The XX Factor

What Counts as Sex?

A group of researchers at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, thinks that Bill Clinton’s famous assertion that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky may be the reason so many young people today don’t consider oral sex to count as doing the deed.

The study , which was conducted in 2007 and published this month in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health , surveyed 477 students enrolled in a human sexuality course at a large state university about their views on sex. What they found was that only 20 percent of those students considered oral-genital contact to be sex, compared with nearly 40 percent of a similar group of students surveyed in 1991.

In their discussion, the researchers note that “our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualizations of oral-genital contact.” They coin this the “Clinton-Lewinsky effect.”

The researchers consider other possible sources for the attitude shift-the increasing availability of information about sex , sex education programs that focus on prevention on traditional vaginal intercourse, and a huge rise in the amount of sexual content portrayed on TV -and provided references to other studies that documented those sources. The paragraph about the Clinton-Lewinsky effect was without a single citation in what was otherwise a well-documented article. Did the researchers pull it out of thin air?

Lack of documentation aside, I have other doubts about their conclusion. The majority of students studied in 2007 would have been born between 1985 and 1989, making them between 9 and 13 years old during the Lewinsky scandal. I was about to turn 10 when it unfolded, and I certainly didn’t realize that Bill Clinton was playing with semantics and proffering his own definition of sex. I don’t consider oral-genital contact to be sex, and I am confident that my developing worldview on sex was influenced much more by what I saw on TV and read in Seventeen than by my limited knowledge of the president’s sex life.

Their larger point is noble: that the changing definition of sex could lead more young adults to discount the risks associated with oral sex, and that we need to ensure that sex ed programs address that. Now that’s a cause Bill Clinton could get behind.

Photograph of Bill Clinton by Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images.