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Scandal's Legacy: A Blush of Open Sex Talk

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  • By Barbara Vobejda
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A1

    Long after the lofty constitutional lessons have been forgotten, the Clinton scandal will be remembered for something else: the mark it left on the nation's sexual landscape.

    The turning point was obvious to CNN correspondent Candy Crowley last fall when she stood before a television camera describing graphic details of the president's sexual encounters, then received a call from her mother and her son, both dismayed at the words they'd heard her utter on the air.

    Tomasa Rosales, a Washington receptionist, recognized that something had changed when her male co-workers at an advocacy group printed out raunchy Monica-and-Bill jokes from the Internet and passed them around the office.

    Debra Haffner knew it when the 13- and 14-year-olds in the sexuality class she teaches at her Westport, Conn., church bombarded her with questions: What is oral sex? Do people do that? Why did Monica save the dress?

    And it became all too clear to a midwestern office worker whose male colleague recently asked her a crude question about whether she planned to behave "like Monica Lewinsky."

    It is far too simple to reduce the impeachment trial of the president to a moral referendum, a victory of the sexually liberated over defenders of traditional values. But it is inescapable that the year leading up to the Senate's verdict has forced upon the nation a prolonged and thorough examination of its sexual mores.

    Experts in sexual behavior don't believe Americans are behaving any differently in the bedroom -- neither a feverish rise nor a fearful drop in adultery, for example -- although there are no reliable studies tracking such behavior. But the Clinton scandal has left other, more subtle legacies.

    People are talking more openly about sex, over the office copier, on radio talk shows and at family dinners. A Pew Research Center survey last fall found that nearly 60 percent of parents had spoken to their teenagers about whether the president had had sex with Monica Lewinsky and that 1 in 5 teens had read at least part of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's sexually explicit report.

    Eight years after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings made workplace discussion of sex seem almost dangerous, men and women across the country say the Clinton scandal has opened the door to unprecedentedly raw at-work sex talk. The scandal has coincided with the popularization of the Internet, where chat room discussions of and jokes about sex are among the most popular topics.

    But perhaps more important, a year of national soul-searching has shaped and crystalized Americans' reasoning about sex and public morality: With near unanimity, we apparently find Bill Clinton's escapades wrong, even deplorable. But most Americans don't find his sins politically disqualifying.

    It is as if discussing sex for the past year has demystified it, rendering it, at least in this case, a non-issue.

    "This is an interesting, mid-revolutionary moment," said Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociologist at the City University of New York. "People feel comfortable talking about sex now, but it's too late to turn it into a shocking revelation." Thirty years ago, she said, "if Ken Starr had come up, he wouldn't have dreamt of asking those questions. Thirty years from now, it will be understood that those questions are none of your business."

    Many Americans realized this year that they are more European in their attitudes than they previously believed. More than 60 percent of those surveyed in a January Newsweek poll said politicians should refuse to answer questions about their private lives. Taking sex from the private to the public realm has, it seems, pushed the country to replace some moral judgments with pragmatism.

    In the process, long-standing taboos have fallen by the wayside. Network anchors shied away from using the word "semen" to describe the stain on Lewinsky's dress, but they could not avoid uttering the phrase "oral sex" in nightly newscasts beamed into millions of living rooms.

    In the year before the Lewinsky scandal broke, Newsweek used the term "oral sex" just eight times, a number that increased fivefold the following year. The Washington Post carried the term in 225 articles in the 12 months after the affair was first reported.

    Standards governing what was acceptable for public consumption were rewritten on the spot. Crowley, the CNN correspondent, twice checked with her bosses to be certain they wanted her to read passages from the Starr report describing sexual acts between the president and Lewinsky. She said her stomach churned at the prospect.

    "We broke new barriers, but I think we broke them for the right reasons," she said. As barriers fell, however, parents for the first time regarded the nightly news as a potential threat: Nearly half said they had to step in and control what their children saw in the news, according to the Pew survey.

    Haffner, who is president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., said the intense coverage touched virtually every age group. "If your child is in elementary school, they know the president had sex with somebody who was not his wife," she said.

    For many children today, the Clinton scandal was their introduction to sex, Haffner believes. "This very well may be one of those cultural moments people remember," she said.

    Robert Michael, a co-author of a groundbreaking 1992 study on American sexual behavior, said he finds this new openness enormously healthy in a nation that has long avoided the topic. It may have been "pedantic" for the president to have distinguished between oral sex and sexual relations, Michael said, "but at least that creates an opportunity to have a conversation with your spouse, your secretary, the person next to you on the bus. It's no longer a topic you can't raise."

    Ellen Bravo, co-director of 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women, believes the new openness about sex may have a down side: confusing men and women about what is acceptable in the workplace.

    People now come in to the office repeating late-night television jokes about cigars as sexual props or oral sex, not appreciating that some co-workers don't want to hear it, she said.

    Bravo, who was contacted by the worker whose colleague made the rude remark about Lewinsky, said the woman complained to her manager and is now worried she may lose her job. "People feel freer to use that kind of hostile remark as if it's all part of general joking," she said.

    But despite fears that the number of sexual harassment lawsuits might rise in this looser office atmosphere, the opposite may be happening, Bravo said. As Americans see how Paula Jones and Lewinsky have become the objects of humor, Bravo argued, women may be discouraged from complaining about harassment.

    "The message comes through loud and clear: Keep your mouth shut," she said.

    If the scandal has unleashed a torrent of open talk about sex, it has also revealed what some see as a serious disconnect in the nation's ethical expectations.

    "We are a people of very strong moral judgments who are not willing to stake anything on those judgments," said Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University and author of the 1996 book, "Integrity."

    Janet Parshall, national advocate for the conservative Family Research Council, described the scandal and the impeachment trial as "a wonderful lesson: 'Girls and boys, don't have sex outside of marriage. This is what happens.' "

    But it was a different lesson that surfaced over the past year among a dozen teens who meet regularly at Girls Inc. in Worcester, Mass., as part of an effort to help other young people avoid pregnancy and AIDS.

    Although the group is accustomed to talking about sex, they raced to read the salacious sections of the Starr report, according to their coordinator, Phyllis H. Shea. The teens came away most upset not by the sex talk, but by the hypocrisy of the adults described in the report.

    "They were incensed," Shea said, that the president could prove so flawed and cause his daughter such pain.

    "That's the adult world," one youth said. "And they yell at us about rap music."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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