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What We Say When We Lie About Sex

Style Showcase By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page B01

I love you. The earth moved. I have a headache. I read it for the articles. I will respect you in the morning. I am a virgin. I am not a virgin. I just need some space. It's just the right size. They're just the right size. I am getting a divorce. It's not the sex, it's the intimacy. I was not looking at her. I was not flirting with him. I'll call you tomorrow. I had to work late. I never felt comfortable enough with anyone to do that before. She means nothing to me. Nice pants. Of course they are real. It's not you, it's me. I don't usually come to places like this. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yesss.

People lie about sex. They lie about how much sex they have, how little they have, with whom they have it, how much they like it. They lie to obtain it and to avoid it. And, of course, they cheat.

The darndest people cheat.

Einstein cheated. Bill Cosby cheated. Charles Kuralt cheated. Bob Hope cheated. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated. Captain Kangaroo cheated.

Okay, we made that last one up. The point is, you were ready to believe it. Most everyone expects some degree of duplicity in matters sexual, not because we personally condone it but because most of us, to one degree or another, have practiced it. And seen it all around us.

"I'm boring," said Gary Hart. He wasn't.

It's not always clear who is lying, but it's generally clear that someone is. Clarence Thomas lied or Anita Hill lied. Bill Clinton lied or Gennifer Flowers lied. Bill Clinton lied or Kathleen Willey lied. Bill Clinton lied or Dolly Kyle Browning lied. Bill Clinton lied or Paula Jones lied. Bill Clinton lied or Monica Lewinsky lied. You get the idea.

(It's not always he said vs. she said. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley lied, or the Earth rotates around Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon.)

On this day of national sexual exegesis – or expiation – polls say the mood of the public is that we are ready to forgive our president for previous lies if only he tells the truth now. It is not entirely logical – but this is a subject upon which Americans do not always think with their heads.

All sorts of experts have studied the architecture of sexual deception: theologians, psychologists, forensic experts, statisticians. Their methodology is different and their terminology different, but their bottom line is the same. Where sex is concerned, we are ashamed of what we do. And our impulse is to lie.

"I very seldom hear a confession where there is not a sexual sin confessed," says the Rev. Peter Daly of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Prince Frederick. Daly teaches religious ethics at Catholic University. He says God has given us an overpowering sexual urge, and our efforts to control and channel it bring us face to face with the center of our soul. "Sex," he says "is everyone's Achilles' heel, in the moral life."

The heck with the moral life, it's about Darwin, says University of Alabama psychiatrist Charles V. Ford, author of the book "Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! The Psychology of Deceit."

"In my experience," he says, "women tend to underestimate their sexual experience to potential mates." Ford believes this probably can be explained by evolutionary imperatives: Obeying a timeless, mindless urge to perpetuate their genes, men are seeking reassurances that their seed, and not another's, will carry through to the next generation. Therefore, women tell men what they want to hear – I am yours and only yours. Meanwhile, says Ford, men tend to lie about their power and wealth and solidity. This is because men sense that women, as prime child-raisers, need reassurance that the man is going to stick around and support the child.

The heck with Darwin, it's a simple, verifiable matter of interpreting data, says Bella M. DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. DePaulo has been taking polls, and compiling statistics, on lying.

Exactly 25 percent of all serious lies, she says, are covering up sexual infidelities. This far outstrips any other category. When you add an array of more subtle sexual lies, such as pretending to emotions one does not have, or manipulating others for sexual advantage, sexual lies might climb to nearly 50 percent of all serious lies, she said.

So people feel guilty about this?

Not necessarily, DePaulo said. Women are more likely to writhe in shame. Many men, she discovered, tend to confess their dalliances as though they were relating the details of a car chase or a really exciting softball game. "It was sort of shocking," she said. "It almost takes your breath away."

It shouldn't, says Ford, the Darwinian, who is also, as it happens, a man. It's predictable, he says: When men brag of their conquests, it is an evolutionary impulse to "establish a hierarchy of dominance."

See No Evil . . .

There is great and grave speculation about why sex is so cloaked in shame and drenched in deception, and various experts told us many things. Most of it was boring.

So we will hypothesize that the root of all this deceit is the mortifying nature of the sex act itself, a desperate, graceless lurching jig in which the least attractive and aesthetically appealing portions of the human anatomy suddenly and ludicrously become objects of intense desire. In the heat of passion, lines are uttered that would not qualify as literature, or even, technically, as verbal communication. Facial expressions are employed that are not suitable for Mount Rushmore. If we saw llamas engaged in this enterprise we would point and laugh.

(We must admit that no expert articulated this particular theory, but we like how it sounds and will stick with it.)

What is indisputable is that when it comes to sex, in general, we don't want to talk about it. The mood of the public on the issue of the day is: We don't want to know. Basically it makes us uncomfortable because of what we know about ourselves. We may be licentious philandering dissembling emotional swindlers, but we are not hypocrites. So we want to remain deaf, dumb and blind, like the three monkeys.

(Ironically, when the three monkeys first made their appearance in 17th-century Eastern statuary, there was said to have been a fourth monkey. It was called "do no evil," and the chimp had his hands not on his eyes, mouth or ears, but on his crotch. The fourth monkey was eliminated over time because people found that too rude to think about.)

Our discomfiture runs deep. It is as rudimentary as our inability to discuss forthrightly, frankly, maturely . . . that, er, icky thing that people first do as adolescents and (we are reliably informed by experts) often continue to do as adults.

"I said the word, and got fired."

This is Joycelyn Elders, former surgeon general, speaking by phone from retirement in Little Rock. You will recall that Elders argued that we need to confront sexuality more directly as a society, to stop lying to our young through omission and prudery, a noble position that earned her the respect and gratitude of many deep thinkers and social philosophers, as well as a boot in the butt and a one-way ticket back home.

For the record, Elders thinks it is no one's business what he did with whom. "He" is not specified, nor need he be. Not today.

"Let's say he did it. It's nobody's business but his. I never thought he would have admitted it. No one has a right to ask. I feel if I asked him, and if he told me, I would disrespect him for telling me."

For once, at long last, Elders seems to find herself in the mainstream.


To scientifically research this issue of sex and lies, we decided to identify and visit the capital of sexual deception, the single acre in the Washington area in which the libidinous lie is likely to hang heaviest in the air.

We researched this ceaselessly, and contemplated many worthy venues – the old Vista International Hotel, for example, or Cafe Milano, the Georgetown establishment at which Marlene Ramallo Chalmers Cooke was drinking prior to acquiring a human hood ornament in the form of a young, buff fellow on her Jaguar. But we found ourselves inexorably drawn toward the Yacht Club of Bethesda, a place specializing in bringing together singles between 30 and 50. The atmosphere, we were informed, is soupy with desire, desperation and decolletage.

This place seemed to have many things going for it, beginning with the name, which is a double lie. It is not a club but a bar behind a Holiday Inn, open to anyone who lays down a fin cover charge. Plus, there are no yachts. The closest body of water is the lobster tank at the steakhouse down the block.

But we still weren't sure. Then we telephoned the Yacht Club and listened to a seemingly interminable six-minute recorded message touting someone named Tommy the Matchmaker, who is apparently the club's emcee and a "genius," whose savoir-faire makes women feel comfortable and who is personally responsible for the club's "nationally famous" reputation, being as how it is capably run by Tommy the Matchmaker. "There is nobody like him!" says the voice, which turns out to belong to none other than . . . Tommy the Matchmaker. We learn this not from the tape but from Tommy himself, when we finally get through. Tommy warns us that note-taking in the club will be difficult because he keeps the lighting so low it is "wrinkle free."

Sold! This is The Place.

Tommy greets us at the door through a personal cloud of cologne. "Obsession for Men," he says. The Yacht Club is indeed a dark place, with music that throbs like a vein in a sweaty forehead. The atmosphere seems caught somewhere between snazzy and swanky. We'll just call it "snanky."

Tommy is aggressively friendly. Within seconds he is introducing us to Mike the Stockbroker, a regular who wears a houndstooth jacket and speaks rather dramatically into the back of his hand, as though he is perpetually imparting a tip. Often, he is.

"You want to sit on your cash," he says, unbidden, his eyes darting this way and that. "Down 200. If China devalues, it's gonna be the tip of the iceberg."

Mike has been coming here for years, and has seen his share of shucking and jiving and cheating in human courtship.

"There's not a soul that doesn't want to have a new exciting relationship, a new touch. Not the same old same-old," he says, popping peanuts. "The average guy wants different women, different feels and smells." Not him, though. Mike says he is happily married, and has been for 20 years, even though tonight, as usual, he is here alone. He is not on the make and does not cheat on his wife, he says, excusing himself to mix and mingle.

Tommy the Matchmaker says the key to successful relationships is honesty and openness in communication. He says he has some tricks he uses to get people to openly communicate, including some tricks that are so terrific he can't reveal them, particularly one great one, one that he dasn't ever tell because it is so clever. Okay, he'll tell it.

"I will go over to a lady and say, 'That gentleman over there' – and I'll just wave at the crowd in the distance – 'he just sent you this drink.' See, really, I am buying her the drink. But this allows me later in the night to bring over any guy and say, 'Hey, here's Bob, he is the guy who bought you the drink,' and what's Bob gonna do, say, 'I didn't buy you that drink'? So they are talking."

Tommy calls this "sleight of hand," but not lying.

Guy named Mark walks up. Mark used to work at the White House. Drew Carey type. Mark says the key to romance is "keeping it honest."

"Relationships," he says, "are not something to be cheapened or belittled by lies." He puts a conspiratorial arm on Tommy's shoulder, and tells a joke about Monica Lewinsky. This joke cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Then he tells a second joke, which could not be printed in Hustler. Then he tells a third joke, which could not be told by a bunch of drunken Marines, sitting around a latrine.

Ha, ha, says Tommy.

Whoa. A celeb walks in! Tommy steers him over.

"I want you to meet the Man Who Started the Disco Industry in America."

This would be one Michael O'Harro, 58, founder of Champions Sports Bars. O'Harro looks a little like Bob Guccione. A thin gold chain peeks out from his chest hairs. He proffers his business card, which features a picture of him, Michael O'Harro, holding a champagne glass and a riding crop, beside a Rolls-Royce.

Do people lie about sex?

"Men and women don't want to hear the truth," O'Harro says. "I have lied. I don't lie now," he says, putting a proprietary arm around his girlfriend, a knockout blonde of 32. "This is the first woman I feel I don't need to lie to." He is smitten, he says. Head over heels. This is the real thing. "We've been together five weeks."

Over at the banquette beside the pool table, we approach an attractive fortyish woman in a demure dress, but before we can ask a question, suddenly, rather startlingly, a man deposits himself between the two of us, virtually in our lap. We explain we were not hitting on his date, but just wanted to ask her some questions, and he relaxes. He is a short, beefy guy who is wearing suspenders and a Tweety Bird tie. His name is Don. He is in health care.

Do men and women lie to each other, you ask.

"I don't lie," his date says, shyly. "I am an honest person."

Don gives her a look, then gives us a look. It is a man-to-man look. He inclines a chin at his date. Meekly, she moves a few feet down the banquette. With a back flap of the hand, he waves her away a little farther.

He lowers his voice. "Sex in your head, if you really want to have fun, it's with someone else."

You mean, having sex with one person but pretending it is someone else?

"Yes," he says. "But that's not really a lie."

The music throbs even more. The atmosphere gets even snankier. Over in a corner, Mike the Stockbroker is telling someone, "If China devalues, it's gonna be the tip of the iceberg‚. ..."

A thin man with a thin smile is confiding that things are going to start getting interesting pretty soon, as the luckiest people pair off. That's when we will learn who is going home alone and who, maybe, just maybe, might be visiting the Holiday Inn. This is when pitches are made, lines are used, catches are reeled in. It all happens in an instant, when a question is asked and answered, one way or another.

The thin man calls it "the moment of truth."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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