Barnes & Noblead



Related Stories
 Click here for more political coverage from TIME magazine.



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.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 24, 1998

Policy of Least Resistance
When Is Sex Not "Sexual Relations"?
Thanks, but Hillary Doesn't Want Your Sympathy
Everyone Loves a Freebie
Where the Liberals Roam

Archives   |   CQ News   |   TIME On Politics   |   Feedback   |   Help

Copyright © 1998 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.