Paying Lip Service

An oral history

Bill Clinton is the first president caught in a scandal apparently because of a predilection for oral sex (although an earlier president was brought down by a Deep Throat). Clinton is probably not, however, the first president who enjoyed it.

According to Kitty Kelley's biography, Nancy Reagan "was renowned in Hollywood for performing oral sex." Just-say-yes Nancy--in the days when she was Nancy Davis--was known to give the best blowjob in town, "not only in the evening but in offices. [T]hat was one of the reasons that she was very popular on the MGM lot." It must have made her very popular with Ronnie as well.

Nor would Clinton be the first national politician tempted to invoke the hair-splitting distinction that oral sex does not constitute adultery (legally speaking, this is correct). When Virginia senator Chuck Robb was caught in various compromising positions with a number of women, he issued a statement saying that he hadn't "done anything that I regard as unfaithful to my wife," even though he'd engaged in oral sex.

If you believe Newt Gingrich's former mistress Anne Manning, the Speaker has for decades relied on the blowjob as the sex act with built-in plausible deniability. Referring to her first date in 1977 with Gingrich, Manning told Vanity Fair in 1995: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her."'

And for those who wonder how a scandal-plagued Clinton didn't think twice about a few quickies in the White House, consider the case of two-time Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry Jr. Here is a politician who was filmed smoking crack, ousted from office, and forced to serve a six-month sentence for cocaine possession at the federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.

Yet on December 29, 1991, Barry still had enough hubris to receive a blowjob from an unidentified female visitor, in the middle of a visiting room, surrounded by other prisoners, their visitors, and a prison guard. Although Barry later claimed that The Washington Postconcocted this story, he was quickly transferred to a medium-security facility in Altoona to complete his sentence.

So what is it with these oral fixations? It's fair to say that politicians are not the only American men who fetishize fellatio. It occupies a peculiar but vital place in the popular imagination: part taboo, part mystical ecstasy. Those who perfect their technique are considered to have a power lock on men, despite--or because of?--the act's association with homosexuality. As the authors of Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man put it, "If you can make the most of your mouth motion, you can have just about anything, whether it's straight A's in grad school or the Hope diamond."

Fellatio has been imagined--and probably practiced--almost as far back as Adam's first stiffie. According to G. Legman's sweeping history Ora-Genitalism, ancient Greek and Peruvian vases, and at least one ancient Egyptian papyrus, depict various positions of fellatio. The 4th century A.D. Indian Kama Sutra features an entire chapter on "oral congress," noting that it is primarily practiced by homosexuals, masseurs, and "unchaste and immoral women, quite free from any inhibitions."

The American history of fellatio is less documented. It does not appear to have been a widespread technique practiced by American opposite-sex partners until the 1920s. (It remains illegal in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia.) In the early part of the century, oral sex was considered something of a specialty, an act that wives and proper girlfriends were presumed to know little about and not want to do.

That has changed: pop culture today is filled with female fellatial braggadocio--Liz Phair promises on Exile in Guyville to be an unnamed man's "blowjob queen," a possible role model for Monica Lewinsky, who allegedly joked about being appointed "special assistant to the president for blowjobs."

As demonstrated by the semi-intentional confusion over whether fellatio constitutes adultery, however, the emergence of oral sex as an above-board sexual activity is fraught with uncertainty, even contradictions. For one thing, most Americans appear to practice oral sex far less frequently than other sexual activities. Three-quarters of men and women report lifetime experience of oral sex, according to The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. But "the proportion for whom oral sex is a current activity (as measured by its occurrence in the last sexual event)" is dramatically lower, around 25 per cent. Thus, conclude the authors, oral sex "has in no sense become a defining feature of sex between women and men (as vaginal intercourse or, perhaps, kissing is)."

Oral sex becomes more common as one climbs the education ladder. Only 41 per cent of women with less than a high school education report having performed fellatio on a partner, and 49 per cent have received cunnilingus; by contrast, about 80 per cent of women with at least some college education have experienced one or the other. (The difference between less-and more-educated men is lower, but still striking.)

There are also significant differences among races; a far higher number of whites practice oral sex than blacks or other races (the reluctance of some black men to perform cunnilingus is a staple of both stand-up comedy and hardcore rap).

As with almost any sexual act imaginable, there are strong elements of power and domination caught up with fellatio. Think of the stereotypical setup: the donor is on his or her knees, invoking a position of worship. Madonna picked up on this ambiguity--"Down on my knees/I want to take you there"--in "Like A Prayer."

Perhaps it is this detachment from intimacy, the presumed one-sidedness of the blowjob, that makes fellatio the power-tripper's sex act of choice. Certainly there is a pervasive sense that oral sex isn't quite sex. In a broad-based survey of teenage virgins by the RAND institute issued in November 1996, nine per cent reported engaging in fellatio with ejaculation, and 10 per cent in cunnilingus. (That is approximately one-third the percentage who report engaging in masturbatory activity with a partner.)

One Maryland child psychiatrist has said: "I've heard from teenagers, but not adults, stuff like, 'I only [performed oral sex on] him,' like that really wasn't having sex."

Legal analysts have focused on whether or not Clinton could be nailed for lying about having sex with Lewinsky. It has been widely suggested that if, in his mind, Clinton believed that oral sex did not constitute adultery or "an improper relationship," then he did not legally perjure himself.

At that point, however, the important question is less about attitudes concerning oral sex, and more about rationalization. Dr. Anna Salter, a Madison, Wisconsin--based psychologist, specializes in identifying the evasions given by sex offenders. "These people have a lot of cognitive distortions," Salter says. "You have to be very careful with language, because they will say 'I never did anything to hurt her,' even though they abused someone. I am not saying that Clinton is a sex offender. But I don't think the principles [of evasion] change at all between the two behaviors."

Research: Harold Schechter, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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