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TIME On Politics
TIME magazine

When Sex Is Not Really Having Sex

sex*

*It was only oral. It was passive. So that does not count.

By Walter Kirn

(TIME, february 2) -- Should President Clinton ever face impeachment proceedings over the Lewinsky mess, it's a fair bet that the meaning of oral arguments will never be the same. A joke? Not at all. A legitimate possibility. For there is growing evidence to suggest that the issue of whether oral sex is actually sex, though it sounds like a question from a cheesy adult party game, may eventually form the basis of Clinton's legal defense.

The logic seems as tortured as a position from the Kama Sutra, but Clinton's potential argument (which was tested last week on TIME reporters by a high-level presidential confidant) comes down to two basic presidential passions, one still alleged, the other long proved. The alleged passion is for fellatio. According to a lawyer who has heard them, the Lewinsky tapes show that when it comes to intimacy, the infamously reckless Clinton is a play-it-safe puritan. Facetiously referring to herself as the future "special assistant to the President for b___ j___," Lewinsky reportedly told Linda Tripp that Clinton was strict about limiting their contact to oral sex. At his age, he allegedly informed her, "you can't take the risks of intercourse."

Clinton's second, proven, passion (warning: pun ahead) is for cunning linguistics. Time after time, he has eluded foes and critics by means of clever verbal games. When is smoking pot not smoking pot? Clinton had an answer for this paradox. And according to one of the Arkansas state troopers involved in the suddenly tame-seeming Troopergate scandal, Clinton can answer an even harder one: When is fooling around on your wife permissible under the Ten Commandments? He told me, the trooper recalled in the American Spectator, that he had researched the subject in the Bible and oral sex was not adultery.

What all this adds up to is a legal loophole narrower than the eye of a needle but considerably easier to pass through than a prison wall. To perjure oneself, according to the law, you have to make a statement that is contrary to what you believe to be true. So if Clinton believes that the sex he has denied having, and allegedly encouraged Lewinsky to deny having, isn't really sex at all but merely an advanced massage technique, then it's distinctly possible that he might be guilty of a bizarre religious quirk rather than a series of federal crimes.

Which brings us back to the venerable book the President may someday have to swear upon. What does the Bible that Clinton, an active Baptist, reportedly consulted to clear his conscience actually say about oral intimacy? Not surprisingly, nothing. Nothing specific. But if one reads between the lines, the news is not good for the President. It's terrible. In Genesis 38: 8-10, God commands a man named Onan to marry his brother's widow. Reluctant to impregnate her, Onan commits coitus interruptus, spilling his seed on the ground. How does God deal with Onan's seminal wastefulness? "And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also."

The New Testament, known for cutting sinners more breaks, is even harsher. Remember the Jimmy Carter Playboy interview in which he confessed to lusting in his heart, making himself perhaps the only President to confess to something he wasn't even suspected of? Well, Jimmy knew his Bible better than some folks do. Here's Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "But I say unto you that whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." This teaching appears to leave oral-sex recipients no moral wiggle room, though it's not airtight. The accused can always claim he kept his eyes closed.

Though it's nowhere in sacred Scripture, the oral-sex-isn't-really-sex distinction does have some secular modern precedents. According to Black's Law Dictionary, oral sex is not, technically, adultery (though in certain states it's sodomy, a felony). What's more, reports Debbie Then, a California social psychologist, it's common among professional American males to view oral sex as a kind of moral freebie. Sexual folklore backs up this attitude. In general, female prostitutes charge less for fellatio than for intercourse. And teenage girls who have given oral sex but haven't yet been vaginally penetrated tend to go on regarding themselves as virgins.

If the President should ever feel alone in his alleged, custom-made theology, it may comfort him to know that he need look no further than Capitol Hill for like-minded erotic apologists. Faced with compelling evidence that he dabbled in oral sex outside of marriage, Senator Charles Robb, a Virginia Democrat, opened his 1994 campaign with a Clintonesque, Jesuitical mouthful: "I haven't done anything I regard as unfaithful to my wife, and she's the only woman I've loved, slept with, or had coital relations with since marriage." Newt Gingrich too has been linked to this defense, though at second hand. A 1995 Vanity Fair profile quoted an alleged ex-flame as saying, "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say I never slept with her."

Such technicalities probably wouldn't sway a Heartland jury, but the Heartland is not where Clinton will be judged, should impeachment proceedings ever come. In an incredibly lucky constitutional break, the President's judge and jury will be the Senate -- recently home to Bob Packwood, still home to Chuck Robb and Ted Kennedy. Clinton just might find justice there. At the least he'll have a jury of his peers.

--With reporting by Jay Branegan, James Carney, J.F.O. McAllister/Washington and Victoria Rainert/New York

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 2, 1998

Sparking The Scandal
Lucianne Goldberg: In Pursuit Of Clinton
Hot Off The Wiretap
Is The Prosecutor Running A Starr Chamber?
The Burden Of Proof
It's the Sex, Stupid
Truth or...Consequences
Oh, Behave!
In Defense of Matt Drudge
When Sex Is Not Really Having Sex
Enablers And Enforcers: The Two White House Cultures
The Reckless and the Stupid
The Notebook
The Master Fixer in a Fix
Ken Starr, Gumshoe
The Days Of Her Life
Politics Made Me Do It