Hillary Clinton told CBS News last weekend that she did not believe that Bill's relationship with Monica Lewinsky implied an "abuse of power". Mrs. Lewinsky, explained Mrs. Clinton, "was an adult." The progressives and conservatives were both shouting, irritated by the hypocrisy embraced by the Democratic matron: if you're going to assume that every powerful man is actually guilty of sexual abuse when he advances towards a submissive woman, then surely he's going to be there. The world's most powerful man is guilty of this when dealing with a 22-year-old intern.
But sometimes a double standard exposes not only bad faith, but a rule that should not have been adopted in the first place. Mrs. Clinton was right: Monica Lewinsky was technically an adult at the time of the notorious affair with Clinton in 1995-96. He was also old enough to know what he wanted and had to be held responsible for it. What he wanted – very, it seems – was the occupier of the White House, very successful, charming, married.
To believe that a woman is abused when her supervisor shows a romantic interest is to consider employees as close to slaves. This is neo-Marxism at work: the notion that an employee occupies a position so fundamentally compromised, towards the boss, who can never consent because he does not have the capacity to refuse. The fact that this condemnation focuses exclusively on economic imbalances – and not on those created by the discrepancy in charisma or physical attractiveness – betrays the stain of Marxist fingerprints.
Whenever we talk about power imbalances between the sexes, I often think of my grandmothers, who have become adults in the 40s, once a lot more sexist – indeed, one was sexual harassment on the spot almost unlimited work. Yet, according to all reports, neither of them had problems rejecting a man. This is not because they were rich or occupied powerful positions, but because they knew who they were. They possessed a singular resource called "dignity". And every man who met one of the two women understood that he would not want to part with it.
Certain male leaders undoubtedly compel their subordinates to relate. This is a form of abuse, as it is for employees who live under the threat of deportation. But to suggest that every woman in every workplace is equally vulnerable simply because she did not get a job of equal rank for the man who wants to go out with her is as absurd as disparaging.
"Abuse of power" occurs when a person uses the function or resources of his position to obtain something to which the work does not give him the right. If President Clinton had told Mrs. Lewinsky that he would have fired if he had not presented, or had arranged for the Internal Revenue Service to control his family, it would have been a serious abuse of power. But using the charm and display of success to woo a young woman is the oldest trick in the book. The fact that he was married at that moment made his behavior despicable. That he led his report to the White House made it unseemly. The fact that he was lying under oath constituted a crime. But none of this is equivalent to exploitation, and it is only because we have so much discomfort that it articulates the moral judgment that we must turn to the law to remedy those that are essentially character falls.
Meetings in the workplace invariably create responsibilities for employers, especially when the relationship is between a junior employee and his direct superior. It opens the door to favoritism and conflicts of interest. Employers have a legitimate interest in managing these risks. But none of this makes such abusive dating. Countless Americans have met and fell in love at work. And if any of the men who flirted with their future wives to work were foolish enough to think of consolidating their position in a pre-established hierarchy, marriage quickly healed them from this idea.
So what does this matter? Why defend Bill Clinton? Because in the years since his relationship with Mrs. Lewinsky it has become public knowledge that we have created a monster. Lawyers, lawyers, human resources professionals, activists, dealing with harassment, installed themselves as our collective companion, the high priest of courtship, invested with the power to decide which advances are kosher. The servants are regularly sent to attack those who have too much wealth or importance or unfavorable political opinions.
We should reclaim adulthood from professional beggars, because it is everywhere to retreat. When the desires of two adults are in conflict, in the absence of violence or real harassment, individuals must be left to solve them, go ahead, try again with someone else. This is the story of the American courtship that inspired not only male pursuers such as Beach Boys, Sam Cooke and the four tops, but also the women who sized them, such as Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift. This is the rocky road to love that has never done for a quiet passage, but left us all the same wise. If it creates complications for employers, so be it. Perhaps the last thing we should do is make life easier for lawyers.
Mrs. Shrier is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.