So what exactly has Monica done wrong?

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WHEN Monica Lewinsky arrived at the federal courthouse in Washington on Thursday to give evidence before the grand jury, she wore a severe blue suit, a high-necked blouse and pearls. Seeming far older than her 25 years, she might have walked out of one of those black-and-white movies in which the boss, noticing his dowdy secretary for the first time, leans across and exclaims that, if only she changed her hairstyle, she could be quite an attractive woman. Ms Lewinsky, in fact, seemed to be doing her best to effect a reverse transformation, using her sombre appearance to refute characterisations of herself in the US press as a "tart" and "a little nutty, a little slutty".

As she emerged from a car, clutching a ladylike white handbag, she looked the sort of woman a man would think twice about telling a risque joke, never mind asking for fellatio. Pale, anxious, penitent, she gave the impression that the only way she could survive the ordeal of talking about sex in front of 23 total strangers was by looking as though she had never enjoyed it. And it is this belated bid for respectability, this enforced denial of her sexuality, that makes me so angry on Ms Lewinsky's behalf.

What has she done wrong? Lied in her original testimony to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor She would not be the first young woman to dissemble about an affair with an older, married man. Her decision to conceal what happened, if that is what she did, cannot be unconnected with her fear of the vilification which would follow an admission. Last week, on the day of the grand jury hearing, the White House wheeled out an Indianapolis lawyer, John Sullivan, whose presence at a 1996 political event attended by the President and Ms Lewinsky apparently qualified him to tell the press that the latter is "a stalker and a bit of a dreamer".

In one sense, this piece of character-assassination is further evidence that the former White House intern is trapped between two political machines, one determined to destroy her credibility by any means at its disposal, the other regarding her as a useful pawn in a relentless - some would say obsessive - mission to bring down the President. But there is an irony in the fact that the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton - the first incumbent of the White House to belong to the generation whose formative experiences were Woodstock and the sexual revolution of the1960s - will be remembered by a roll call of women whose lives have become public property as a result of their association with him.

There's Gennifer Flowers, the night club singer with whom Mr Clinton denied and then admitted having sex; Paula Jones, the so-called "trailer trash" from Arkansas who maintains he asked her for oral sex in a hotel room; Monica Lewinsky, who now admits to a sexual relationship with him and finds herself metamorphosed into a presidential slut: and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the clever lawyer whose loyalty to her increasingly seedy husband makes her look like a tragic dupe. This is a presidency which should have carried a warning for women: even a transitory relationship with Mr Clinton will damage your reputation, never mind your health.

BY COINCIDENCE, Ms Lewinsky appeared in her new, matronly guise in the same week that the Lambeth Conference of bishops revealed its entrenched intolerance on sexual matters. On Wednesday, by a vote of 526 to 70, the bishops declared that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Scripture". They also stated that the Church could not permit the ordination of what they quaintly call "practising" homosexuals, or blessings of homosexual partnerships. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the egregious Dr George Carey, threw his weight behind the zealots, making a contribution to the debate which the humane Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Reverend Richard Holloway, later denounced as "pathetic".

Dr Carey also confirmed that "there is no room in Scripture for any sexual activity outside marriage" - a statement I am happy to quote because I occasionally get letters from aggrieved Christians, denouncing as an "atheist canard" my assertion that the Church seeks to control sex. Actually, I go even further in my criticism. There is abundant evidence that the Church hates sex and uses that ancient device, scapegoating women, to allay the terrors it arouses. "The wiles of a woman I find mightier than death; her heart is a trap to catch you and her arms are fetters", according to the cheery author of Ecclesiastes. "It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with women," St Paul earnestly advised the Corinthians. But the fullest expression of sexual disgust is to be found in the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunting manual produced in 1486 by two Dominican monks at the request of Pope Innocent VIII. "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust", they stated, "which is in women insatiable".

Gay men, I suspect, began to draw some of this fire from the Church as soon as they dared to talk openly about enjoying sex. And it is against this phobic background that the Biblical flavour of the drama now being played out in Washington makes sense. Portraying Ms Lewinsky as a sex- crazed stalker who targeted the President, ludicrous as it is given what has emerged about Mr Clinton's own modus operandi, speaks powerfully to Christian prejudices. A more logical conclusion from Mr Clinton's present difficulties is that it is not sex which harms people but hypocrisy, the risky practice of endorsing traditional marriage while conducting clandestine affairs. I couldn't care about the President's sexual urges, if only he would ditch his moral agenda and be honest about them.

TRADITIONAL values flourish in unexpected places, as I discovered last week. A friend pointed out, buried among the adverts for telephone sex lines in her local paper, one offering the opportunity to "chat with genuine housewives". Apparently there is now such a dearth of women who are willing to say things like "Did you have a good day at the office, dear?" that men are prepared to pay to hear them down a telephone line. I'm worried, however, by the implications of the word "genuine". Does this mean that, after years of faking orgasm, some women have now learned to fake housework?

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