Lewinsky and Clinton: how their affair redefined our sexual culture

Monica Lewinsky is back in public view with an essay in Vanity Fair. Her reflections, tinged as they are with sexual scandal and the presidency, still fascinate. To the extent that they precede a presidential run by Hillary Clinton, they will be used to fuel the arguments of antagonistic political operatives.

My hope is that journalists and other commentators will not limit themselves to the political frame of this story. As I revisit the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal (how strange it still feels to attach the name of a president with that of an intern), I am reminded how transformative it was not just to our political life, but to our sexual culture as well. I’m tempted to say that the scandal helped redefine sexual intimacy in America.

When I first heard details of their affair, and eventually read them in The Starr Report, I would have described the activities of Clinton and Lewinsky as clearly falling under the category of “sexual relations.” At different times and in different ways, both president and intern denied they had this. Clinton looked into the camera and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” In an interview with Barbara Walters, Lewinsky described her actions with the president as merely “fooling around.” In other words, oral sex was not really sex.

I remember the befuddlement that followed, especially among members of the baby boom generation. A former colleague, I need not name him, spelled it out in this apt analogy. He said that in our time, if a man “got to first base” with a woman, it meant they were “making out.” Progress was assessed as you rounded the bases, with pretty clear definitions of what constituted second base and third base. Hitting a home run – scoring – was our euphemism for sexual intercourse (at least, it must be said, the heterosexual kind). But here was my friend’s take: Getting and giving oral sex involved even greater intimacy. It was not just scoring. It was a grand slam. A walk-off.

I have consulted some younger colleagues, who have confirmed this theory of a generational shift. On the base paths of sexual experience in the 21st century, they tell me, what Lewinsky and Clinton did now finds itself “somewhere between second and third.”

Sexual morality and definitions of deviance change all the time, of course. I’ve argued elsewhere that it was the movie “Deep Throat” – the adopted name for Woodward and Bernstein’s anonymous Watergate source – that “pornographied” American culture, carrying taboo language and practices toward the mainstream, perhaps even modeling the kind of sex Clinton and Lewinsky preferred.

Let’s talk about influence. Out of the corner of my eye, I have been following the shenanigans on the ABC series “Scandal.”  If I understand the plot correctly, the president is carrying on a sexual affair with a beautiful and ruthless political operative. He is frustrated by a wife who is sexually and emotionally unavailable to him. He does not know that the first lady was raped by the president’s father. But she is then caught by her daughter on her knees in the White House delivering oral sex to the vice president. Or something like that. And so it goes. Kind of makes the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal … in the cliché of the old movie reviewers … look like a Sunday school picnic.

In America, and I am sure in other cultures, this is the never-ending story. Before someone coined the phrase “slut shaming” there were the stocks, the witch trials, and the scarlet letter. Before there was Monica Lewinsky, there was Hester Prynne.

Politics is central to our democratic life. But it is not everything. The re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky should remind us that the enduring tension between sexual desire and moral restraint are forces so powerful that they transcend gender, ethnicity, ideology – even politics.

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