Media, Politics

‘One Nation Under Sex’: Larry Flynt digs through the sex lives of US presidents

‘One Nation Under Sex’: Larry Flynt digs through the sex lives of US presidents

South Africa knows a thing or two about presidential sex scandals. But we have nothing on the Americans. Now porno king Larry Flynt has written a book called “One Nation Under Sex” detailing the sex lives and drives of those who once occupied the Oval Office. And it makes for thrilling history. By RICHARD POPLAK.

When the accounts are finally tallied, Larry Flynt will be remembered for the “pink shot”. In the parlance of mass-produced pornography, the sweaty realm in which Flynt has made his millions, a “pink shot” refers to a certain splayed female body part. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy didn’t do pink shots; Flynt’s Hustler decidedly did. Playboy exhibited woman as high-end chattel, a fine accessory for a luxury apartment or a Cadillac. Hustler displayed woman as sex objects, to be thoroughly used, and then discarded. Flynt’s magazine shared his messianic zealotry for the first amendment, but it failed as a publication where Flynt has failed as a man. He has never properly been able to explain at what point freedom of speech becomes free of moral and cultural, if not legal, censure? If we can say everything, regardless of how disgusting and hurtful it may be, what’s the point of saying anything at all? Content becomes meaningless.

Or more appropriately, it becomes porn. And Hustler was unapologetically and unreservedly pornographic. Unlike Playboy, with which it was forever engaged in a cultural and classist argument, Hustler was overtly, deliberately misogynistic. It understood that without a frisson of debasement and humiliation, hard porn is merely an anatomy class. A woman being gang-raped in a concentration camp? Why not? asked Flynt. This was pornography’s tincture, its soul. Many men get off masturbating to a woman debased, and then return to the real world to negotiate the complexities of their relationships, where power structure is far more nebulous.

That said, Flynt has long been championed by liberals for his unwavering stand against the right-wing conservative establishment, especially those with a moralising streak. Like the long-running head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, Flynt sniffs out information like a truffle pig and keeps sex files on his enemies. If they don’t practice what they preach – and rarely do they – Flynt is ready to print a story or a cartoon or the pictures. (Hustler shot into the mainstream after publishing nudies of Jackie Onassis.) He’s been sued by Jerry Falwell for suggesting that the good reverend had sex with his mother, and he’s not above paying for the dirt if he has to. More often than not, he doesn’t have to: Witness married Congressman Anthony Weiner’s meltdown, in which he mistakenly Tweeted pictures of his crotch to a Seattle college student, when he really meant to send the image to a porn star.

This very intersection between sex and politics—which is really about sex and power—has always been one of Flynt’s major themes. In his reading of history, power does not occur in a vacuum, but rather in a highly sexualised space where it will always find an outlet and will forever be traded as a commodity. That commodity is often historically transformative. Weinergate is but another example of a man who misread the limits of his own power and conflated his legislative pull with, well, pulling. His actions may well have consequences for the thoroughly embarrassed Democratic Party in the long run. They are, after all, in the middle of a culture war with the GOP. “I’m the first person to defend a philandering president if he can balance the budget,” Flynt has said. “But I do think discretion should play a part in it.”

In other words, Flynt believes that sex and power are a deadly, if inevitable, cocktail, one that needs to be controlled. For one thing, the combo can sink political ships. For another, if our elected representatives believe they are above the mores of the day, what’s to stop them from believing they are above the laws of the day? Flynt gets this better than most. Along with an academic named David Eisenbach, he’s scoured the private papers and secret histories of America’s most powerful men dating back to Independence. For those of us who assume the the US’s Founding Fathers stuck to penning the constitution and constructing a Beacon on a Hill—no Tweeting dick pics for them—Flynt and Eisenbach offer a surprisingly readable new book called “One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and their Lovers Changed the Course of American History”.

Their tome isn’t just sexual scuttlebutt, but rather a parsing of how sex in the Oval Office (and in broom closets and town cars and shag pads) has influenced not just America’s historical trajectory, but that of the rest of the world too. For the most part, they come across a wealth of information that is usually whitewashed or eliminated outright from the official record.

The book portrays Benjamin Franklin as a randy old goat and a lifelong womaniser. This skill set proved vitally important to the Union when trying to enlist French help in a war against the British. Franklin, unlike John Adams—who wrote sniffingly of Paris, “There is everything here which can seduce, betray, deceive, corrupt and debauch”—was able to negotiate the shoals of sexual politics, seducing the powerful ladies who ran the salons and were thus conduits to power. France loved Franklin, perhaps the most famous foreigner in the country and was willing to back the nascent United States. “And when Franklin departed France in 1785, he left behind millions of people sold on the idea of liberty,” write Flynt and Eisenbach. “After the French Revolution four years later, visitors to Parisian tourist shops could find statuettes of Franklin carved from ‘authentic stones of the fallen Bastille’.”

Plenty has been written about Thomas Jefferson’s long-term dalliance with one of his slaves, Sally Heming, but few have put it in the context of a long-running political battle fuelled by one of the new Union’s first muckraking tabloid hacks, James Callender. A drunk and a cheque-book journalist, Callender was at the head of several early American sex scandals, but this was “the scoop of a lifetime. The sitting president was having interracial sex and fathering his own slave children. And he was doing it while he harped on [Alexander] Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds. Jefferson became the first in a long line of hypocritical politicians who exposed an opponent’s sexual indiscretions to score political points and then watched their accusations rebound with twice the force.” Are you listening, Newt Gingrich?

Flynt and Eisenbach do a good job of explaining the media’s role in sex scandals and how publishing changed as the nation’s mores did. But in a country that did not pick its leaders based on class or breeding—where there was no royalty, per se—the sexual behaviour of a politician suggested the mettle of his character. While Europeans whispered about nobility, they could not vote them out of office for sexual misconduct. Americans could and did. Prompted by the media, private life blurred into public life. “Since Americans looked to the First Family for a national standard of personal behaviour, the private backgrounds of both the presidential candidate and his wife were fair game,” explain the authors.

The media, however, was not consistent in its peeking beneath the presidential covers. It now seems quaint that reporters and editors would stop themselves from publishing incendiary sex stories because they felt that the nation’s safety was at stake, but that’s exactly what happened. JFK generated an infidelity scandal a week, though nothing was ever published at the time. Today, his backers would have had to chemically castrate him to keep him in line.

“One Nation Under Sex” is not an alternative history of the US—president’s who kept it zipped barely get a mention—but it is an occasionally poignant document of the lengths to which powerful men and women will go in reconciling their sexual appetites and proclivities with their office. Flynt is especially good at covering Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration; he no doubt relates with the polio-stricken president, considering the fact that Flynt is  a paraplegic.)

The book is not especially exhaustive, but it’s honest about its gaps. It is, in all things, American history’s pink shot. And it’s worth the read. DM

Photo: Larry Flynt, head of Larry Flynt Publications, speaks to the news media about the Washington sex scandal involving U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and accused “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jean Palfrey and the possibility that other high-ranking U.S. elected officials may be involved during a news conference in Beverly Hills, July 11, 2007


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