The Sex Terror Revisited

Yesterday’s London Times ran a three page piece called ‘Oral History’ inter­view­ing some of the ‘play­ers’ (or per­haps ‘chan­cers’ would be more accur­ate) in the Monica Lewinsky ‘scan­dal’ that was to engulf the Clinton Presidency for more than a year, lead to his impeach­ment and, very nearly, to his depar­ture from the White House.

The piece was pegged to the tenth anniversary of the sur­real crisis and also, of course, to the Presidential Primaries in which Hillary Clinton, ener­get­ic­ally sup­por­ted by her hus­band Bill is try­ing to secure the Democratic nomination.

After all that has happened in the inter­ven­ing dec­ade, Bush’s dis­puted elec­tion, 9–11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Paris Hilton, it’s dif­fi­cult to believe that the US worked itself up into such a frenzy back then over whether or not Clinton had a blow job. But, boy, did it.

If Hillary wins the Democratic nom­in­a­tion, then we can bank on some of that frenzy being revis­ited. In fact, it’s already hap­pen­ing, as both this art­icle and it’s intro­duc­tion with its regur­git­a­tion of that myth about Hillary’s Senatorship and thus her Presidential bid being based on the ‘sym­pathy vote’ for the ‘wronged woman’ shows. A myth that is, strangely enough, most pop­u­lar with those who used the ‘wronged woman’ angle ten years ago to try and des­troy her hus­band — when they hated her even more than him.

Here’s a piece I wrote in early 1999 at the height of the scan­dal about what I believed was really at the heart of the brouhaha: sexual hypo­crisy. Not Clinton’s — ours.

The nur nur nur nur nur! response in both the media and in the blo­go­sphere, lib­eral and con­ser­vat­ive, to Senator Larry Craig’s recent entrap­ment in a men’s rest-room by a pretty, tap-dancing police­man, and the reli­gious cer­tainty that every­one, gay and straight, has expressed about a) what happened and b) exactly what this reveals about the Senator from Idaho’s ‘real’ sexu­al­ity and c) his polit­ical fate (he should resign), has shown that we haven’t come very far.

The Sex Terror


(Originally pub­lished in The Seattle Stranger, January 1999)

by Mark Simpson

In the midst of all the over-discussion — and all the over-exposure — of the Republican show-trial of William Jefferson Clinton, the real charge against him remains curi­ously under-reported. In fact, it’s not repor­ted at all. Oddly, the media is thun­der­ously silent to the point of dis­cre­tion about it.

What is this crime of crimes that can lay someone so high so low and which can’t even be men­tioned? It isn’t per­jury, the obstruc­tion of justice, or the betrayal of his Oath of Office. It isn’t even being a suc­cess­ful Democrat President.

No, it’s hav­ing the effrontery to res­ist the most magis­terial, sov­er­eign and power­ful force in the land — the ‘sex’ ter­ror. Clinton is being made an example of — one that every­one, even edit­ors of aca­demic journ­als, should fear.

Last week [15 Jan 1999] the American Medical Association impeached George Lundberg, editor for sev­en­teen years of the AMA journal. Lundberg’s High Crime and Misdemeanour? He included in this month’s issue of the AMA journal research from 1991 which showed that 60% of col­lege stu­dents did not define oral inter­course as sexual rela­tions. A spokes­wo­man for the AMA explained his sack­ing: ‘Through his recent actions he has threatened the integ­rity of the journal by inap­pro­pri­ately and inex­cus­ably inter­ject­ing the journal into a major polit­ical debate that has noth­ing to do with sci­ence or medicine’.

Who can blame the AMA for pur­ging Mr Lundberg’s heresy? Everyone, of whatever polit­ical hue, whether they think Clinton should be cen­sured, impeached or impaled, seems to be agreed on one thing-that Bill Clinton is a liar, that he did have sexual rela­tions with ‘that woman’, and that his dis­tinc­tion between sexual inter­course and ‘inap­pro­pri­ate intim­ate con­tact’ (in this case fel­la­tio) is pure soph­istry and legalese.

In fact, this point has become the crux of the whole scan­dal (which, as I’m sure the AMA know, has everything to do with sci­ence and medi­cine). Clinton’s ‘crime’, the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for all those ‘LIAR!’ ban­ner head­lines, the approval of the art­icles of impeach­ment and now his con­sti­tu­tion­ally unpre­ced­en­ted Senate trial has boiled down to his refusal to agree that fel­la­tio con­sti­tutes ‘sex’.

After the broad­cast of his four hour inquis­i­tion in the Starr Chamber, in which he admit­ted ‘inap­pro­pri­ate intim­ate con­tact’ with Lewinsky, many lib­eral papers cau­tiously applauded his for­bear­ance but still called on him, for the sake of Mother’s Milk and Western demo­cracy, to either throw him­self on the Republican’s sword and resign, or admit to Congress ‘what we all know’-that he lied, and that oro-genital con­tact con­sti­tutes a ‘sexual rela­tion­ship’ (in other words, fall on his own sword).

But is Clinton really a ‘liar’? Is it really abso­lutely clear what ‘sex’ is? Isn’t ‘com­mon sense’ a fickle, not to say tyr­an­nical mis­tress? Aren’t we just join­ing in the shout­ing because we want to dis­tract from the neces­sary hypo­cris­ies and dis­avow­als that make our own lives bear­able — and because we don’t want the Sex Terror to come for us? Isn’t Clinton’s trial more than just a far­cical acci­dent of his­tory? Isn’t it per­haps the clearest sign any­one could ask for that no-one is safe from the Sex Terror?

It is a meas­ure of how bad things have got that this has to be said at all: Everyone makes dis­tinc­tions about what ‘sex’ is. Prostitutes, for example, know very well that most mar­ried men dis­tin­guish between ‘full sex’ and fel­la­tio and ‘hand relief’, often opt­ing for the lat­ter two because it doesn’t feel like they’re really cheat­ing on their wives; while the pros­ti­tutes them­selves don’t even acknow­ledge vaginal inter­course as ‘a sexual rela­tion­ship’: they regard it as ‘busi­ness’. Good Catholic girls in Latin coun­tries often mas­turb­ate or fel­late their boy­friends or even allow them bug­ger them, so they will remain vir­tu­ous vir­gins on their wed­ding night.

Of course, nowadays we smirk at their ‘naiv­eté’ and ‘denial’, and con­grat­u­late ourselves on our soph­ist­ic­a­tion and hon­esty, but who are we to say they’re wrong to make that dis­tinc­tion? Isn’t it a form of erotic total­it­ari­an­ism to insist that all sen­sual con­tact is ‘sex’? To refuse to acknow­lede that the ‘mean­ing of sex’ isn’t actu­ally inco­her­ent — that it might even be occult?

Perhaps the only indis­put­able ‘fact’ about sex is that the mean­ing of it changes with the con­text. What hap­pens in private, in the dark between two people takes on a dif­fer­ent mean­ing — or just a mean­ing - when put under the spot­light. The ‘Oh boy was I drunk last night! I don’t remem­ber a thing!’ line is not the recourse of someone who did some­thing they regret the night before, but someone who doesn’t wish to regret, or even think about, what they did the night before. Yes, this can be the refuge of a scoun­drel or worse, but the dif­fi­culties pro­sec­ut­ing so-called ‘date-rape’ cases merely demon­strates the dif­fi­culties in try­ing to draw one unam­bigu­ous mean­ing out of an intim­ate exchange between two people in the dark (or win­dow­less, locked cor­ridors off the Oval office).

Clinton occu­pies the most sober, most brightly lit office in the world. In a sense, he’s not so much the vic­tim of his own stu­pid­ity, men­dacity, promis­cu­ity or even Republican hos­til­ity, but of the late Twentieth Century mania for drag­ging everything private out into the open. The more the mean­ing of that private activ­ity changes once it is put in the pub­lic sphere, the more imper­at­ive it is to expose it. And what could be more private and there­fore more worthy of being made pub­lic than the sex life of the President of the United States? The Starr Report was a $40M, half-ton tabloid scan­dal sheet, though, alas, not so well-written.

But this is not to down-grade its import­ance. As tabloid edit­ors and Kenneth Starr know very well, des­pite the prot­est­a­tions of the pub­lic to the con­trary, every­one wants to know the ‘truth’ about sex and in par­tic­u­lar the ‘truth’ about celebrity sex lives. More than this, every­one thinks that the ‘truth’ about sex is the most import­ant truth about us.

This is why pretty much every­one, except the Pentagon and Pat Buchanan, seems to want private homo­sexu­als to come out as pub­lic gays these days-after all, gays are the liv­ing proof that the truth about our sex lives is the most import­ant truth about us. They are lit­er­ally defined by it; Telling the Truth About Sex is what they’re for. Even the uptight, soul-of-discretion Brits, for good­ness sakes, want them to ‘come out’.

Disgraced British Minister Ron Davies’ crime wasn’t cruis­ing for sex on Clapham Common but refus­ing to ‘come out’ as ‘gay’ after this emerged, and give the pub­lic what they wanted. He was berated by a sneer­ing press for being ‘hypo­crit­ical’ and ‘dis­hon­est’ (the tabs) and ‘in denial’ or ‘men­tally ill’ (the broad­sheets). However, if he had been caught in a red light dis­trict vis­it­ing pros­ti­tutes would he have been called upon to announce to the world that he was a con­gen­ital vis­itor of pros­ti­tutes and con­fess that this ‘truth’ about his sexu­al­ity was more import­ant than, say, his rela­tion­ship with his wife and chil­dren? (Prostitution and male cruis­ing grounds are both age-old, ‘secret­ive’, ‘hypo­crit­ical’ insti­tu­tions which have made the pub­lic vir­tue of mar­riage tol­er­able to mil­lions of men who oth­er­wise wouldn’t have been able to meet its demands).

By way of con­trast, George Michael, ever the show­man, knew exactly what the pub­lic wanted after his entrap­ment by the Beverly Hills PD’s finest and gave them full con­fes­sions which earned him the approval of the press for co-operating with their enquir­ies. The out­ing of Michael happened des­pite the fact that for sev­eral years George Michael had been fairly open in his work and inter­views about not being straight. What the world wanted was for him to come out as ‘gay’; to stop being equi­vocal about sex and recog­nise instead its irres­ist­ible sov­er­eignty in all our lives.

Interesting that many gay act­iv­ists in the US have been largely silent about the Lewinsky affair, des­pite the fact that they know all too well the vicious, viol­ent hatred of pinched pious people like Kenneth Starr, a hatred barely hid­den behind a smil­ing respect­ab­il­ity and con­stant invoc­a­tion of The Law. As the shock troops of Telling the Truth About Sex, who ori­gin­ally elec­ted Clinton so they could go on telling the Truth even more, they are ideo­lo­gic­ally hamstrung.

Barney Frank the out­spoken and openly gay Senator, who is a close polit­ical ally of Clinton’s, exem­pli­fies this dilemma. Although, unlike many oth­ers in the Democratic Party, he has con­sist­ently fought his President’s corner, he has nev­er­the­less called on him to be ‘truth­ful’ about his rela­tion­ship with Monica Lewinsky and aban­don his pedantic ‘sex’ dis­tinc­tion. In other words, to ‘come out’.

Frank has how­ever poin­ted out one of the curi­ous para­doxes of this whole affair-that those lead­ing the inquiry into Clinton’s sex life and pub­lish­ing their find­ings on the Internet are the very people who told Frank to shut up about his sex life and keep it private.

Putting Clinton’s beha­viour into the con­text of America’s his­tory and his own Baptist back­ground the charge against him that he is a ‘liar’ because he didn’t con­sider hav­ing non penile-vaginal rela­tions with Lewinsky ‘sex’ becomes even more con­fused. The Starr Report effect­ively brands Clinton a ‘sod­om­ite’. Under the anti-sodomy laws still on the stat­ute books of many US states [at time of writ­ing], ‘sod­omy’ is defined as oro-genital or anal-genital con­tact between mem­bers of either sex. That is, pretty much any­thing that isn’t penile-vaginal inter­course. Everything that isn’t poten­tially baby-making is a per­ver­sion, or ‘inap­pro­pri­ate intim­ate con­tact’ to use Clinton’s telling phrase. This is why gay mar­riage is so fiercely res­isted in the US — includ­ing by Clinton who signed into law a bill ban­ning gay mar­riage — because it bestows recog­ni­tion and respect­ab­il­ity on an act which is, by defin­i­tion, un-respectable.

Sodomy was, until quite recently, not only unlaw­ful but a crime against the American State. J. Edgar Hoover, who along with Senator Joe McCarthy, begat (spir­itu­ally) Kenneth Starr, kept secret files on pub­lic fig­ures that were repor­ted to engage in ‘oro-genital con­tact’, as he con­sidered this meant they were sub­vers­ive and ‘un-American’. McCarthy’s hys­ter­ical — and prob­ably jeal­ous — view of oral sex as a form of treason is echoed today in the repeated shrieks of a Republican spokes­wo­man on a recent TV debate: ‘HE WAS HAVING A BLOW JOB WHEN HE SENT TROOPS INTO BOSNIA!!!’

Since Hoover, we have had Kinsey, the Sixties, gay lib­er­a­tion and fem­in­ism and the mean­ings of what is ‘sex’ have been widened enorm­ously. Hoover him­self has been ‘outed’ posthum­ously as a ‘closet gay’, allegedly. But the effect of this ‘sexual lib­er­a­tion’ is not unam­bigu­ously ‘pro­gress­ive’ or ‘lib­er­at­ing’ as most lib­er­als seem to think. You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to see that the old imper­at­ive to con­trol people’s erotic lives by pro­hib­i­tion has not been abol­ished. Instead it has been sup­planted by a com­puls­ory, pur­it­an­nical trans­par­ency in people’s erotic beha­viour — and indeed their whole sense of them­selves is con­trolled, defined and pro­duced through the ritual of pub­lic con­fes­sion (i.e. Protestant rather than Catholic con­fes­sion). Everyone must sub­mit to ‘sex’ and ‘sexu­al­ity’, even and espe­cially Presidents.

The mod­ern, ‘sci­entific’ dis­course of ‘sex’, à la Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, which demands that sex be con­fessed, exposed and meas­ured allied in the Sixties with the explo­sion of per­sonal polit­ics. That alli­ance was in turn given an irres­ist­ible momentum by the expo­nen­tial increase in media, and expo­nen­tial decrease in respect for pri­vacy since then. The rise of polit­ical cor­rect­ness and battles over sexual har­ass­ment has only intens­i­fied the need in the Nineties to con­fess ‘sex’ in the courts, the work­place, the tele­vi­sion studio.

Now, at the end of the Twentieth Century, this Sex Terror has made it’s way into the highest office in the land. It has become a Scylla to America’s Puritan, scold­ing, sodomy-hating Charybdis. With ‘Elvis’, the Sixties baby-boomer lib­eral Baptist tele­genic talk-show President in the middle. The supreme irony is that the Republicans, who believe that the dis­tinc­tion between sex and sod­omy should be main­tained in life and law, are try­ing to impeach a President on the grounds that he made that very same dis­tinc­tion in life and law. The Grand Old Party which once was the Party of dis­cre­tion in mat­ters of Eros is now a party of sexual Jacobins in the ser­vice of the Sex Terror, brand­ing pop­u­lar Presidents Enemies of the People for not con­fess­ing every detail of their private life — even out­ing them­selves as adulter­ers on the steps of Capitol Hill — and turn­ing American pub­lic life into one gigantic, insane Denunciation Box.

Prophetically, iron­ic­ally, Clinton whose Presidency began with an attemp­ted coup over his inten­tion to lift the ban on sod­om­ites serving in the mil­it­ary, now seems to be end­ing with another attemp­ted coup over his own (het­ero­sexual) sod­omy. The com­prom­ise solu­tion he came up with for that first crisis has turned out to be the most apt — if most hope­less — solu­tion for what may turn out to be his last, as well as a romantic res­ist­ance slo­gan in an era where ‘sex’ is a sign we must all sub­mit to: ‘Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t pur­sue’.

Slick Willy — A Bite-Sized History of Fellatio

Mark Simpson on why God gave (most) men back­bones longer than their penis

Once upon a time, becom­ing a rock star was the only way a young male could be assured of get­ting free blow-jobs from females. This, not private jets or yachts or tax havens or leather trousers is the reason why so many young men aspired to be Mick Jagger.

Or so it was until Monica Lewinsky got under President Clinton’s desk to do some French pol­ish­ing, and the Oval Office became the Oral Office. Since then, teen­age boys every­where are prac­tising mak­ing speeches, shak­ing hands with bewildered people in shop­ping malls and kiss­ing babies

Fellatio is the way to a man’s, well, if not exactly heart then at least his grat­it­ude. Even if, as many women will tell you, men are not always grate­ful enough to actu­ally return the favour. The ‘sixty-eight’, or I’ll owe you one’, is appar­ently a very pop­u­lar pos­i­tion with straight men. (Come to think of it, it’s a very pop­u­lar pos­i­tion with me.)

But learn to sup­press your gag reflex and you will be invited to all the best parties, even if no one will share your glass.

Most sex sur­veys show that the favour­ite sexual prac­tice for straight men is receiv­ing head. This is slightly odd, since it’s not ‘nor­mal’ – it’s pass­ive and it’s per­verse. Not to men­tion lazy. Biblically speak­ing, oral sex is ‘sod­omy’ as it doesn’t make babies. Legally speak­ing, oral sex of any kind was until very recently tech­nic­ally an offence under the Puritan anti-sodomy laws of many US States. J. Edgar Hoover appar­ently kept a list of pub­lic fig­ures who were sus­pec­ted of enga­ging in ‘oro-genital’ con­tact because he con­sidered it a sign of sub­vers­ive­ness – and in case he found him­self at a loose end of a Saturday night.

To some people a bit of a lick round the fam­ily heir­looms can be more shock­ing than other, more pun­gent per­versit­ies. After a sur­pris­ingly frank sex edu­ca­tion class for the 1970s, in which we’d been told ‘what gays do in bed’, includ­ing ‘suck­ing one another’s pen­ises’ (I think our bio­logy teacher had a bizarre view of homo­sexu­al­ity as some kind of mutu­al­ity), my best school chum Jim, sputtered: ‘It’s so, so, so… dirty! I mean, I can under­stand put­ting it up someone’s arse­hole,’ he said shak­ing his head in dis­be­lief, ‘but… THAT!

Looking back on it, his remarks made a cer­tain kind of sense. Willies are dirty, bums are dirty, so: a bum + a willy = some­thing still dirty. On the other hand, mouths are sup­posed to be clean, so a mouth + a willy = angry mummy.

Perhaps it was the ‘now wash your hands’ dirti­ness of pee-pees that caused the lad that used to toss me off in the Fifth Year in a darkened deser­ted Geography classroom every Tuesday after­noon after Games to make an intriguing offer. ‘I’ll suck it for you next time,’ he prom­ised, in response to my increas­ingly frantic sug­ges­tions. ‘But only,’ he added, ‘if you bring some tooth­paste to put on it.’ Maybe I just hadn’t yet got the hang of fore­skin hygiene. Whatever, to this day I still get an erec­tion every time I brush my teeth.

The idea of what is nat­ural and what is per­verse is not always as obvi­ous as a knob in your gob. In Renaissance Florence they encour­aged their cit­izens to denounce one another for crimes against God and Nature anonym­ously on bits of paper slipped into a ‘sod­omy box’ (today, of course, this would be the name of a fash­ion­able res­taur­ant). Tens of thou­sands of denun­ci­ations were made every year. Apparently most of the pop­u­la­tion of Florence, male and female, was accused at some time or other. Clearly Renaissance Florence was a little bit like being in today’s US Republican Party.

Some aca­demic who doesn’t get out much has spent years sift­ing through the records and dis­covered that there was a hier­archy of sod­omy back then. Interestingly, and con­trary to the mores that hold sway today (Presidents excep­ted), it was thought a greater offence and shame to receive a blow­job than to give one – whatever the sex of the par­ti­cipants. Being a suckee rather than a sucker is what really sucked.

Gore Vidal would have agreed. He mocked the fond notion that the sailor receiv­ing a bj from a fag is in con­trol. In fact, Vidal observes, the ‘sub­ser­vi­ent’ fag lit­er­ally has the sailor on the tip of his tongue. And this is a very vul­ner­able pos­i­tion to find your­self in, bear­ing in mind how sharp the tongues of fags in gen­eral – and Gore Vidal’s in par­tic­u­lar – can be.

Interestingly, until the Seventies, homo­sexu­als in the US ten­ded to be known as ‘cock­suck­ers’. Which sug­gests that a) American women were even less inter­ested in play­ing the hairy oboe in those days than they are now, and that b) fags were prob­ably much more pop­u­lar after clos­ing time than they are today – ‘cock­sucker’ being less a term of abuse per­haps than a user’s guide.

The great and incon­tro­vert­ible truth of oral sex that many find dif­fi­cult to swal­low is that no man, how­ever adam­antly hetero he may be, would turn down the oppor­tun­ity to suck his own penis. Which is, of course, exactly why God placed it where most men can’t reach it with their own mouth. Homosexuality is a sin because it’s a form of cheat­ing. Getting your cock sucked isn’t sup­posed to be so easy.

In his Infinite Wisdom Our Lord gave every man except Jeff Stryker a penis shorter than his back­bone to make sure that men expen­ded an awful lot of energy doing other things to get blow jobs, things that would seem rather daft and point­less oth­er­wise, but without which the world would be a duller place. Things like rock ‘n’ roll, polit­ics, cun­ni­lin­gus and odd-jobs around the home.

If homo­sexu­al­ity hadn’t been dis­cour­aged, most of human his­tory would have been noth­ing more than a man lean­ing against the wall in the back-room of a gay bar in San Francisco with his leather flies unbuttoned.

This 1998 essay was col­lec­ted in Mark Simpson’s Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture