More than simply a memoir or a coming-of-age story, and more than even both together, Karen Hinton’s Penis Politics (Sartoris Literary Group) is a call to action and a call to arms. In the era of #MeToo and on the heels of Andrew Cuomo’s disgraced exit from the governing sphere, this book couldn’t be any more timely … or more crucial for aiding a woefully necessary seismic societal shift.
Karen Hinton is a nationally-recognized media professional with a unique and important perspective. She is best known for her role as press secretary to both former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but her story dealing with oversized egos and traumatic sexual harassment starts far earlier and goes even deeper. Hinton served as the press secretary for the first Black Congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1986. From there, she rose to work for Ron Brown, who was the first Black Chairman of the DNC and a key political strategist to elect Bill Clinton as President.
This proximity resulted in Clinton asking for a night of sex when he was Governor of Arkansas and she was a Democratic campaign aide in Mississippi; she went public with the account, and later had to do so yet again when Cuomo’s misdeeds came to light. She then suffered a horrific brain injury which took years of recovery. Now, Hinton regularly contributes guest columns to the New York Daily News and other publications, focusing on the topics of #MeToo, sexual harassment in politics and skewering big oil, big banks and other bullies whenever possible.
We sat down for a session with the courageous author and got the inside scoop on what is already the ultimate inside scoop.
Q: Please explain the book’s title, “Penis Politics.”
A: As the book’s subtitle says, Penis Politics is a memoir about women, men and power. Some people may find the title shocking, especially with the word “penis” printed so boldly on the book jacket.
But when I tell women that my book is called Penis Politics they usually smile and nod their heads. They get it. I’ve put a name to something that we all live with. No more vague, politically correct phrases like “sexual harassment.”
Penis Politics is woven into the fabric of our lives; we experience it everywhere at home, school, romance and in sports. It’s pervasive. Through stories of my own life, Penis Politics is a wake-up call for both women and men to put an end to the abusive use of power.
Q: In the book, what you write about is described on your website as “the toxic brew of ego, entitlement, power, testosterone and ‘bro culture’ in politics that is especially difficult for women to negotiate. Tell us how this culture affected women like you.
A: Penis politics played a big role in my life as I was building my career. I show how this was especially true in political campaigns where everyone worked 24/7 for a short period of time and had to compete not only with the opponent’s staff but with each other, positioning themselves for the government job they wanted. And then if our candidate won, we found that once we were actually working in politics, the aggressive personalities took over and the most aggressive, most arrogant and most controlling often were – and continue to be – men.
But my book is about more than the abusive use of power in politics. It’s about how all women have to navigate the world that powerful men create — whether they are politicians, fathers, teachers, coaches, professors, bosses or male colleagues. We like to pretend that this trend has ended, but it has not.
Q: You were press secretary for both Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio. You have been described as playing “the Helen of Troy role” in the clash between De Blasio and Cuomo when the former was Governor. Describe your role and why that label is appropriate (or not).
A: I do not see myself as a Helen of Troy.
I had worked for Andrew Cuomo when he was Housing Secretary in the 1990s. De Blasio also worked for Cuomo. Any illusion I had that the two former friends, the Mayor and Governor, would usher in a new era of “Kumbaya” for New York State and the city was quickly shattered when I went to work for De Blasio in 2015.
For a passing moment I had believed I was uniquely positioned to bring peace as a friend and former colleague of the two most powerful men in New York. I tell the story in Penis Politics, about how things blew up in my face and turned downright dangerous for all New Yorkers once the two engaged in their own Trojan War. That’s the way penis politics operates – men behaving badly.
Q: You are one of the women who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. What did it take to step forward and make that claim?
A: My decision to speak up about Cuomo’s sexual misconduct when he was the Housing Secretary followed a CBS interview I watched of Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old executive assistant in the Governor’s office, discussing her horrific experiences with Cuomo.
At the time, I was writing Penis Politics, which included detailed accounts about my own interactions with Cuomo. As I listened to Bennett’s story of emotional abuse, I became convinced that I needed to speak out immediately and not wait for the book to be published.
I realized that Cuomo’s pattern of misconduct, that I had witnessed twenty years earlier, had grown worse. I wanted to validate Bennett’s story and the accounts of others who had suffered when they worked for Cuomo as Governor.
Unlike those women, I never spoke up about my experiences when I was near their ages. My truth from the past helped strengthen the truth in their present about his refusal to deal with women in the workplace appropriately. I am hoping that my speaking out and the stories that I tell in Penis Politics will encourage other women to take action.
Q: The book is a coming-of-age memoir. Was there one event in particular, or several notable ones, that you could say catapulted you into the limelight and your high-profile career?
A: In 1986 I was teaching school in Mississippi to make a little money, while doing volunteer work to help Mike Espy’s campaign for the US Congress. When Mike won, he became the first Black Congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Mike asked me to move to Washington to work as his press secretary. It was a difficult decision to make, leaving my teaching job and my boyfriend. But I decided to take the risk and it changed my life completely, for both good and bad reasons.
In Penis Politics, I describe what Washington was like in those days, very much a boys’ club where men dramatically outnumbered women, and treated us as accessories.
Q: While in Mississippi, you had an embarrassing encounter with William Styron. Tell us about that.
A: This is one of my favorite stories in Penis Politics. One of my professors at Ole Miss, where I attended college, was Willie Morris, a former editor of Harper’s Magazine and a well-known, award-winning Mississippi writer. He invited me and several other students for drinks and dinner one evening to meet William Styron.
I had read Sophie’s Choice twice and couldn’t wait to spend the evening with him. At the start, Styron talked about literature and politics, but as the evening wore on, he became progressively drunk. I was the person tasked with driving him to the Ole Miss Inn where he was staying. Not only was it nearly impossible for me to move him from my car to his hotel room, but once there, he tried to get me to spend the night with him. Luckily for me, he was too drunk to block me when I politely told him “no” and walked out the door.
Q: At the peak of your career, a catastrophic brain injury from a freak accident placed you in the battle of your life. Tell us about that and how it affected you.
A: At 57, I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Initially unable to speak, read or write, I slowly began the process of remembering and setting down my memories on paper which helped me recover. That’s what led to my writing Penis Politics.
My search for a suitcase in our attic uncovered a hope chest that contained four generations of emotional tokens and, surprisingly, a diary I had written from 1972 to 1976, my high school years. I flipped the pages furiously at first, then slowed down my pace to read and turn old memories into stories for the book. I spent three years recovering, as I wrote the book, and am still recovering today, trying to speed up my writing, speak more clearly and, most importantly, analyze why things happen, when they happen.
Q: What was the hardest segment of the book to write?
A: In the first part of Penis Politics I reveal a sexual trauma that one of my three best girlfriends faced, told through stories about how the trauma – what we eventually understood as rape – impacted us all for the rest of our lives. It was difficult to take the inner thoughts of a 16-year-old girl’s diary and turn them into stories that would be as accurate and fair as possible about all the book’s characters.
The strong bond my friends and I had in high school never prevented us from making mistakes, but we learned so much about right and wrong together. Our experiences and feelings for each other allowed me to escape from a way of life that stifled me. My friends stayed in Mississippi and lived a different life, one that I wanted to avoid but felt strongly pulled back to, after my accident and reading the diaries.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your experiences and stories in the book?
A: Always keep your women friends close. Without them, it’s much harder to survive. Men need women much more than they need men, but women need each other, whether they think so or not.
Q: What lessons and/or messages would you hope readers take away from this book?
A: I hope people reading the book will see both the good and bad that happens to all of us. Although many of my stories are humorous, there’s also a very serious message here. I am encouraging women to speak up, not shut up, about penis politics: the sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination in their lives.
I believe these stories will help women recognize and understand their own personal experiences or the experiences of other girls and women they know. Ultimately, what women want is to be treated with respect in their daily lives and as professionals in their work. My goal with Penis Politics is to help change the way we treat each other at work, in school and at home. The book is an outspoken appeal to moving women and men in the right direction and a wake-up call for men to support the women in their lives.
About Karen Hinton:
Mississippi native Karen Hinton is a nationally-recognized media professional in Washington and New York. She is best known for her role as press secretary to both former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Hinton was at the peak of her career when a catastrophic brain injury from a freak accident confronted her with the battle of her life. Emerging from a coma, learning to walk and talk again, Hinton was determined to “speak up, not shut up” on issues involving women, men and power in politics. Hinton regularly contributes guest columns to the New York Daily News and other publications, focusing on the topics of #MeToo, sexual harassment in politics and skewering big oil, big banks and other bullies whenever possible.