When Is Sex Not "Sexual Relations"?
By Richard Lacayo
When Bill Clinton gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case, he
said he had never had "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky.
But Lewinsky has reportedly testified to a number of acts that
most people think of as sex. Can both statements somehow be true?
Is it possible that the two of them had intimate contact, yet
Clinton still did not perjure himself? In the intricate world of
the law, a world of hairsplitting distinctions where the
President is famously at home, it just may be so. Here's why.
At Clinton's deposition, Jones' legal team asked Judge Susan
Webber Wright to approve a very precise, three-part definition of
sexual relations. Clinton's attorney Robert Bennett objected to
the whole definition, but to the last two parts especially, as
being too broad. Wright agreed to disallow parts 2 and 3, leaving
only the first, narrowest definition of sex in place.
With that, Clinton may have been given the room to offer a
technically "true" denial to the question of whether he had sex
with Lewinsky--even if she happened to perform fellatio on him.
The truncated definition characterizes sex in terms of a
checklist of body parts, including the genitals, breast and
thigh. Oral sex would not necessarily require the President to
touch anything on Lewinsky that appears on that list. Strange as
it may sound, under one reading of the definition, Lewinsky could
have been having sex with him (because she was "touching" the
President's genitals) while at the same moment, he was not having
sex with her. (At the deposition, Clinton wasn't asked if she had
sexual relations with him, just if he had them with her.) Isn't
the law a wonderfully intricate device?
There are problems with the legalistic defense. For one thing,
if Clinton and Lewinsky did have oral sex, is it really likely
that he did not touch any body parts mentioned in the Jones
definition? (Lewinsky has testified that Clinton fondled her.)
And because that definition says that a person engages in sex if
he or she "causes" contact with the genitals of "any person," it
could be argued that Clinton caused Lewinsky's contact with his,
even if he did not otherwise touch her. He could reply that she
was the cause, or at least the active partner, while he was
merely the passive receiver, but that makes him seem like either
an implausibly shrinking violet or a very cool customer. Beyond
all that, Lewinsky's secret grand-jury testimony may simply be
so detailed and explicit that it leaves no room for loopholes.
Even if the word-wiggle keeps Clinton out of the perjury trap, it
won't help him politically because it doesn't account for his
Jan. 26 televised insistence that he "did not have sexual
relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." When he spoke before
the cameras, the lawyerly definition of sex wasn't in force. And
in a recent TIME/CNN poll, 87% of those questioned said that oral
sex was, well, sex. Hiding behind the ultimate tortuous legalism
could help the President get through his testimony, but it won't
pass the laugh test with the American people--which is why Clinton
won't be parsing the meaning of "sexual relations" in any public
statements. --By Richard Lacayo.