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In Budapest, Sex Is No Scandal

By Susan Milligan
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page C06

BUDAPEST—However uncomfortable it may be for Americans at home to watch the Clinton affair -- I mean, episode -- investigated, deconstructed and dissected pretty much around the clock, it is nowhere near as humiliating as it is to be an American living in Europe, fielding questions from locals. I can handle the criticism of U.S. policy toward Cuba or on banning land mines, but it is impossible to explain to my Hungarian friends why my president might have to leave office because of a sexual controversy.

"This is a problem for Hillary and Bill. . . . You are destroying your president," said my friend Sandor, who runs a journalism training program.

It's not that Hungarians don't understand why we might gossip or joke about presidential affairs. One of Budapest's tabloids, the rather racy Kurir, put a photo of Clinton on page one with the headline "Szexes Szaxis" ("Sexy Saxophonist"). But throwing him out of office for it? They just shake their heads.

"I don't understand this. You are at peace. Unemployment is low. Why will they do this?" pondered Csaba at the gym.

Soon after I arrived here in 1994, I interviewed Gabor Demszky, the capable and charismatic mayor of Budapest. The question came up of Clinton's alleged relationship with Gennifer Flowers (which I had covered as a domestic political correspondent).

Demszky was baffled that the press had quizzed Clinton about Flowers at all, much less suggested that he might lose the election over it.

"Who cares if Bill Clinton had a love affair five years ago?" Demszky said. "Here, if you have a love affair, people say 'Good for you.' "

It certainly didn't derail Demszky: His first wife married his campaign manager -- who is also his best friend -- and Demszky ended up remarrying a much younger woman. The four are still good friends, enough so that Demszky's friend/campaign manager and his new wife (that's Demszky's first wife) baby-sat Demszky's baby daughter (by his second wife) while the mayor and his new wife went skiing.

This is the sort of soap-opera drama that would make it impossible for Demszky to enter politics in the United States. He is a former dissident who was beaten and jailed by the Soviets; he ran an underground press during the communist era, and he has played a large role in Budapest's emergence as a hot tourist attraction and Central European economic center.

Hungarians don't care with whom he or his wife is sleeping. They want him to ferret out city corruption and solve the parking problem.

No, the jabs at America I'm hearing regarding the Clinton "crisis," as I've seen it described in the U.S. media, are not directed at Clinton or Lewinsky. They're aimed at American culture, media and justice.

Europeans don't have the same hang-ups about sex and nudity that many Americans seem to. A Hungarian cultural tradition is the thermal bath, in which men and women (separated) bathe completely naked in a big hot tub with total strangers, and without the slightest display of shyness. Most saunas here are coed, and men and women sweat together dressed only in towels.

The attitude toward sex (at least, heterosexual sex) is fairly open here, although Hungarians are not obsessed with the topic. In the United States, the lure of sex is used gratuitously to sell products and get people to watch TV and movies, but anything other than sex with one's lifelong spouse could damage a political career. In Hungary, as in most of Europe, people don't talk about sex or judge it: They just do it.

Having acquired some European perspective, I find it odd that a leader might have to resign for lying about a sexual matter.

But I would find it more consistent if I didn't also have to endure the distasteful discussion of whether oral sex is really an affair, or whether the leader of the free world has a distinguishing characteristic. This dialogue would never happen here, in part because the media doesn't report on politicians' personal lives.

You almost never see photos of the spouses of elected officials -- much less an article reporting a change of hairdo -- because no one cares. There is no "pool" following Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn. Nor do European leaders tend to vacation with the press.

Like my friend Sandor, I'm perplexed about why this supposed relationship became the subject of an official investigation.

It's dismaying that so many Americans still seem unable to distinguish between sex -- which is the business only of the people having it, and the people married to the people having it -- and sexual harassment, assault or discrimination, which happen to be illegal.

Of course, Europe suffers from this misunderstanding as well; while many Americans think sex is sexual harassment, too many Europeans think sexual harassment is simply sex. The concept of sexual harassment does not yet exist in Hungary; several of my female friends have been expected to be the "girlfriends" of their bosses, or were offered higher salaries if they agreed to a relationship. There's nothing they can do, except turn down the job.

It may be a long time before Hungary comes around to realizing that sexual harassment is wrong, and I probably won't still be living here when it happens. Unfortunately, I think it will also be a long time before America resolves its ambivalence on sexual issues.

Susan Milligan, former White House correspondent for the New York Daily News, is a freelance writer based in Budapest.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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