US debates big question: what is sex?

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The Independent Online
THE White House was able to fire a small shot across the bows of the Monica Lewinsky investigation yesterday when an appeals court ruled that the office of the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was the "apparent" source of leaks to the media and authorised further inquiries.

While hailed by White House officials as a vindication of earlier complaints relating to the grand jury proceedings three months ago, the relatively mild ruling did little to quash curiosity in the latest leaks - about Ms Lewinsky's graphic accounts at her grand-jury appearance on Thursday of a sexual affair with the President.

After her eight hours of testimony before the on Thursday, the affair was reduced to the one essential question that many had feared: what is sex?

According to anonymous, but consistent leaks, Ms Lewinsky had admitted, as expected, that she had a sexual relationship with the President of the United States.

It was, the reports said delicately, a "sexual relationship of a certain kind".

She reportedly said that there had been at least a dozen sexual encounters with the President in the White House over a period of 18 months, starting in November 1995.

This was a time when the business of government was shut down because the Republican-majority Congress was refusing to pass the budget Bill. This meant that there was no money to pay government employees, and most were not at their desks.

At that time, as Mr Clinton testified in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit, interns, mostly unpaid trainees, of whom the then 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky was one, were filling in for absent staff and enjoyed unusual access throughout the White House.

Trainees, as many members of staff have testified, were usually kept well away from the Oval Office and the presidential quarters.

In evidence which appears to fit completely with what she told her then friend and colleague, Linda Tripp - accounts that Ms Tripp secretly taped - Ms Lewinsky apparently told the grand jury that the type of sex she had with Mr Clinton was such that in his view it would not constitute "sexual relations".

In the tapes, she boasted to Ms Tripp of repeatedly performing oral sex on the President. She also spoke about "phone sex", and one of the books reportedly in her possession and bought at that time concerned "phone sex".

The leaks of Ms Lewinsky's account, which remains strictly confidential,- like all grand-jury testimony - presented the President, White House officials and the American media with huge difficulties.

Mr Clinton's difficulties were the most acute.

He is on record, in his testimony in the Paula Jones case, and on television, as denying that he had a sexual affair with Ms Lewinsky.

If her version is credible, and the prevailing view is that it is, Mr Clinton's televised denial that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky" is, in his terms, correct.

In that case, he has not lied outright to the American people.

His sworn denial in the Paula Jones case is more problematic.

The court in that case defined exactly what it meant by sexual relations.

It reads: "1. contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person;

"2. contact between any part of the person's body or an object and the genitals or anus of another person;

"or 3. contact between the genitals or anus of the person and any part of another person's body."

"Contact", the definition went on for good measure, "means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing".

If such contact did take place, Mr Clinton could be open to a perjury charge.

The gravity of such a charge, some legal experts have suggested, is less if it relates to evidence in a civil case than in a criminal case, but others disagree, arguing that perjury is perjury, and the basis of the judicial system.

The consolation for the White House was that Ms Lewinsky did not, apparently, implicate the President in a cover-up. They discussed ways to conceal their affair, she said, but he did not tell her to lie about it under oath.

That would seem to absolve Mr Clinton from a charge of "suborning perjury".

On Thursday night, as details of Ms Lewinsky's testimony seeped out, the centrality of the "what is sex?" question was already putting the White House and American media organisations in a quandary.

The White House was simply silent; a silence that was successfully replaced yesterday in expressions of horror and regret over the casualties in Africa.

For the media, it was another matter.

Earlier in the week, network news organisations had adopted different solutions about how to treat Ms Lewinsky's reportedly "semen-stained" dress to make for family-friendly viewing. A dress with "physical evidence of a sexual relationship" was one favoured formulation; "stained with bodily fluids", or "DNA" was another.

A leaked and unconfirmed report that FBI tests had proved not only the presence of "DNA", but also a "match", was the subject of an internal memo at NBC news that kept that aspect off the air.

For almost all US news outlets, however, a young woman's sworn testimony that she had repeated sexual encounters with the President of the United States at the White House, was strong and risky material that only the Fox news channel chose to discuss in any detail.

For the first time in days, the stand-off with Iraq made its way up the headlines.