There is a middle-aged man whose business is in a crisis. A young woman on his staff who has been assigned to help during the crisis flashes her thong underwear at the man in an attempt to seduce him. This could be a summary of the Lewinsky affair except that the middle-aged man was William Jefferson Clinton, the president of the United States, and the young woman was Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the White House.
Although the seduction is successful, sexual intercourse is not consummated. Instead the couple indulges in oral sex provided to the male, anal sex (nongenital), and phone sex, all instigated by the young woman. The young woman confides in someone whom she considers a friend but who betrays and exposes her. This perhaps banal tale of a sexual encounter provokes the most important sex scandal in the history of the country and only the second impeachment of a president of the United States. The Lewinsky affair did that because it came at the confluence of a set of events that were direct or indirect results of the sexual revolution and because the legal issues in the affair turned on the precise kind of sexual activities indulged in by the couple.
Of course, Clinton was not the first president to have affairs (those of John F. Kennedy were legion and notorious), but Clinton did not have the social and political support network of the earlier politician, and the presidency itself had become more vulnerable. Independent prosecutors could investigate executive malfeasance without control or financial limitation, and sexual harassment had become a more pressing legal and political issue partly as a result of a law that Clinton had signed. An independent council was named to investigate possible crimes surrounding an earlier Clinton family business affair called Whitewater. At the same time Paula Jones, a former Arkansas public official, was encouraged to pursue a sexual harassment case against Clinton with the support of some of the president's political opponents (hence the charge of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" made by Hillary Clinton). Clinton and Lewinsky began their sexual relations in 1997.
Within a year Paula Jones's lawyers learned about the Clinton-Lewinsky connection and subpoenaed the young woman. She and Clinton tried first to hide and then to minimize their relations. They ultimately were unsuccessful, and the independent prosecutor, Judge Kenneth Starr, added perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Clinton.
Clinton tried to defend his denials by pointing to the fairly obscure definition of sexual acts used in the Jones depositions. The president claimed that he had remained completely passive and had been unconcerned about any potential pleasure for his partner; if taken together, those Page 886 | Top of Articlefactors would have failed to satisfy the definition of sex in the Jones depositions.
Starr displayed great zeal in his investigation of Clinton's sex life, encouraged by Republicans. The president's defenders, mostly on the left, argued that he was being prosecuted for sex acts or at most for lying about sex, and thus the prosecution was unfair and hypocritical. The right insisted that Clinton was being held to account not for his dalliances but for the disrespect for the law shown by his perjury. That point later was weakened by the claim by some of those politicians that the 2007 perjury conviction of Scooter Libby did not involve a serious crime.
Larry Flynt, the publisher of an extremely explicit pornographic magazine and a defender of the First Amendment, took it upon himself to out leading Republican lawmakers who were guilty of adultery. Congressman Robert Livingston, who was forced to resign, was his most visible victim. The conservative National Review published a special issue claiming that Clinton's tawdry doings had ruined sex.
In 1998 Kenneth Starr and his office published their findings in a government document that became known as The Starr Report. The report became a political and cultural sensation, was translated into several languages, and provided salacious reading in the form of an official U.S. government document. Ultimate proof of the affair was provided by a semen stain that had been preserved on one of Lewinsky's dresses.
Clinton was impeached in the House of Representatives by a narrow margin but in January 1999 was acquitted in his trial in the Senate. The entire discussion brought the practice of oral sex out of the closet, with many adolescent Americans apparently deciding that it was not "real sex" and hence could be practiced with less moral reprobation. In Spain an act of fellatio became known as una Monica.
Many observers considered the Lewinsky affair and the subsequent impeachment a low point in American politics at a time when Osama bin Laden was preparing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. However, the affair showed the increasing centrality that sexual matters were taking in American politics generally and contributed greatly to more open discussion of sexual practices.
Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 2000. The Starr Report Disrobed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Posner, Richard A. 1999. An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Starr, Kenneth. 1998. The Starr Report: The Evidence, ed. Phil Kuntz. New York: Pocket Books.