Book Review -The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction, Jerome D. Levin. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1998. 258pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Daniel Dervin, Ph.D.

Jerome Levin is an analytically trained therapist with "twenty years of experience identifying and treating addictive behavior." Admitting that he is "deeply interested in the motivation of this man," Levin considers his "main task" to "define sexual addiction and demonstrate how President Clinton typifies the definition." Because not that much is known about sexual addiction, despite it being "surprisingly prevalent," he also offers general information about the issues involved.

Having voted for Clinton, Dr. Levin is, like most of us, troubled by the out-of-control aspects of his presidential conduct. While he tries not to be judgmental, it is clear that he would like to see Clinton get treatment. This book is a therapeutic intervention, one step removed. Also, the whole notion of declaring that a sitting president is probably a sex addict, is certainly a sign of our times.

Sexual addiction is an illness. Such problems "are not about sex. They are about insecurity, low self esteem, and the need for affirmation and re­assurance . . . the sex addict feels unloved and unlovable and so looks obsessively for proof that this is not so."

Psychiatric thinking favors the idea of substance abuse/dependence more than addiction. Any out-of-control behavior might qualify as an addiction. But Levin's criteria for defining sexual addiction are largely based on a substance abuse model:

  • Repeated sexual activity resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home;

  • Sexual activity in potentially dangerous situations;

  • Repeated sex-related legal problems;

  • Continued sexual activity despite persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems;

  • [ever greater] tolerance;

  • [withdrawal] symptoms;

  • Larger amounts of sexual activity over longer periods of time than originally intended;

  • An enduring desire to control sexual activity and simultaneously failed attempts to do so;

  • Increased time spent in activities necessary to obtain sexual activity and/or to recover from its effects;

  • Decreased social, occupational, or recreational activities directly related to sexual activity;

  • Continued sexual activity despite knowledge of persistent or re­current physical or psychological problems that are caused or exacerbated by the activity.

In Levin's opinion, Clinton emerged as mother's heroic rescuer when at age fourteen he stood up to his alcoholic/abusive stepfather. But he also had problems with abandonment in early infancy when his mother left him with her parents to study nursing.

After getting her back, he again lost her when she quickly reconciled with her spouse. His childhood home was full of turmoil, he was dependent upon mother for praise and validation, but unable to express anger toward her. "The hidden hostility would later emerge as fuel for Bill's sexually addictive behavior, causing him to pursue women in an effort to dominate and humiliate them (much like he wanted to dominate and humiliate his mother)." It is at this point where the addict's need for love is upstaged by hate, that Levin begins to get off track. Soon another dynamic emerges.

Levin describes how Governor Clinton allegedly used State Troopers as "suppliers" of women as if they were objects, rather than actual human beings. Clinton did not attempt to establish any sort of relationship with these women, nor did he make any efforts at seduction. He degraded them by simply exposing himself and asking for oral sex, thereby putting himself in a "position of power and dominance" in service of the "illusion of controlling the women." But, here Levin is reading beyond the record and also reading subjective meanings into alleged events we cannot verify.

While this is bad enough, what troubles me even more is that Levin does not realize he has begun portraying a type of sexual behavior at odds with his own paradigm. Addicts use their substance recklessly and compulsively, but have no intrinsic desire to humiliate.

Moreover, injecting persons into the model changes it substantially (persons are not substances). The element of danger cited in the criteria refers to unconcern for one's own safety. But in Clinton's alleged sexual escapades the element of danger/being found out is scripted in.

That he enlisted troopers to get him women is consistent with his high-risk behavior with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. What is really going on is not sexual addiction but sexual perversion, less a search for love and approval than one for revenge and punishment. I discussed this idea with Lloyd deMause a number of years ago and he suggested that both JFK and Clinton needed to get back at mother by humiliating their wives with other women.

Perverse sexual activities, as Louise Kaplan [editor's note: in Female Perversions] has shown, are about making hate rather than love. They are not about a substance being ingested, but about a person being attacked/degraded/humiliated, be it the wife or an illicit partner. Either can evoke the figure of the mother. Since mother figures in classic perversions as a phallic woman, the addition of danger is needed to master castration anxieties.

Levin almost gets into disturbing territory when he discusses Clinton's apparent fondling of Kathleen Willey who had come to him feeling distraught and vulnerable. He seeks to reassure himself that Clinton is no "sociopath:" he has a "conscience," and "also does not appear to enjoy being cruel."

In the end, Levin's account allows us to infer that when Clinton claimed that, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman . . . Miss Lewinsky," he may have implicitly been drawing a distinction between normal sexual intercourse and his own idiosyncratic brand of perverse enactment.

Dr. Daniel Dervin is semi-retired and still teaches occasionally as a Professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg Virginia.

His review originally appeared in the Winter, 2000, issue of Lloyd deMause's The Journal of Psychohistory

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