We thought about little else for 12 solid months: the Independent year

The Year of Sex

SEX MADE headlines in 1998 as never before. It was the year of Viagra and Bill Clinton's cigar and Ron Davies' walk on the wilder side of Clapham Common. The year when parents everywhere struggled to explain to children exactly what oral sex might be and that, no, it has nothing to do with flossing. It was a year when mothers turned to daughters to ask about the new facts of life. "So what exactly is phone sex, dear?" they inquired as we tried to change the subject.

In fact, looking back over the year, this was not just the Year of Sex. This was the Year of Unremitting Sex. And, because life is kind to headline writers, there was also more than a little bit of Drugs thrown in and - thank you George Michael and Mick Jagger - some Rock and Roll too. In the end, everyone was trying to get in on the act. Even Tony Blair, the ultimate non-sex machine, claimed in his Mansion House speech that economic stability was sexy. But we knew better than to believe anything so kinky.

And that is the other thing about sex in 1998. It turned out that the people knew better all along. The politicians cared. Oh yes they did! They apologised and grovelled and wanted to explain. And the pundits cared too. Oh yes they did! They wanted us to know exactly how many gays are in the British Cabinet. "Are we being run by a gay mafia?" demanded The Sun on 9 November. The answer came back quickly. It was not "yes" or "no" but "who cares?"

At first it all seemed a bit of a joke and, between Viagra and Zippergate, there was no shortage of those. Freud would have approved. Viagra was introduced in America in April and quickly became an unavoidable topic. Men could not get enough of the stuff. Neither could the media which is, by chance, run by men. We learnt that two-and-a-half million British men suffer from impotence and a search was launched to find them (oddly, none was ever in the room). In the end, they told all. In fact, they wouldn't shut up. Three British couples had Viagra experiences on day-time television. The whole thing was exhausting and probably a very good thing all round.

I'm not sure the same can be said for sex and politics. Bill Clinton's problems began on 21 January when The Washington Post reported that independent counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating whether the President had an affair with an intern. Soon we knew her name and it was Monica. The name will never be the same. Nor will we. In the beginning there was confusion.

There was quite a lot of talk that this was not actually an affair at all. Certainly Bill seemed to believe this. He declared he had never had sexual relations with "that woman". Perhaps he was lying or perhaps he thought that oral sex was not really "sexual relations" as the Bible knows it.

Monica disagreed. She thought it was more than an affair, she thought it was love. This is probably the most under-reported sex detail of this case. Bill did it for sex, Monica did it for love.

There were periods of respite in late spring and early summer. Things livened up again when George Michael was arrested in April for "lewd behaviour" at the public lavatories in a Los Angeles park.

The Starr report was released in September. It was X-rated. He denied this. He claimed the report wasn't about sex. It was about lying and perjury and hypocrisy. But anyone who could read knew better. There was the unlit cigar, the snapping thong, the "oral-anal contact".

Until the autumn, sex had been mostly a spectator sport in Britain. Then Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, decided to go for a late-night walk on Clapham Common. He resigned without telling us much about what actually happened. He said he was sorry and told the House: "We are what we are. We are all different, the product both of our genes and experiences." The tabloids tried to turn the clock back. The News of the World outed the Agriculture minister, Nick Brown. No one cared. Then a gay journalist outed a member of the Cabinet on Newsnight. Jeremy Paxman was mortified. Peter Mandelson was not.

By the end of the year the pundits had decided there was too much sex around. I'm not sure that we, the people, care that much. The politicians still don't get that. In America they are killing themselves off in a moralistic frenzy while Bill Clinton's approval ratings soar. In Britain, greed has proved to be more interesting than sex.

In fact, the real story of the Year of Sex is not the dirt and details but our reaction to them. Professor Robert Worcester of Mori says this has been a watershed year in which people showed that they can separate public politics from private lives. Ordinary people seem to understand what their leaders do not: that some things are complicated and personal and, in the end, private.

This was the year when the moralists tried to undo the Sixties - and failed. So far.

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