What Is Sex?

Jack Shafer’s guide to semantic evasion for philanderers.

Has the press been chasing the wrong semantic red herring? They pounced on President Clinton’s choice of the present tense–“there is not a sexual relationship”–when he responded to Jim Lehrer’s questions about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Saying that there is not a sexual relationship is different from saying there was never a sexual relationship. Clinton soon was forced to close off this particular avenue of escape. But he left himself another one. What, after all, is a “sexual relationship”? In law and culture, the answer is not as obvious as you might think.

A “sexual relationship” implies mutuality, for example. A masochist might imagine a “sexual relationship” with his spanker, but if the spanker is only perfecting his paddle-ball stroke and is not a sadist, there is no sexual relationship. Or, imagine two people engaged in “tantric sex” (from “tantra,” any of a group of Hindu and Buddhist mystical writings), in which they avoid one another’s genitalia. He stifles his orgasm and activates her “base chakra” (central source of energy) to elicit a higher climax than orgasm with his warm breath and light touch. If deposed by a court about his escapades, he might claim that his relationship was “therapeutic,” not sexual. So when Clinton tells Lehrer that there “is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship,” he leaves himself room to plead that his relationship is more than sexual–romantic, perhaps?–and hence not improper.

Does the president navigate his sexual world with such semantic precision? An Arkansas state trooper quoted in the January 1994 American Spectator claimed as much. He said that Clinton consulted the Bible on the subject of oral sex and concluded that the Good Book doesn’t consider it to be adulterous. Black’s Law Dictionary backs Clinton on this one, defining “adultery” as an act of sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than his or her spouse. Call it the Blow-Job Exemption. Or, as the barroom philosophers put it, “Eatin’ ain’t cheatin’.”

Writing in the Washington Post a few years ago, Slate’s Michael Lewis called such obfuscations “sexual gerrymandering.” When confronted on Nightline during the 1992 campaign with allegations that he’d bedded Gennifer Flowers, Clinton responded that she was “a woman I never slept with.” Sen. Chuck Robb drew similarly jaggy lines around his sexual district after a young model claimed to have had an affair with him. “I haven’t done anything that I regard as unfaithful to my wife, and she is the only woman I’ve loved, slept with, or had coital relations with in the 20 years we’ve been married–and I’m still crazy about her,” Robb wrote. Shut up already, Chuck. As all accomplished philanderers know, volunteer too detailed a denial and you only dig yourself in deeper.

Suppose Jim Lehrer had upped the ante from “sexual relationship” to point-blank “sexual intercourse”? Even this leaves some wiggle room. What is sexual intercourse? When a DeKalb County, Ga., jury asked the judge this question during a 1992 trial, he replied that the law provided no satisfactory definition. He instructed them to determine for themselves whether a Somali couple had consummated their common-law marriage, i.e., had sexual intercourse, even though her genitals were sewn shut in the ritual manner. She claimed that following a ceremony in a mosque (she called it a wedding, he called it an engagement celebration), they had sex and he achieved “partial penetration.” The jury ruled yes to intercourse, yes to common-law marriage, and yes to a split of the disputed lottery winnings that precipitated the suit.

The Houdini-proof question for Clinton is: “Did you ever have sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky?” Sexual contact is defined in most states as “any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person done for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of either party.” The present-tense gambit won’t help him. Euphemisms won’t bail him out, either. And he won’t be able to wiggle out of the choke hold by saying (as he said to Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes back in 1992, regarding Gennifer Flowers) that he’s answered that question before.

And for the closer, ask this: “Did Monica Lewinsky ever have sexual contact with you?”