An Innocent Romance

An Innocent Romance

An Innocent Romance

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 19 1998 3:30 AM

An Innocent Romance

Bill and Monica did nothing wrong.


There is a spectrum of public reactions to Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky--that is, the affair itself, not the cover-up and the lies. Some say the affair is so disgusting that Clinton isn't fit to be president. Some say it's disgusting but not disgusting enough to drive him from office. Some say it's disgusting, but his private life is politically irrelevant. And a brave few say even the president has a right to do things that are disgusting. Missing option: It's not disgusting at all.


Just what do you all think was wrong with this affair? They were simply two consenting adults voluntarily engaging in sex and enjoying it. People do strange things in the pursuit of happiness. We all agree that as long as you're not doing anything immoral, the pursuit of happiness is not only OK, it's to be encouraged. Bill and Monica (and Hillary too, probably) were all pursuing goals here. If Kenneth Starr and prudish pundits hadn't got in the way, those goals would have been met and no one would have been hurt. There was nothing immoral or hurtful about this perfectly innocent romance.

So, to what are the prudes objecting?

There was a huge age difference. Yes, he's much older. But age differences are not uncommon (just ask Sen. Strom Thurmond, who at 68 fathered a child by his 22-year-old wife); nor are they immoral. As a woman of 21, Lewinsky was old enough to make her own choices. She was old enough to vote, old enough to drink, and way past the age of consent. She was, in short, an adult, and didn't need anyone to protect her from cute guys.

A more sophisticated version of the age objection goes like this: Lewinsky may have been of age and may have known what she wanted, but she was immature and mistaken to want it, and Clinton was wrong to take advantage of her immaturity and her mistake. She essentially offered to degrade herself--not by the particular sex acts they engaged in but by the impersonal nature of the relationship, at least from his point of view. She allowed herself to be used as an object, whether knowingly or naively. Even if the 21-year-old didn't know she would come to regret this, the 50-year-old should have known and not allowed it to happen.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.


T he best answer to this is: How do you know she will regret it? It is generally futile to try to outguess other people about what will make them happy. Maybe this affair will become a happy memory, a treasured anecdote to share with her grandchildren. ("Did I ever tell you, my dears, about the time I gave a blow job to the president?" "Yes, Granny, about a million times.") No doubt it was painful for her to discover that he was not going to leave Hillary for her--but does she actually wish, even now, that the whole thing had never happened? Unlikely. Would she wish it if the affair had ended quietly? Unlikelier still.

Nor would she have wanted us to get in her way while it was going on. She flirted with Clinton (killing him thoftly with her thong), happily horsed around with him, and begged for more even after he tried to end things. From the first kiss up to the breakup, Lewinsky got what she wanted.

In fact, this affair was so heartily consensual that it moots another common objection:

It was in the workplace. Workplace relationships are wrong only when they aren't entirely consensual. Usually this means that an underling thinks that boss-bonking will advance her career, or fears that refusal will harm it. Clearly Lewinsky never thought that resisting the president's advances would hurt her. Clinton never implied that and, in any case, Lewinsky was the one who made the advances. But did she hope to use her wiles to get a better job? If so, she failed. Her close ties with Clinton got her booted from the White House. Any job opportunities for Lewinsky came as part of the cover-up, to keep her quiet, and not as a reward for putting out. Bottom line: Clinton never promised a good job in exchange for a blow job. Or for phone nookie. Or for any of the shenanigans that have spurred pundits/politicians to decide that ...


It was kinky sex. Just about everyone professes shock at the sex, calling it tawdry or offensive. This is ridiculous. Everyone has sex like this--or if not exactly like this, different but equally odd and, for the most part, equally unobjectionable. Far from being exotic, this was sex at its most banal: teen-age rec room groping. The only mildly eyebrow-raising detail is the cigar, and even this, and variants involving other inanimate objects, is standard fare. There is nothing repulsive about it. Or if there is to you, the solution is simple: Just don't do it yourself. In fact, the lone interesting feature of this sex was ...

It was adultery. Again, though, everybody's doing it. Just ask Reps. Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth and Henry Hyde. Or the 50 percent of American men and 30 percent of American women who admit to pollsters that they have engaged in affairs. No one could be honestly shocked at such an everyday thing. Of course, the fact that everybody's doing it doesn't mean it isn't wrong. But in this case, it isn't wrong.

Surely it's terrible to cheat on an innocent, unsuspecting spouse who'll be blindsided and hurt by the cheating. But Hillary long ago chose to stick with a chronically adulterous husband, either out of an irrational love or a calculating power-thirst or some strange mix of the two. Hillary isn't dumb, and she isn't dependent. She can eject at any time, with her fame, a law practice, and a likely book contract to fall back on. Yet she's standing by Bill and asking us to do the same. Like Monica, Hillary knew what she was getting into and got what she wanted--namely, the White House. She may well feel the pain of betrayal at the moment, but that is part of the deal she made and apparently wishes to continue with. And even judged from the outside, it's not a bad deal at all. Like Monica, Hillary doesn't need to be protected from herself.

These are three consenting adults, all winners. The president enjoyed a billy joel from a cute intern. The intern got to Kneel to the Chief. And the first lady kept her access to power. No one treated unfairly, no one loses.

But the cry goes up: What about Chelsea? Sure, Chelsea's probably embarrassed. So are Bill, Hillary, and Monica. You know whose fault that is? People like Starr who've made private moments public. You can be embarrassed about something even when there's nothing wrong with it. A married couple having sex for strictly procreative purposes--nothing wrong there by anyone's standards. But if that sex were graphically detailed in the New York Times? Of course the couple would be embarrassed. Chelsea's father did nothing wrong, so Chelsea has nothing to be ashamed of. If not for Starr, Chelsea wouldn't have to endure every child's nightmare--hearing intimate details about the sex life of a parent. If Chelsea's the smart young woman she seems to be, she won't be the least bit shocked by her father's behavior. And she needn't be hurt by it either--if only people will stop telling her how hurt she is supposed to be.

There is, though, one more set of alleged victims ...

What about us? He promised us, the American people, back in 1992 that he wouldn't do this anymore. Or at least we thought he did, though he never said so explicitly. And he broke his promise. But it's a promise we never should have asked for. It's a promise to stop pursuing happiness, and thus it's a promise that no one should want or have to make. If he broke that promise, it serves us right.