"Did you sleep with him?" a friend once demanded of me.
"Well, how do you mean 'sleep'?" I asked.
"You know what I mean. Did you?"
I considered the question. "If you're asking me if I have slept in
the same bed, the answer is yes."
"But did you have sex with him?"
"No." I felt pretty emphatic. "No. I did not have sex with him." What I
did have with this other guy was oral sex, but I hadn't been asked that
question. And -- not that I was going to get into such great detail -- it
was a Lewinsky kind of thing: blow job, with no reciprocation.
Spurred by my esteemed colleague James Poniewozik, and like most people
around the country, I've been thinking a lot about this word thing. After
all, it's been a banner week for those of us with a useless degree in
semiotics -- and even better if you happen to write about sex for a living.
If we can't turn the quote "sexual relations" inside out, upside down and
every which way, who can?
Also, if Americans are going to be the laughingstock of the world in
the biggest postmodern joke since the Spice Girls, we all
need to examine this vague, highly subjective turn of phrase, upon the definition of which the fate of our government may hang. National enquiring minds want to know: Does a
blow job constitute sexual relations?
How you answer that question may say something about your political leanings.
If you have ever voted for Pat Robertson, you
probably consider a Kiss (Without Tongue) as falling under the umbrella of sexual
relations. Steve Forbes supporters might say a Kiss (Without Tongue) is not
sex, but a Kiss (With Tongue) is. And then there are those, reportedly including our
president -- the evasive, the randy and the smartypants of this world --
who think that a blow job is
not sex because it's not intercourse. Nor do they (well, OK, we) consider
it sexual relations, because that implies a give-and-take, where in fact there is
none. It's not even a transaction, for heaven's sake; it's simply a gift
given to a man by a willing party.
"If I was told that my husband had been given a blow job, I wouldn't
constitute that as an affair," said a married friend who, not surprisingly,
voted for Clinton twice. "I wouldn't be happy about it, obviously, but I
just don't see blow jobs in the same ballpark as sex. It's not even sexual
relations. It's just ... well, a blow job." But cunnilingus? "No, that's
intimate," she said. "That's sexual relations. I don't know why. It just is."
The president's emphatic denial on Monday morning
that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky had reporters
scurrying for their legal dictionaries. Wouldn't old Bill have the last
laugh if it turned out that a blow job is not, legally speaking, an act
constituting sexual relations?
And there are still other definitions to clear up. If only intercourse constitutes
sexual relations, we must ask: What kind of intercourse? I'm told that in Italy,
women who want to preserve their virginity feel it completely
acceptable to engage in anal sex -- an activity that still leaves them
fully intact and unsullied. So if we're going to be multiculturally correct, the question is: Which orifice, if any, did the president penetrate? Maybe
mouths are OK, but anuses and vaginas are not. How about ears? And what if, say, Lewinsky and Clinton were in
that anteroom off the Oval Office, and he went down on her (in the unlikely
event that cunnilingus is Clinton's favorite sexual pastime)? Since
he would be performing it, instead of it being performed on him, would that
make it less sex in his mind -- or more? We can only
live in hope that Sam Donaldson or Helen
Thomas will stand up and raise these vital questions at the next White
House press conference. Until then, the question "What did the president penetrate, and when did he penetrate it?" will hang over our nation.