Back Button
a book cover with a smiling woman and the title "Penis Politics"
by
Sharon Dizenhuz
,
January 6, 2022

A Memoir of Women, Men, and Power

An Interview with Karen Hinton

I had felt pity for William Styron when I left him in his hotel room when I was twenty-one. I was humiliated by Bill Clinton when he invited me to his hotel room when I was twenty-six. By the time I left Andrew’s hotel room at the age of forty-two, I was tired of it all. 

When sexual harassment allegations emerged about her former boss Andrew Cuomo, Karen Hinton broke her own 20 year silence about her experiences of sexual harassment at his hands. For NY state, the former governor, and the eleven victims named in a shocking report by NY attorney general Letisha James, it was a moment of reckoning. For 63-year-old Hinton, as she describes in her new scorched earth political memoir PENIS POLITICS, it was simply, finally, giving voice to the sexism and misogyny she experienced as business as usual with so many men. She told Sharon Dizenhuz about her decades navigating the penisphere.

Sharon Dizenhuz: Thanks for sitting down to talk about this. I think your story is remarkable for several reasons: for what you have endured, for what you managed to dodge, and for your astonishing resilience. We’ll get to all that, but let’s start with the basics. Can you define your term 'Penis Politics'? 

Karen Hinton: I am so glad you connected with the book. I define penis politics as a man in a position of power seeking to assert control over women in particular ways that diminish them, dismiss them, humiliate them; using gender to control and dominate. Penis politics is not always about sex but it’s always about gender. The common thread is the seemingly insatiable need of some men to affirm their own power and their self-esteem by seeking to take away the power and confidence of the women around them. 

Sharon: I am curious what pushed you to the point that you just said “the hell with these sacred cows, I don’t care if I am telling tales out of school.” A lot of powerful men look pretty bad here: President Clinton, Democratic strategic mastermind James Carville, Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio, Senator Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson’s war fame, just to name a few. What was the impetus for writing this book at this moment?

Karen: I might never have had the nerve to speak out had I not suffered a devastating accident that nearly took my life in 2017. I got jettisoned off the back of a treadmill and hit my head on a cement floor and suffered a traumatic brain injury. I had to learn to speak, to walk, everything.  So, I began to write to rebuild my brain and train myself how to express myself again; to get those synapses to fire again. When I took stock of all I’d written, I found there were incredible stories about control and power and pain and rage and powerlessness. Patterns emerged. I realized that all kinds of healing had happened for me through this writing process. Taking up the reins of my brain and body again was a triumph, and the writing brought me real clarity about the shackles of penis politics I’d been operating under. The book is a kind of personal declaration of independence if you will, a promise kept to myself to use my voice and be silent no more.  

Sharon: Sometimes fate hands you a real-life metaphor, huh?

Karen: Exactly. I wrote to recapture my physical and cognitive strength, but then I found that what I had written, and the process of, essentially, speaking those truths out loud, helped reclaim the power I felt had been wrested from me over the years.

Sharon: Penis Politics started young for you, when your girl’s basketball coach raped your best friend in the high school book room. 

Karen: Yes. That was awful. Janice felt shame, disgust, sorrow. She was afraid no one would believe her, that she would be blamed and tainted somehow, so she insisted that our so-called “coterie” of four best friends keep silent while she continued to endure his abuses. She was the smartest, strongest, most talented and most beautiful among us and this completely broke her. To this day, I feel tormented about it, wondering if we had spoken up if it would have changed things. Silence and penis politics go hand-in-hand. But the only person our silence protected was Coach the rapist. 

When Janice left the school to get away from Coach, we went after him one day when he was alone. We threatened to tell his wife and the principal if he ever came near anyone else. Then we insisted that he write all of us notes to get out of typing, which we hated. It was a transient recapture of power, but it felt great.

When I was in my early 20s, famed Sophie’s Choice author William Styron and former Harper’s Magazine editor-in-chief Willie Morris made sloppy, drunken passes at me. They were men I admired greatly and I just gently rebuffed them. But as I got older, I came to find my voice more and more to speak up. 

Sharon: In 1984, you had another fateful meeting with a powerful man whose career has been associated with penis politics: the future president Bill Clinton. 

Karen: Ugh. Yes. I was a journalist then, out to dinner with a few political types in Greenville, Mississippi. Then (married) Governor Clinton showed up with his entourage, and sat with us, focusing only on me, asking me question after question. I proclaimed my views on any number of subjects: racism, poverty, education, jobs. I was thrilled that a governor found my policy ideas so interesting. After a half-hour’s conversation, Clinton wrote something down on a napkin and passed it to me. That’s nice, I thought: an autograph from the Governor. I unfolded the napkin and saw that he had written the name of his hotel, his room number, and a question mark. Nothing more. I felt like a fool, thinking this Governor wanted to hear my ideas about solving poverty. Humiliated, I tossed the napkin, and got the hell out of the bar. 

Eight years later, I watched a parade of women tell their stories about Clinton as he ran for President. They were made fun of or dismissed as “trailer park trash” by the media and even my fellow Democrats. To me, their stories rang true. And worse, I recognized the look in their eyes as they told their stories on television. It was the look of someone who’d been deemed inconsequential. I had seen that look in Janice’s eyes. 

I told that Clinton story whenever Democratic friends mentioned him, and finally by the time I was 40 or so, a man writing a book about Clinton persuaded me to speak to him on the record about it. I was Andrew Cuomo’s press secretary at the time at Housing and Urban Development, and about to be approved as his Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. But Cuomo privately encouraged them to drop the recommendation to protect Clinton and punish me. I lost that job, probably the most prestigious job I ever had, because it was the one time I dared to speak out against a powerful man. But by then, I’d rather have paid the cost of speaking up than shutting up. I knew I might be fired and never hired again in Washington. But I also had learned that silence had its own price. My one time silence—the coterie’s silence—had altered all of our lives. 

Sharon: You talk about how Republicans don’t even give lip service to valuing women, which is awful, but Democrats, even men with incredible public political records as advocates for women’s rights, cause you all kinds of cognitive dissonance because they routinely violate women’s rights and dignity in private and that feels like such a betrayal. You say Andrew Cuomo was such a man. 

Karen: Yes. Sad but true. Andrew was awful about that. He kept his bro brigade close for all important decisions and kept his female general counsel and me out of rooms where decisions were being made, while still expecting us to be at his beck and call all the time. When I was going to take 7 days off to go to Russia to adopt my daughter, he told me I should just have my husband go alone because my daughter wouldn’t remember if I was there or not, and he needed me for an upcoming event. Later, after the event, I finally told him to fuck off. He told me to fuck off, too. In those terms…and I quit. 

We made up about a year or so later, in 2000. And that is when he embraced me inappropriately. He called me to his hotel room to plan for work the next day, but when I got there, he had the lights low. After asking me about my then husband, he pulled me to him, and I could tell he was aroused. I pulled away. He pulled me back, and I left the room. I’m not sure he wanted to have sex with me or not but I did think he wanted me to know he was aroused. It was his way of manipulating me, as if he were trying to make me think he cared about me so I would always be loyal to him and him alone.

I had felt pity for William Styron when I left him in his hotel room when I was twenty-one. I was humiliated by Bill Clinton when he invited me to his hotel room when I was twenty-six. By the time I left Andrew’s hotel room at the age of forty-two, I was tired of it all. 

Sharon: What do you hope people will take away from your book? 

Karen: I believe that it is so important to keep talking about penis politics, to shine a bright light on it. It’s the only way things will change. The level of scrutiny is much higher now. There have been so many cases reported that if it happens and a woman says, “If you don’t stop it, I am going to tell someone.”, it will go a long way to changing the behavior of men prone to doing this, as well as the men who work with them. The women’s movement needs to connect wealthier white women with low income people of color so that we are all talking about this, requiring laws to be enforced. Enough about Hollywood and the networks. We need to support cleaning ladies and restaurant workers. All businesses will do better. There have been plenty of studies that show the bottom line is hurt when there is sexual harassment in the workplace. I didn’t want to lecture. I just wanted to tell my stories..and encourage others to do the same. There are so many more stories we all need to hear so we can make meaningful changes. 


...

Former New York 1 News Anchor and Senior Reporter Sharon DIzenhuz is currently at work on a novel about a group of women friends who find their true power in middle age. 


Interested in writing for our blog, The Reveler?
Email [email protected] with your idea.