From the well-documented to the speculatory, presidential sex lives have been subjected to indiscriminate analysis. Some heads of state have even been embroiled in what would now be called “sexual scandals,” and have had their entire public perception upended by these events. Other leaders have been afforded the dignity of having this scrutiny placed upon them posthumously.
Regardless of who is the subject of such thorough public scrutinization, or the circumstances of this scrutiny, American presidents are without exception some of the most inadvertently psychoanalyzed people on Earth at any given time. No wonder, given the incredibly public nature of their position. But “sexuality” isn’t just synonymous with “sexual orientation,” as it once was.
Rather, the sexuality of American leaders in this context encompasses aspects from their preferences, to their sexual habits, to their exploits, to—in some instances—their alleged sexual indiscretions. (Probably) every president engaged in sexual intercourse at some point in his life. This article lays out just a few of those case studies of American presidents and their various sexual endeavors, from the very early days of the United States to the most timely and egregious of these expressions of sex.
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, is widely known to have been among our brightest most loquacious presidents. Along with co-authoring the Declaration of Independence itself, Jefferson was a luminary in the realm of 18th century political thought, who envisioned the fledgling nation as growing into a self-sufficient agrarian society. His ideas about individualism, democracy, and culture are among the most well-documented and enduring presidential philosophies in American history.
More contemporarily, however, Thomas Jefferson indeed found himself and his sex life as the subject of widespread reinterest and careful examination by historians and medical experts. In the late 20th century, as then-President William Jefferson Clinton was wrapped up within his own contemporaneous sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky (which will be discussed further into the paper), renewed suspicions of a previous President Jefferson’s own sexual history came to light.
Thomas Jefferson, like many wealthy white men pre-Civil War, was a documented slave owner. In 1998, the journal Nature published an article titled “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child,” which had concluded that based on Y-chromosomal (referring to paternal as opposed to maternal) DNA haplotype testing, Thomas Jefferson was very likely the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson, the sixth son of Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by him.
“The simplest and most probable explanations for our molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson…was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson and that Thomas Woodson was not Thomas Jefferson’s son,” wrote Foster et al. in the November 1998 journal article.
It continued on to say that “[Sally Hemings’] last son, Eston (born in 1808) is said to have borne a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson, and entered white society in Madison, Wisconsin as Eston Hemings Jefferson.”
Aside from the implication here that Eston Hemings Jefferson was at least white-passing, the crux of this anecdote is that Jefferson likely fathered at least one of Hemings’ six children. In 2000, though, as a response and review of Nature’s initial research, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs the historical landmark of Monticello among other duties pertaining to the third president’s legacy, assessed the findings of the article in a report, and had come to the conclusion that the study was legitimate.
In a statement attached to the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings Report, Thomas Jefferson Foundation President Daniel P. Jordan, Ph.D, agreed that the work of Foster et al. done for the 1998 Nature article provided compelling evidence, among other sources, as to the paternity of Eston Hemings Jefferson by Thomas Jefferson during and after his political career.
“I believe it represents the most extensive compilation ever of what is known and not known about this complex and consequential topic,” Dr. Jordan said of the Nature article and the report it engendered.
“Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty,” said Dr. Jordan, “our evaluation of the best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.”
The very notion of a person in the highest position of authority in the United States committing some form of sexual impropriety would likely have been an intensely uncomfortable situation for citizens of the early United States, were it to have occurred during his lifetime (perhaps not as unprecedented in modern times). However, the Thomas Jefferson situation is especially notable for how far-removed it is from our current views on slavery of sexual and other—it was legal to own a person, and Jefferson likely fathered at least one of the children of a young Black slave.
Unlike Jefferson and others, not every US President who had an “alternative” sexual lifestyle was necessarily scandalous or depraved, as we might automatically think when we hear about a president’s sex life. In 2019, during the Democratic primary cycle, candidate Pete Buttigieg, the first openly-gay winner of a nominating convention in US history, hypothesized that “I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay—we just didn’t know which ones.” As historians have long speculated, there was indeed a Commander-in-Chief who was at the very least homoerotic based on up-to-date research into his personal life.
However, unlike now-Secretary Buttigieg’s original theory, James Buchanan, who is possibly the United States’ first and since only gay President, is also routinely counted among the worst of the worst. His mood toward the office of the Presidency is said to have only grown more and more grim as the four years dragged on, and under his purview state after state had seceded from the Union in preparation and posturing for the upcoming Civil War.
As the last Antebellum president of the Union, Buchanan allegedly couldn’t have been keener on ending his term. It is even anecdotally reported that, upon finally leaving the Oval Office, he remarked to his successor Abraham Lincoln, “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man.”
In 2019, The Advocate, a magazine focused on LGBT+ features and news, interviewed Eastern Connecticut State University Assistant Professor of History Thomas J. Baclerski regarding his research into the fifteenth president’s intimate personal life with diplomat and statesman William Rufus King, which was the subject of his book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King.
“I like to use the phrase ‘intimate male friendship’ to describe the kind of intensely emotional, though not necessarily sexual, relationships of this era,” Baclerski explained. Certainly, ‘intimacy’ is a key word…and yet it has radically changed in meaning since the 19th century. Likewise, ‘bosom friends’ was used to describe the friendships of men between men and women with other women (never across genders). The phrase was not used pejoratively and carried positive connotations about same-sex intimacy.”
However, Baclerski interestingly does not go so far as to say Buchanan and King were “gay.”
“The classification of heterosexuality and homosexuality as sexual orientations does not become widespread until the end of the 19th century. Prior to then, a greater fluidity existed surrounding sexuality. I admit that the kind of answer we want is elusive—gay, bisexual, straight—and I am hesitant to impose a contemporary worldview on 19th century social relations,” advised Baclerski.
“I don’t see the evidence for Buchanan being either gay or bisexual, and I generally read him as “straight-acting, straight-looking,” despite the claims of others who think him clearly to be gay.”
“I think we stand on firmer ground with King, about whom the evidence suggests that he was gay,” Baclerski said, however. “Not only does his correspondence reveal a greater struggle with his failure to marry, but the political gossip swirling about him was more virulently gendered.”
Whatever the actual nature of Buchanan and King’s relationship with one another, for either man it was indeed the closest they had come—based on all evidence—to true erotic intimacy. Neither man ever married, and their passionate correspondences with each other compounded with their years-long living arrangement to amount to the wide-ranging speculation and research we see today on James Buchanan, William Rufus King, and the concept of sexuality in the 19th century.
Jumping forward quite a bit, we land back in the 1990s, when the new media was beginning to take hold in Washington, D.C. and around the country. William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton was the President of the United States from 1992 to 2000, and his presidency and the 1990s are often taken as one and the same.
This era, punctuated by perhaps the most famous of any presidential scandal in American history, heralded the dawn of online celebrity gossip columnists, popular newsmagazine programs, and political tabloid publication.
Though Clinton was widely regarded as being a highly successful and charismatic leader throughout his terms in office, the positive media coverage was enjambed by his sexual affair with 21-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, to be succinct, began when a state employee from Clinton’s time as Governor of Arkansas, Paula Jones, accused the President of and sued him for sexual harassment; he allegedly attempted to pressured her into oral sex in a private room.
When then-President Clinton was asked, under oath, about his relationship with Lewinsky (to ostensibly establish a pattern of abuse in his relationships), he lied, resulting in the first impeachment of a US President since the 1870s and the second impeachment of the same in US history.
In a 2000 volume of Political Psychology, Diana Owen teased out the implications of the then-fresh Clinton-Lewinsky affair for future presidents. “As serious as the political impli- cations of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair were for presidential leadership, the scandal had a firm footing in the realm of popular culture,” explains Owen. “The public experienced the events via media that framed the scandal in the familiar terms of a made-for-TV drama. In this context, citizens did not connect the actions of Bill Clinton starring in Monicagate with the president in the White House running the country.
If we understand the Clinton-Lewinsky situation as a real-world event with real-world implications, then the main issue at the crux of it becomes this: how exactly was Clinton able to remain so well-liked even in the sexual imbroglio of “Monicagate?” And, more broadly, why was Monica Lewinsky subject to the brunt of the criticism and humiliation that followed from the scandal?
The answer to the second question actually gives us some valid insight into the answer to the first, in fact. Owen posits that, unlike Bill Clinton, who had existed in the public consciousness already, the young Lewinsky was rather thrust into the limelight.
“For example, the National Enquirer, Star, and Globe revealed information about Monica Lewinsky's family life and drew parallels to Clinton's own troubled upbringing. Weeks later, this information and embellishments of the storyline were widely reported in ‘legitimate’ news media, including Newsweek and The Washington Post.” This treatment of Monica Lewinsky by the media as a troubled soul or even a temptress was common in the months of the scandal’s highest engagement, and prevailed triumphantly over the perhaps more accurate vision of her as a victim of emotional abuse by the most powerful man in the United States.
With Clinton’s pre-established public image as the “cool” president—the type to play saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show—and Monica’s obscurity and run-of-the-mill life before the scandal, the pieces fell into place and Monica Lewinsky became the butt of comedians’ jokes and the subject of rampant speculation regarding her personal life. This, as it turns out, was also how Clinton maintained his positive approval ratings amidst the growing case against him behind closed doors.
It is interesting to note the tone of Owen’s article, which came out in January 2000, for its handling of Monica Lewinsky. As an involuntary central figure in American politics in the ‘90s, Monica Lewinsky was contemporarily treated quite poorly in the media, by today’s standards. She was body-shamed routinely for being overweight, and handled as almost a corrupting influence on Bill Clinton.
Fourth-wave feminism has since the ‘90s taken root as a relatively prevailing lens of critical thought, and since the sex scandal Lewinsky has been treated rather sympathetically. Though the cultural institution that is Bill Clinton will, based on research and fair estimation, be forever marked by that very scandal, he is still often remembered as, dually, a successful leader and a likely philanderer.
To reference the fourth-wave of feminism once more, as we are actively ensconced within it culturally; the final POTUS whose sexual proclivities will be explored in this paper is Donald Trump, whose life has perhaps been more subject to public opinion than any other—his sex life and otherwise.
According to a report originally broken by the Wall Street Journal, the month prior to the 2016 election, in which Trump won over Democrat Hillary Clinton, he allegedly paid pornographic actress Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford $130,000 in hush money after a sexual encounter at a 2006 golf tournament.
The report claims that “the encounter with Mr. Trump took place after they met at a July 2006 celebrity golf tournament on the shore of Lake Tahoe…Mr. Trump married Melania Trump in 2005.” This is a double-edged look at the sex life of Donald Trump. At once, it provides a since-confirmed view at the infidelity of Donald Trump and an alternate view of the willingness of Trump to pay for the information about the consensual encounter to remain confidential.
This scandal, not unlike the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, involves the sexual infidelity of a head of state and the ways they interact with American politics. However, Donald Trump managed to be successful in his endeavor to keep their tryst under wraps, at least until the 2016 election. Unlike Clinton, for Trump, the sex scandal was not the cause for either of his impeachments.
The lens through which we view Stormy Daniels also differs, in that she, unlike Monica Lewinsky at her time, is treated relatively well by the media and seen as shrewd in business and politics despite her background in pornography. However, in the era of fourth-wave feminism and the #MeToo Movement, it is more commonplace to regard men in power as inherently more prone to this kind of behavior.
Brian Farkas, in Dispute Resolution magazine, wrote that, “On the one hand, Daniels is a successful producer and savvy businesswoman who voluntarily signed a contract with an arbitration clause. On the other hand, she found herself alone in a hotel room with a wealthy and powerful celebrity, and was allegedly subject to intimidation prior to the execution of the NDA.”
Sexuality, and human sexual behavior holistically, were taboo for a long time; a far longer epoch than the one we live in presently, where it has become accepted discourse in public forums. Since the introduction of this mindset, people have been striving to psychoanalyze, with Freudian intensity, our leaders and powerful people. Like most humans of age, Presidents of the United States have sex.
Only one POTUS—the aforementioned fifteenth president James Buchanan—was a bachelor all his life; it is unrealistic to not debate the sexual proclivities of the presidents at our time. Some speculation is innocuous and ultimately has no effect on established paradigms, but some speculation is genuinely important and profound political discourse. However, in each and every instance, we are afforded a truly enlightening and sordidly, curiously compelling look into the psyches of the very people who lead us, up to the very most powerful of them.
Written by: Alex Dyer