Curses, Camelot and that fickle notion of consent

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
February 09, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

As though we needed further proof that time has not wearied our appetite for political sex scandals, Kennedy curses and all that is the Camelot enigma, this week and another book on the topic has been released.

This time the selling point is the deflowering of then 19-year-old Mimi Alford, a 1962 babe-in-the-woods Whitehouse intern, at the hands of golden-boy president JFK. Supposedly anointed by Frank Sinatra as “cocksman emeritus”, I have to admit that yet another revelation that Kennedy “liked the ladies” is not something I find particularly interesting.

I am similarly scarcely interested in questioning why Alford has chosen to tell her story now, nor am I interested in probing the veracity of her claims or querying why of all the very many JFK leaks, this juicy story never got out.

I am however, incredibly interested in Alford’s wording of the president’s grand seduction:

He had manoeuvred me swiftly and unexpectedly and with such authority and strength that short of screaming I doubt if I could have done anything to thwart his intentions.

When asked to clarify this troubling recollection, Alford explained, “Overpowered in the sense that he was the president.” It is here where my interested got piqued, my appreciation of seduction got nudged and my feminist politics were substantially challenged.

As is evident in most of my writing, I am thoroughly enthusiastic about women embracing their own sexuality and acting on their own desires in whichever legal fashions bring them pleasure (or pain, if they’re that way inclined). If Alford’s experience with JFK was a manifestation of her own sexual yens, fantastic: a round of applause for this mild-mannered now 68-year-old former church administrator!

Of course, reading her virginity loss tale and I’m thinking Rock Center reporter Meredith Vieira had some very good reasons for probing Alford’s peculiar description.

No, I most certainly don’t think a first-time sexual experience needs to involve candles, declarations of devotion or Foreigner on the stereo. I am – unsurprisingly – in the camp that believes sex can be purely recreational; insisting that virginity loss needs to be special and romantic and transformative puts everybody under undue pressure. I do however, like to think that a woman in Alford’s position – who found herself in that room, in that bed, with that man – was there for reasons other than she couldn’t say no.

This thought however, exists alongside my personal appreciation for the grand seduction and my own feminist politics.

In my book Part-Time Perverts, I referenced a 1976 Ms magazine article by Molly Haskell where she considered the term “rape fantasy” a misnomer for the far less risky fantasy of a time “when Robert Redford won’t take no for an answer.” Encapsulated in this idea is the often deliciously romantic notion of not having to think, not having to intellectualise and just be taken.

No, it’s not something we’re supposed to admit to, but hell, I’m not one for being overly couth.

Butting up against this idea however, are my feminist politics. Much more than just the no means no idea, is my firm commitment that people with power should not take advantage of those without it. In Alford’s liaison – akin to the innumerable examples of young women in similar predicaments with footballers, politicians, musicians and other cashed-up, powered-up men – a status imbalance and age difference makes informed consent fraught.

The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal will be remembered for a multitude of reasons. The infidelity, Hillary standing-by-her-man, Bill massaging the truth and the Starr report detailing some fascinating times when a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.

Less debated however, is whether Bill did the right thing by Monica. She was an intern, a woman in a grossly subordinate position. Unquestionably Lewinsky had her own sexual desires and seems unlikely to ever consider herself a victim, but worth questioning is whether Bill abused his power and how much more weight his sexual wants carried than hers.

I have no interest in cajoling Alford or Lewinsky to recast their affairs as manipulative or God-forbid abusive. I do, however, think that the Alford memoir reminds us that the immensely complicated nature of consent, of power and of individual responsibility needs to remain firmly on our agenda.

© Lauren Rosewarne