Around this time back in 1998 our nation was riveted by a sex scandal involving the President. We remember it now as the Monica Lewinsky scandal or maybe the Starr Investigation or maybe some crude allusion to the cigar, the blue dress, or the fact she was a White House intern.
The lasting impact on the nation was two-fold. First, we realized, as first candidate Clinton and then President Clinton had been telling us, that the President and the Presidency are two different things. His predecessors, Regan and Bush, had elevated the President to “leader of the free world.” Clinton was an everyman. He campaigned as such. Then we went all shocked-and-amazed when he acted like it after he took the oath of office.
But come on, was anyone really surprised he was fucking interns?
It’s an office: The Presidency. As an office it conducts business on our behalf, it makes decisions on the strategic direction of the country, it represents the highest achievement for a professional politician. As an office, it requires seriousness of purpose. But as the recent occupant has proven, the office and the man are not the same thing.
Second, and more relevant to After December (my novel that’s coming out this fall. YAY!), the Monica Lewinsky scandal taught us that sex is a multi-dimensional behavior. The motivations for it, the iterations of it, and the consequences create infinite combinations.
Sex is, in a word: complicated.
For a young adult in the late 90s, the open discussion of what the President did or didn’t do with “that woman” amounted to an examination of how adults were totally unequipped to be adults about intimacy.
For all the condom-dispensing, safe-sex-educating they’d done, the Boomers were ashamed of infidelity, embarrassed by kink, and ill-equipped to discuss sexual politics. Not sex-in-politics, they were more than happy to draw comparisons to the playboy JFK, but sexual politics. Like just how does a pretty 22-year-old end up seduced by a man old enough to have been her father?
Now we talk about consent. But not in 1998.
What that scandal taught us was that lying about sex is not only expected, it’s forgiven. We’d rather you lie about it than make us talk about it. We’d rather you lie than make us acknowledge that sex complicates things between us. All of us. Even those who aren’t having it.
In After December, Brian admits to cheating on his girlfriend “sometimes daily” and acknowledges it makes him an asshole. But, he reasons, lying about it to everyone – including her – somehow keeps them from hating him for it. It’s a strategy he’s gotten pretty good at.
When forced to discuss the issue, he reasons that she was cheating, too, and mutual infidelity is the same thing as permission. In the complicated view Brian presents of sexuality, we see reflections of the late-90s blurred morality around the issue.
If the President cheats and gets caught, should he lie about it? And if he does lie about it, should we prosecute him for lying?
Because what were we really mad about? That he lied? That he fucked around? Or that he wasn’t the good guy we wanted him to be?
That Clinton himself has achieved near-martyr status twenty years later proves the point. Sex is forgiven. Lies are forgiven. And lies about sex are not only forgiven, they’re expected.
What do you remember from 1998? How did it change your view of sex?