It's interesting that Janet Maslin's review of Mimi Alford's new memoir takes Alford to task more than it does the man at the center of the book--John F. Kennedy. I guess that makes some sense given that Alford is the author and it was ultimately her story. But I've found myself overcome by a kind of visceral revulsion as I watched the story of Alford's affair with Kennedy unfold on Rock Center last night.
The point is often made here that when we discuss illicit sexual affairs with young women and powerful men, there is a tendency to infantalize the women--to treat them as victims without any designs or sexual urges original to themselves. I think that line serves as an important corrective, and indeed in her interview Alford is fairly clear that she wanted it to happen. At the same time, I think there has to be a way to talk about a humanistic morality, without young women as sexless stand-ins for that morality.
Call me old-fashioned. But I think it's an abuse of power to begin a sexual relationship with an intern in his office, one which the willingness of the other party doesn't allow you to evade. In the coldest most removed--and frankly mildest--sense, it opens the door for complaints of favoritism. Monica Lewinsky was not the only intern in the White House. In more malicious hands it can escalate to threats and blackmail. In this particular case it opened the door, according to Alford, to the abuser requesting that she service one of Kennedy's aides, and, according to Alford, his brother.
These are the firm questions that arise. Tougher ones remain: When the head of the free world requests that a 20-year old perform oral sex on one of his aides, does consent still having meaning? Is there coercion beyond beyond the physical, even if we grant that it's beyond the realm of prosecutors?
Someone with more experience in this area can speak for me, but somehow "Well she was an adult and she consented" doesn't feel particularly feminist, or humanist, to me. I also don't buy the notion that this sort of behavior has no impact on one's politics. In this age, at the very least a penchant to give one's foes ammo is an actual problem
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power