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Margaret Carlson On Sex And, ...Honesty. Honestly

Public Eye: Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire...

Even people unknown to the tabloids have trouble being honest about sex

By Margaret Carlson


(TIME, June 9) -- It's not the adultery, it's the lying; so goes the argument of various keepers of the public morality, as another person is ruined because of sexual misconduct. Well, that's a lie, akin to saying it's not the winter, it's the cold that bothers me. No, it is sex, in and of itself, that occupies us, the lying being a collateral offense. A visitor from another planet reading the papers recently about First Lieut. Kelly Flinn, Marv Albert, Frank Gifford, Michael Kennedy and Paula Jones would think that our national pastime was not baseball but the Playboy channel. The day after the Supreme Court ruled that Paula Jones' lawsuit could go forward, the story led most major newspapers, above the announcement by Boris Yeltsin at the NATO summit that he would no longer target nuclear missiles at the Western alliance. Peace is at hand, but so what? We've got a woman here saying once again that Clinton came on to her in a hotel room six years ago.

This preoccupation wouldn't be so troublesome if sex, or lying about it wasn't such a growth sector, spawning lawsuits, dishonorable discharges, job losses, book contracts and political meltdowns. It's one thing to be amused by whether Marv Albert had to remove his hairpiece when being booked on charges he bit a woman in his hotel room and quite another matter to make sexual allegations grounds for court-martialing B-52 pilots, winnowing potential political candidates and crippling a President.

Sexual behavior as the measure of a man is a faulty gauge; otherwise Richard Nixon would be one of our best Presidents and Franklin Roosevelt one of our worst. One's sexual behavior as a component of character used to count for nothing (President Kennedy's assignations were not covered while he was alive), which was wrong; now it counts for far too much. Gary Hart was no prize, but should his 12 years as a Senator and 39-year marriage be blotted out by his dalliance with Donna Rice?

Any sexual encounter is subject to self-delusion, and that's when it turns out well. Sexual lies may be the most common form of lying in the U.S., after "that hat looks good on you" and "let's have lunch." Even the most scientific sex surveys are subject to criticism for the inherent unreliability of people's recounting of their sexual experiences. In the massive 1994 study Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, the authors conjecture that men may exaggerate or women may understate the number of sex partners they have had. At a routine level, men lie to get women in bed ("you're beautiful," "my wife doesn't understand me"), lie when they are there (witness the hilarity that greets Jim Carrey's "I've had better" to a postcoital inquiry in the movie Liar Liar), and lie afterward ("I'll call you in the morning").

When there's no happily ever after, revisionism can really set in. What was ill-advised can in retrospect look involuntary. If you meant not to, wished you hadn't, know you shouldn't have, you can rationalize saying you didn't and not think of yourself as a liar. Some forms of withholding information are sanctioned. Alcoholics Anonymous, which otherwise insists on brutal honesty, allows an exception for not telling your spouse about affairs. Annulment, when an applicant says he lacked due discretion to enter into marriage, is a form of sanctified lying about sex.

By stalling the case until after the '96 election, Bob Bennett, Clinton's attorney, won the crucial political war at the lesser cost of losing before the Supreme Court. If the case isn't dismissed, the President's best hope now is that Jones is indeed in it for the money and that he can give her a small enough amount not to look like a payoff yet enough to fortify her against the wishes of her political supporters, for whom airing the charges is the goal. And who thinks the truth will actually ever be known? While it is hard to believe Jones is making it all up, it is not at all hard to believe that in the hands of right-wing zealots, rabid Clinton haters and a local lawyer who got a piece of any subsequent television, movie or jeans deals, she became a lot more emotionally distressed than she was at the time. It is just as hard to believe Clinton when he says nothing happened in the hotel, although when he denies her story in its possibly embellished form, he may have stumbled onto the truth.

The state trooper who places Clinton at the scene also says Jones emerged unshaken and hopeful of being the Governor's girlfriend. On the other side, six of her friends back her account. According to a TIME/CNN poll at the beginning of the year, 37% of the respondents believed Bill Clinton, 29% Paula Jones and 34% were not sure, which is unlikely to change. We've been building to this sexual peak for decades, through scandals concerning bold-type names from stage, screen and sports, Congressmen, Senators and presidential candidates. And now, live from the capital, it's the President. As the ultimate celebrity trial goes forward, there's little hope of truth and every chance we'll all be diminished. As for nuclear disarmament, never mind. We're busy with sex over here.

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