Let's not talk about sex

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America's Puritan

heritage hasn't

helped its people

come to terms with

sex. The acts

described in the

Starr report are

illegal in some

states, and yet

porn is the biggest

industry in the

USA. Is this a

nation in denial?

The Internet is full of filth. When you surf the web, you ride wave after wave of pornography, most of it soft-core, unprofessional and raw, but there sure is a lot of it. Last Friday, with one push of a button in Washington, a whole new bucket of the stuff was chucked out of the window; this time, courtesy of the United States Congress. The Starr report, all 453 pages of it, is littered with graphic, if starkly written, descriptions of sexual acts between the President and Monica Lewinsky.

Some people are horrified, blaming either the President or Mr Starr. Others are clearly delighted, lapping up every last detail. America can never quite work out how it feels about sex, or at least about the public presentation of it. Sometimes, it seems the most moralistic nation on earth; a denim Iran where swear words, naughty behaviour and dirty pictures are completely beyond the pale. At other times, it wallows in its own lewdness. The Starr report has allowed it to do both, bridging one of the deeper contradictions of the American psyche.

The Starr report is not really hard-core; it wouldn't sell well in the mail order business. But it does have detailed, graphic descriptions of sexual acts and it does mention sex acts that aren't commonly discussed in polite society, such as "oral-anal contact". It is all set out in black and white in rather clunky prose, with (thankfully) no adjectives, and has been reproduced in detail in most big city newspapers.

There is a reason for all this, at least if you listen to Mr Starr and his team: it is perhaps the quintessential Washington document, fusing sex with the law. When former Arkansas employee Paula Jones brought a sexual harassment suit against the President, he was asked about other sexual relationships he might or might not have had. Well, define sexual relationships, said his lawyers. So they did. Three separate definitions were produced, and one was agreed upon. Well, the lawyers asked the President, did you do this stuff with Monica Lewinsky? No, he said, though he later admitted that he had done some stuff. Well, the key issue for Starr was that he had done some of that stuff; the stuff he denied. So they set out on paper all the stuff that he did. Yes, all of it. So suddenly, in the middle of an official government report, we have a list of everything that the President did, and how - all in the interest of finding out what is, and what is not, sex.

Washington has a particular hang-up about sex. It likes to see itself as a buttoned-down city for most of the time. But it is equally keen to see itself as having a naughty side, and there are plenty of books, television programmes and guided tours to show you where Congressmen romped and presidents hid away for long afternoons of passion. Sex is clearly good business here. There are 20 pages of escort services in the yellow pages, and several girlie bars, not just in the seamier areas of the city, but dotted around the centre. Every few years, a Congressman gets in trouble with an intern, a prostitute, a secretary or a Congressional page. This is, of course, a national disgrace, yet frequently there is also a slightly odd feeling about the news reports, as though the city had reassured itself momentarily that it was not that boring after all.

But in its attitude towards sex, Washington is perhaps more representative of the country than it is on most other issues. This is a church-going nation where religious values matter deeply to many people, yet pornography is a vast industry. It is also a place where the First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of expression, but where most right-thinking people find the public discussion of sex distasteful. The contradiction was there right from the start of America. The New World was to be one without taboos, without limitations, where every individual could be what they wanted to be and do what they wanted to do; but many of the earliest arrivals were Puritans, who just wanted to go to church.

It is tempting to believe that the Puritan heritage, to put it mildly, has not helped America come to terms with sex. Sometimes it seems that - in pre-Sixties America, at least - the only two available positions were total abstinence or absolute depravity. Think, for instance, of Thomas Stearns Eliot, that scion of St Louis, and the arid versions of sexuality set out in his poetry. Then compare the grim couplings of his published poetry with some poems found amongst his private papers, charmingly entitled "King Bolo and his Big Black Kween", describing huge penises, defecations, buggeries and group masturbation.

Puritans may not have been the only ones with strange ideas about the place of sex in a normal society, but they had a great impact on the nation's sense of itself. In particular, they helped to ensure that much of the public discussion and portrayal of sex would be as pornography or spectacle, rather than a natural human function or a joyful thing. There is something Manichaean at work here, ensuring we are either watching transsexuals tearing out each other's hair on the Springer show, or tastefully ignoring the subject altogether. There is an excluded middle: sex is either all or nothing.

There have always been, and still are, some oddities about America's attitude to the representation of sex and the human body. Take nipples, for instance. Adel Rootstein, which makes female mannequins for department stores, only got round to putting nipples on them in the late Sixties, and even in the Seventies, a Boston shop filed them off because they showed under sheer blouses. Isabel Allende's book, Aphrodite, was published last year outside the US with a cover picture of a woman with her arms open and her breasts exposed; in America, the woman had her arms crossed across her chest. On the other hand, last month's Vanity Fair features the actress Gretchen Mol on a chilly beach, and it's pretty obvious what's under her dress. In France, there is a bare-breasted woman on the nation's currency, for goodness sake.

Nowhere has this tension between libertarianism and puritanism been more evident than in America's constant legal struggle to define obscene material. Until the Fifties, America relied on a definition taken from a landmark 1868 English case, Regina v Hicklin. The test of obscenity was whether the material would "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall". In other words, it was the weakest and most easily upset who had to be protected, and most of the dodgy stuff went straight into the incinerator.

But in 1957, in the case of Roth v United States, (Catholic) Justice William J Brennan changed this, writing: "Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern." Henceforth, some sexually explicit material was to be protected by the First Amendment (though not Mr Roth). Since then, the judicial standard has shifted, becoming laxer in the Sixties and Seventies, and then stricter again in the Eighties. But the broad point is that deciding how to weigh fundamental freedoms against naughty pictures has remained a very difficult tightrope for the most elevated legal minds in America. It has become more and not less difficult as the pornography market has exploded, and the Internet has brought new tides of foreign (and domestic) filth lapping at the steps of the Supreme Court.

America feels as though it has become more accustomed to talking about sex in public, even in the last ten years or so. The film Boogie Nights was a warm assessment of a family industry, and how it was corrupted by the arrival of big business: there was even a Golden Age of Pornography, apparently. A new comedy on the cable channel HBO, Rude Awakening, is full of explicit references to sex, and includes several lesbian characters who exchange small talk about dildos. Other cable channels switch effortlessly from blockbuster films to pornography in the small hours of the morning.

Indeed, the pornography business is booming here. Adult Video News reports that adult video rentals and sales brought in $4.2 billion last year, and account for more than a quarter of all rentals. The business has doubled in size since 1992; it is twice as big as major league baseball and three times as big as Disney's theme park division. A regional breakdown shows, however, that the pornography moves off the shelves fastest in the north- east and west of the country - the bigger cities, in other words. Here, something like 40 per cent of all video sales or rentals are adult; in the rest of the country, it is between eight and 16 per cent. Where Mr Clinton comes from, the taboos surrounding sex are somewhat stricter.

So are the laws. Indeed, in several southern states, what Mr Clinton admitted is a crime. Oral sex counts as sodomy, and sodomy is illegal, notably in Georgia, though not in Arkansas. It is not sex for the purpose of procreation, and hence forbidden. Until 1993 - the year Mr Clinton took office - it was illegal in Washington DC, even between consenting adults in private, whether heterosexual or homosexual, though gays were the only ones prosecuted. That taboo may, in part, explain its appeal to the President, though he is by no means alone in his preferences.

Oral sex plays a crucial role in the great debate over the Clinton case, of course: it helps to explain how he thinks he did not lie, and the Starr report thinks he did. He claims that because oral sex was all that transpired during those steamy nights in the White House, it does not count as a sexual relationship. This is partly because of the odd definition used in the Paula Jones case, but the President's argument depends crucially on believing that even outside the courtroom, if you have had oral sex, then you have not really been involved in a sexual relationship. Mr Clinton is not alone in this, oddly enough. Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and another Southerner (a Georgia man, no less), was also said to have limited his extra-curricular activities to oral sex, because it did not, in some sense, count. It is, perhaps, the defining moment in America's double think: sex itself is not sex.