhile, resurrected “Man—and Woman,” suggesting midway through a stream-of-consciousness BuzzFeed polemic that Sanders’s “love of gang rape” is connected to an intention (details uncited) to defund Planned Parenthood. The rhetoric surrounding Clinton’s campaign has become the bearer of a deeply conservative idea that has long posited itself as a progressive one: women can only be safe in the public sphere if sex is kept out.
The obvious problem with Gloria Steinem’s boy theory was that it could not abide the idea that young women, thinking for themselves, might for any number of reasons come to different conclusions than Gloria Steinem. Her comment appeared to be an act of erasure: of young women as rational actors, people with commitments along lines of identity other than gender, subjects who might not be boy-oriented at all. There was, however, another way of understanding what she had to say. What if Steinem were simply making a descriptive claim (“this is the situation as I see it”), and we had projected onto it a normative addendum (“and that’s terrible”)? As Katha Pollitt points out, it’s hardly a secret that people make decisions based on “social and psychological factors” all the time. (In an email to Pollitt, Steinem endorsed the reading that she meant Bernie babes no harm.) Since when do we believe in rational actors, anyway?
People who want to upend the social order have always been accused of letting their passions run away with them; acceding to that idea, and even celebrating it, is not necessarily good political strategy. “The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure,” wrote the American political theorist Eric Hoffer in 1951, the height of a Red Scare moment in which any expression of political resistance branded its subject as a fanatic. “His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached.” During the same period, American anticommunist crusaders created a panic over the “contagion” of radical politics, intimating that promiscuous social and, especially, sexual behavior posed a grave risk to national security. Accepting the terms of the debate, American communists responded by trying to prove that they were in fact as personally staid, homophobic, and nuclear-family-oriented as the McCarthyist forces arrayed against them. (Joseph McCarthy and his confederates, for their part, could moan and wail and weep and gnash their teeth as they pleased.)
Thus we return to the finer point that Steinem put on the question of feelings’ relationship to politics. Not just sentiment, but sex, she suggested, was driving young ladies to a dangerous outpost deep in the wilds of the public sphere. Whether Steinem was trying to warn off young female Sanders supporters by invoking an image of the left as frat house, or teasingly identifying with them, or a little of both, we’ll never know. Either way, she wouldn’t be the first.
In Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left, historian Van Gosse takes Glendon Swarthout’s novel as illustrative of how the erotic allure of the Cuban revolution for American youth (largely of the white, male, and collegiate variety) jumpstarted the movement of students, civil rights activists, and antiwar protesters that came to be known as the New Left. In the 1950s youthful disaffection was widespread but mostly untethered from organized political struggle. In the 1960s, the New Left changed that in part by revising the very definition of the political, taking personal experience—that is to say, subjective conditions like the state of alienation produced by advanced industrial society—as its point of departure. “They had politics,” Todd Gitlin, a leader of the movement, said derisively of the generation of leftists that preceded them. “We were politics.”
In his autobiography, Outsider in the House, Sanders tells a familiar New Left story: upon transferring to the University of Chicago in 1960, he became active in organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Peace Union, and the Young People’s Socialist League. Shunning schoolwork, he instead (in a likewise familiar boast) studied a self-assigned syllabus of “Jefferson, Lincoln, Fromm, Dewey, Debs, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Freud, and Reich.” The admixture of patriotism and Marxism that sutures this list was old-school even in 1960, an inheritance of the alliances forged between American communists and the Democratic party in the 1930s. But the presence of psychoanalysis in the mix, and particularly of Freud’s radical descendants Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, is pure New Left. This was the moment of—in Reich’s coinage—“sexual revolution.”
The “Freudian left” of Fromm, Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and a few others originated in interwar Europe with the idea that the left could only defeat encroaching fascism if it became “the party of eros” (in the phrase of an American scholar and contemporary of the movement, Richard King). Unlike orthodox Freudians, who saw the repression of libido as necessary to the upkeep of civilization, the Freudian left argued that populations forced by moral stricture to keep sexual energy bottled up expressed that energy through violence—and that undoing repression would create the opposite effect. For Reich, writing in Weimar Berlin, this literally meant that at the level of organizing, communists could bring in the youth being lost to the aesthetic temptations of Nazism by creating spaces where boys and girls could mingle. He was rewarded by being kicked out of both the Communist parties of various countries and the International Psychoanalytic Association. But as part of a wealth of European critical theory that made its way to the United States during and after World War II, the notion of sexual liberation—imagined, this time, as an antidote to the soul-crushing American grind—became integral to the making of the New Left.
The sexual revolution of the Sixties unleashed vast quantities of libidinal energy and produced great stores of ecstatic, politically inspiring feeling—for men. Radical feminism erupted in the late Sixties in large part out of the fury of women in the New Left whose labor provided the foundation for that movement but who were constantly marginalized within it. A key critique of the women’s liberation movement lodged at what feminist leader Robin Morgan called the “counterfeit male-dominated Left” was that “the so-called Sexual Revolution” had simply created a new vector of male control. “In addition to suffering sexual frustration from the inhibitions instilled by repressive parents, fear of pregnancy, and men’s sexual judgments and exploitative behavior,” Ellen Willis recalled later, “we had to swallow the same men’s humiliating complaints about how neurotic, frigid, and unliberated we were.” Yet this critique of ersatz sexual liberation often morphed into a wholesale rejection of women’s sexuality or certain expressions of it, both gay and straight. A critique of that critique insisted that sexual liberation needed not to be liberated from its abusers. “What’s a party without men?” asked Shulamith Firestone (presumably after taking a long drag on her cigarette) when New York Radical Women, a group she had founded, proposed a gender-segregated soiree. Firestone was no defender of either men or compulsory heterosexuality. But by reframing radical politics as where the girls were, sex with boys could be imagined back into the scene on different terms.
As the women’s liberation movement splintered in the 1970s, a hard break with the left (which Morgan came to call the “boys’ movement”) and a dramatic turn toward gender essentialism were often allied in a project by many feminists to redefine the movement as a quasi-nationalistic advancement of “women’s culture.” Radical feminism had been a largely white and middle-class movement, but also one deeply engaged, if not always successfully, with questions of race and class. Cultural feminists—who often took as their mouthpiece Steinem’s Ms. magazine—tended to argue, by contrast, that racism and class oppression would wither away on their own if the violent, masculine world order was replaced with the nurturing, maternal values supposedly natural to women. This was not a part of the movement that had space for the messiness of sexual fantasy, including women’s. In the Eighties, when “antisex” feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon aligned with Reagan affiliates in proposing legislation against pornography, the connection between the rejection of the left and of sexual deviance—essentially, a total renunciation of Sixties radicalism in the guise of protecting women from rape—became painfully clear. The assumption among some feminists “that sexual coercion is a more important problem for women than sexual repression,” which in its most pronounced form relied on “a neo-Victorian view of women’s nature,” Willis wrote, thus ironically provided fodder for a distinctly anti-feminist idea promulgated by Reagan’s New Right: women would be safe from male aggression only in a return to hearth and home.
And then came Clinton.
“I feel your pain,” Bill Clinton told an AIDS activist in 1992, a few years before signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, meanwhile defending the sanctity of marriage himself by having tons of extramarital sex with women who mostly, when questioned, avowed consent, but sometimes didn’t—but those latter charges remain unsubstantiated, and are currently in circulation largely thanks to the efforts of Donald Trump. While it’s true that the most powerful man in the world surely had some leeway to stop rape charges from going anywhere, the same man had an almost equally powerful coalition of Republicans arrayed against him who produced a 445-page document condemning his sexual exploits and the worst thing they could come up with was that a cigar is sometimes not just a cigar. Thinking through Clinton is not, as the theorist Fred Moten observed in the aftermath of Monicagate, “a top of the head project.” Moten continued,
Though actually existing American democracy is 99 percent whack, there is a coup going on; he’s a lecherous harasser but it is obviously important and weird to have an openly sexual president; he’s a racist and a sexist who has butchered black and poor and female people, but he doesn’t seem personally to hate or, at least, be sickened, by the presence of black people or women, by the idea of their having, within the whack American paradigm, influence and power.
In a perfect inversion of the liberal punditocracy’s claim that Clinton was personally unpalatable but politically responsible, Moten and the other writers assembled in the collection Our Monica, Ourselves, feminist and queer theory’s most comprehensive response to the Lewinsky affair, express dismay with the president’s neoliberal policies but identify with and take pleasure in his eroticization. In permutations of Toni Morrison’s famous characterization of Clinton as our first black president, he appears here—“feminized by . . . his weight problems, his teariness, his physical affection, his interest in feelings, his linkage of intellectual power and emotional bravado,” as contributor Toby Miller put it—as queer, as woman, as black woman, as Jew. The majority of American voters that had elected him and kept his approval ratings up even during the darkest days of the impeachment hearings seemed to feel similarly. “‘[O]rdinary’ Americans,” Willis points out in her contribution to the volume, “clearly do not share the Washington elite’s investment in the idea of the president as moral exemplar, charged with validating the existing structure of (patriarchal) authority”; on the contrary, they had elected him as “a member of the ’60s generation, an embodiment of youth and eroticism.” What was infuriating was that this was the embodiment we were stuck with.
Sometimes in the extended Clinton era it seemed like not just the president, but all the middle-aged flaccidly liberal white men you could see in the movies (American Beauty, Ghost World) or read about in a novel (The Corrections, most books by Philip Roth), had decided to enshrine the historical memory of the Sixties by having sex with younger women, turning back the clock on everyone at once. But who’s to say the women in those scenarios didn’t have an erotic investment in that historical reenactment as well? Lewinsky herself, in the face of a sexual culture that refused to recognize women as other than objects and victims, unapologetically insisted that she was a sexual subject who took pleasure in the affair. But then again, how fucked up would it be if the legacy of sexual revolution was so deeply embedded in the Clintonian body that there was no other way to access it? In practice, one supposes, women who slept with Bill had a high likelihood of supporting his policy agenda. In the up-or-down logic of representational politics, was a vote for eros, in the Nineties, also a vote for welfare reform, NAFTA, and the crime bill?
Oh yeah, and what about Hillary?
Despite her current iconic status within Steinem’s wing of feminism, Hillary Clinton remains essentially outside the intra-feminist debates sketched above. A bit of an anachronism in her own time, Clinton belongs to a different lineage, more connected, in a way, to the long tradition of women social reformers than to the feminists who emerged in the ’60s. In her autobiography, Living History—a book in which the F-word is scarcely breathed—Clinton writes that in 1970, a couple of days after National Guard troops shot four student antiwar protesters at Kent State University, she spoke at a convention banquet for the League of Women Voters, an organization founded in 1920 to support the cause of women’s suffrage. Two years earlier, by way of contrast, radical feminists had protested Richard Nixon’s inauguration by burning their voter registration cards; they were “giving back the vote.”
Yet the “sex wars” within feminism and the culture wars that dogged the Clintons in the Nineties are intimately connected via the right’s appropriation of feminist rhetoric to end, in one blow, the remaining legacy of sexual liberation and feminism itself.1 Today, many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters—not just responding to continued attacks from the right, but playing offense with Sanders—are tactfully trying to sever any whiff of a connection between the two. Gloria Steinem’s comment broke the rules of the game by explicitly alluding to the presence of women’s sexuality in the public sphere. Part of why her remark was so hard to parse—was she endorsing this presence or decrying it or simply stating it as fact?—is that her sexual politics have long been riddled with contradictions. “Gloria Steinem went to bed with Norman Mailer out of kindness twelve years after he stabbed his wife,” Juliana Spahr reminds us in a recent poem. In the 1980s, she was photographed nude in her bubble bath for People magazine and joined the crusade against pornography.
But mostly, those sorts of ambiguities haven’t risen to the surface. Instead, a safe disavowal of sexuality has buzzed beneath the surface of an extended attempt to reinforce a sentimental mode of thinking about feeling toward politics. Despite the complex mixtures of attraction and repulsion that jizzed all over Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary’s supporters have maintained that political emotion is a straightforward, proper or improper affair. Feeling, when it supports the right candidate, is pure, noble, and rational. Correctly disciplined sentiment, in this scenario, is imagined to be precisely aligned with reason, hence the Clinton campaign’s ability to claim a premium on both inspiration (the first woman president . . .) and pragmatism (. . .will obviously be the person who can get things done). When political feeling comes out for the other guy, however, it is a reminder that affect has no place in electoral politics at all. In this latter view, political feeling is not just unfair to women because of the sexist content that may come through in emotionally charged rhetoric, but is also unjust in its very form because women, forced to be realists, do not deal in the emotional realm. Unlike her opponent, Hillary “doesn’t get to be all wild hair and yelling,” the writer of a viral piece published on the website Pajiba complained immediately before hitting caps lock and eschewing lowercase letters for the rest of her article. Undisciplined passions are idealistic, are unseemly, and are tied to unruly bodies like Sanders’s, with his wild head of hair that is an affront to all women and their blow-dryers.
Both of these selectively held views rely on a fantasy that voters—that is, responsible voters, not the kind who fall prey to base desires—navigate a simple, unmediated relationship between what they like and what should be. Thus, judging by the frequency with which the argument is made, one of the best things Clinton supporters have going for them is the notion that Clinton’s unexpected challenges are due to a “likeability problem.” “I Used to Hate Hillary Clinton. Now I’m Voting for Her,” announces the headline of a Slate article by the liberal commentator Michelle Goldberg. Goldberg’s politics haven’t changed—they were and remain close to those of Sanders, she tells us. What changed between 2008, when she excoriated Clinton’s political sins, and today, was that her emotional attachments grew up:
For a progressive, how you reconcile conflicting truths about Clinton depends, to some extent, on how much you empathize with her. Supporting Clinton means justifying the thousands of concessions she’s made to the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. Doing this is easier, I think, when you are older, and have made more concessions yourself. Indeed, sometimes it feels like to defend Clinton is to defend middle age itself, with all its attenuated expectations and reminders of the uselessness of hindsight.
“This is in support of Hillary?” a friend asked. Goldberg’s counterintuitive approach to political rhetoric—We’re the party of defeat!—is in fact the more or less official line of the Clinton campaign. Disciplined by the fetters of middle age, Goldberg narrates her march toward reason as a sentimental journey in which, through a growing identification with Clinton, she comes to like the way concession feels.
It’s hard to argue with desire, and it’s easy to get votes if desire is something you can call up. As Freud put it, the unconscious does not have a word for “no.” Erotic fantasy has suffused this election cycle whether it’s acknowledged, or even recognized, or not. It’s been more explicit on the Republican side of the aisle: Trump reassured us of the largeness of his dick, and if the fan fiction he has inspired is any indication, said dick has not gone unappreciated. Clinton’s well of erotic charge has always been deeply triangulated with her great-triangulator husband’s, and now that well seems to have run dry. In response, she’s trying to dam it up with other kinds of feelings, including the feelings mobilized precisely by our feeling her pain as a woman with waning powers of attraction. The problem with doing so is not that it somehow tarnishes her, but that it rests on a claim that desire itself is tarnishing, which creates a self-unraveling logic—vote for me because you don’t want me, and I promise to attenuate your expectations.
I Still Love Hillary Clinton. I Still Don’t Want to Vote for Her. My own profile in political emotion, all but impossible in the eyes of the Clinton campaign, is not a march toward reason but a deepening of continued convolution. It’s not just that, having enthusiastically cast my first ballot for Bill Clinton in my second-grade class mock election in 1992, I have a lifelong affinity bordering on Camelot-style adoration for both Clintons. It’s also that, having hit puberty at exactly the right time to learn everything I know about sex from news coverage of the Starr report, their collective role in my constitution as a sexual subject is second perhaps only to that other pair of baby boomers who gave birth to me. Hillary’s incredible pathos, her depths of ambition, the abuse she has borne, her inability to keep her feelings off her face—all the supposedly unlikeable personal qualities that Hillary-lovers love about Hillary, I love too. I challenge you to watch her Oscar lifetime achievement award-ish montage from the 2008 Democratic National Convention—the one where she talks about writing to NASA to find out how a girl can become a lady astronaut—and not cry. I could look at her all day, would love to crack open a campaign-trail Bud together (she is supposedly very funny in person), if I were in therapy right now I’m sure it would not take long to concur that I still want her to fuck me. Yet for all the reasons of policy and ideology that leftists who don’t want to vote for Hillary don’t want to vote for Hillary, I don’t want to vote for her either. I will grant that in its details, this profile may be idiosyncratic. But in its general contours, I don’t think what I am saying is unrepresentative so much as, within our current discourse, simply unrepresentable.
It’s not, then, that my vote isn’t about feelings. Like all desire, my attachments to both Sanders and Clinton are weird and hard to pin down: they’re about history and nostalgia and childhood and identifications of all kinds. What makes my attachment to Sanders different is that, in the tautological sense that he’s (something like) a socialist, and has the energy of preexisting social movements behind him, my desire for him is also a desire for the transformative energies created by social movements themselves. Whereas one thing my attachment to Clinton is not about is a connection to a vision of feminist collectivity, because she doesn’t come out of or represent a movement that shares such a vision. Without one, feminists are ultimately alone together.
When we look at Bernie Sanders, what do we see? One way Clinton supporters attempted to deflect Steinem’s gaffe while holding onto its substance was to argue that Sanders is “cool,” denigrating him as a dorm-room poster boy but denying that this has anything to do with sex. Of course, cool has everything to do with sex, in politics as elsewhere: it’s the best shorthand we’ve had for the packaging of erotic charge for electoral consumption since Norman Mailer tagged John F. Kennedy “the Hipster as Presidential Candidate” in 1960. More recently, the label has stuck to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Since cool is a deeply racialized term—Mailer infamously identified the hipster as “white Negro”—there is a complicated relay here between the racial appropriation going on when white candidates try to be cool, and the racialized charge of the accusation that they have succeeded. Given that our Democratic candidates are currently fighting for the support of a black electorate whose votes they arguably have not earned, a feud about cool leaves no one looking good.
It’s true, though: Sanders is cool. But why is he cool? Haranguing Jewish socialists have been out for forty-five years. And since Bill Clinton’s administration, the deployment of the Sixties in national politics has been a well-established irritant to the generations of voters that have succeeded the baby boomers. Yet suddenly, Vampire Weekend is performing “This Land is Your Land” at Sanders fundraisers with the candidate on backup vocals. I think what’s happening is that Sanders—a New Leftist older than the boomers—is in the process of detaching the historical memory of the Sixties from the Clintonian narrative of what happened to Sixties people after the Sixties. A persistent discourse that peaked in the Nineties and waved the flag of boomerdom cynically maintained that only two options existed, or could exist, for aging radicals: sell out, or fade into Lebowskian obscurity. Attempts have been made to fit Sanders into both of these story lines—to tar him either as a tool of the establishment (he’s been in Washington for twenty-five years) or a dropout from society (he’s only a senator from Vermont—hardly a state, more like a toy). But like the state of Vermont, the lives that many Sixties movement veterans have made for themselves in regions at the hazy borders of power and resistance, and the institutions they have built there are, in fact, real. The appearance of someone so unreformed on the national stage has been, I think, a surprising pleasure for many young people—and conversely perhaps, as Bryan Williams argued in The New Republic, an unwelcome threat to Hillary’s boomer bloc.
Bill Clinton was a dense, voluptuous representative of the Sixties who held out the promise of accessing that time by accessing his body. Sanders is spindly and seems, for a politician, unusually self-sufficient; one meme this year delighted in a video that caught him dashing spryly through a crowded DC subway station to make the train. But as the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements negotiate their own continued survival, what he offers is something like a grim but seductively existential promise: the struggle will be hard and lonely, but if you don’t give up, you, too, will stay cool. It’s as though this particular varietal of hip had been hanging out offstage, forgotten yet exerting a genealogical pull, then suddenly reemerged Rip Van Winkle-like, aged and yet strikingly intact. Perhaps cool hangs around the aging body like an afterimage, creating a charisma that picks up where more direct forms of sex appeal leave off.
In this sense, the erotics of the Sanders campaign are about nostalgia: a new generation of kids is falling in love with a promise held out by a past one. The problem with nostalgia and the melancholy crushes it begets is how quickly you forget that the snapshot you hold of the time before you were born can’t, by definition, include you. When I look at old pictures of young Bernie Sanders, I want to go back and be where those boys were. But I am mindful of the feminists who fled the New Left in droves at the close of the 1960s to start their own movement, who caution me—in yet another historical reverie—it was never for you. And so we have looped around to the start of our tale.
What, ultimately, is the legacy of the New Left in relation to feminism? I’ve read and thought about this question for a long time, and I still don’t quite know how to answer it in the abstract. But it is precisely at this impasse that Sanders’s brief and bungled career as an experimental writer gives me hope. “Man—and Woman” is a document of what change within a social movement looks like. It is messy, cocky, timid, flailing, and, read without recourse to historical context, almost illegible. If you try to score it on a spreadsheet of correct political opinion, as internet opinion-mongering is wont to do, it will yield an unsatisfying prime number nowhere near 0 or 100. It is not an unheralded classic of second-wave feminist thought. (Women “are trying to pull themselves together”?) Yet on an account that I think is vital to a sexually liberatory feminist analysis—people including women have sexual desires that can’t be cleansed of a relationship to power, but that doesn’t have to preclude the formation of gratifying relationships, while what does destroy relationships is the real-life violence of patriarchy—he gets it exactly right.
Regardless of the feelings Sanders is stirring up in this election cycle, the limits to the conversation we can have about political emotions have thus far been prescribed by the Clinton campaign. Within those limits, a story about a rape fantasy never stood a chance. I sent the story to the friend who sent me the picture of young Bernie Sanders. “Mainstream politics is a series of magic words being repeated like a ritual incantation— ‘free trade’ ‘values’ ‘security,’” he wrote back. “‘Rape’ is outside that political vocabulary. It cannot even be contextualized.” The same goes, I think, for “fantasy,” and this was precisely the argument of the Freudian left and its New Left and feminist inheritors. Fantasy permeates this election cycle as it permeates all national life, but it cannot be actively affirmed in public speech, and this is precisely the point at which utopian thought—say, the mere contemplation of socialist revolution—is arrested. At a moment in American history when the rhetoric of fascism blares perhaps more loudly than ever before, it might be time to let it in.
To take an extreme example of what that looked like on the antisex feminist front, Dworkin wrote a piece, published posthumously by her husband during the Clinton/Obama primaries, accusing Hillary of abetting rape by standing by her husband when he was accused (and later cleared) of sexual assault. ↩
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