The Sex Penalty

Monica Lewinsky. Bill Clinton. Everyone claims to be sick of it all, but we're obviously obsessed. The video is a blockbuster. The report is stocked in Barnes & Noble. No big surprise, not to me, anyway.

Two great traditions in American history are sex scandals and the death penalty. The sports pages may be the official national pastime; we may love to barbecue burgers or work in the garden; but the minute somebody is caught pants-down, or the moment the condemned is being strapped into the Chair, the national soul stirs alive.

In America, you impress people with violence, and you shock their sensibilities and incite moral outrage with sex. This is moralism at its most authentic, made of control, based on denial, and entirely unconcerned with what is right and true. And deeply curious about everything else.

I remember when we killed Karla Faye Tucker down in Texas earlier this year. It was gripping. Here she was, the picture of middle-age beauty, smiling and radiant and at peace with herself, with no less than the Pope personally calling for the sparing of her life. We all knew the inevitable would happen. We counted the moments and imagined what it must be like.

Images of white-tiled death chambers flooded the newspapers and television screens. The bloated Texas cops in cowboy hats. The dark night outside the death house. The vigils. The drawly Christians calling C-Span demanding revenge for her murders. The not knowing, in the hours of delay, whether the execution had happened yet. The slow, painstaking descriptions of what occurs as she eats her last meal (an apple, I recall), takes her last visits, prays with the minister. What happens as they strap her down to the gurney, insert the needle into her arm, begin the saline drip, administer the drugs... she reflexes against the straps for a moment and coughs, and surrenders...

In the coming weeks and months, we shall witness something new under the Sun: implementation of the first-ever Sex Penalty.

As the story of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky grows beyond its present scope to unstoppable and truly mythical proportions, it remains somewhat foggy whether this is really about sex or lying about sex; whether we're obsessed with purity or perversion. It's unclear whether it's all about raw greed on the part of the Republicans who want to overturn the last election, or a simultaneous quest for justice and expression of our collective outrage at the conduct of American politicians in the last three decades.

But here's a clue. After the 25-year embarrassment and gross deception of Vietnam and Cambodia, after the decade-long attacks on El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the Iran-Contra scandal, and the rush to war in Iraq without any effort to negotiate a settlement; after the vicious and pointless invasion of Panama; after the trillion-or-something dollar Savings and Loan "Crisis," the CIA running drugs during the War on Drugs, and general international terrorism practiced by every American administration, our legislative leaders are finally waking up to the notion of justice now?

This is the occasion, Monica Lewinsky is the theme, upon which Congress has suddenly, mysteriously chosen to exercise its most solemn responsibility—the repealing of a national election?

It's undeniable that the guts and blood of what is happening is pure sex. And now, we will implement the ultimate punishment: not just impeachment, but sexecution. It will be broadcast live on national television, and seen around the world. Just like capital punishment, we will sacrifice two people to the gods for our own rage and inadequacy. And though the subject may allegedly bore or revile us, we will observe and contemplate and discuss it all with great devotion and to no end.

Riding a train across Kansas the other day, I heard an anonymous citizen of our Republic comment in the club car: "Americans don't want to talk personally about sex, but they'll never get tired of hearing about it." Good thing, too, because plenty is in store.

Impeachment proceedings are unprecedented in modern history. Andrew Johnson doesn't count, because it happened worlds away in the post-Civil War era. With Nixon in 1973, the process never got so far; he quit long before there was either a full-blown Congressional inquiry or a trial in the Senate. That runs out the all the precedents in our entire American history.

As a result, we have no clue how this will really work; nobody does. There are no existing ground-rules or procedures for taking testimony or evidence in the process. It's only vaguely outlined in the Constitution. Much of what is already in the Special Prosecutor's record is not officially evidence in an impeachment case, and so the testimony, for example, the many accounts from Monica Lewinsky describing, with her remarkable photographic detail, each and every nuance of every single encounter with Bill Clinton, will very likely have to be re-entered into the record—perhaps twice.

Day after day on national television, as she sits strapped to her chair under the power of subpoena, of the sworn oath, of the indescribable aura of the Congressional halls and the hot, bright magnifying glass of global television and world history. Day after day. He unbuttoned my blouse. I seriously doubt you'll miss it. I loved him. I entered the White House at 5:53 p.m. We kissed in the hallway. Then he lifted my sweater. I will watch. We talked about everything under the sun. He fondled and sucked my breasts. He gave me Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. He masturbated into the Oval Office sink. He touched my genitals. I brought him pizza. I sucked his penis. He didn't ejaculate. I saved the dress when he did.

Monica will be publicly sexecuted. Nobody before in this world has ever had to answer these questions, much less at the international microphone, through which the life of her will be sucked out for the rest of us to consume. We will watch as the camera and lights magnifying her face, her wet eyes, her lips, on our high-resolution televisions, from multiple angles, in stereo.

We will become intimate with Monica Lewinsky. We will feel her and know her and imagine what it must be like as she surrenders and dies.

And maybe the President himself will testify, and he, too, will face public sexecution.

Consider this. Impeachment is a two-part proceeding, not counting the year we've just experienced. First, there is an "open-ended," televised inquiry by the House of Representatives in which all the facts are brought out. We could literally be facing another O.J. Simpson-like saga.

Once this is over, the process would go to the Senate, where the never-seen, never-heard-from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist would personally preside over the official trial, beginning the process over again. This will, if it proceeds, drain almost all of the energy of all three branches of government, both houses of Congress and the entire news media. And this, at a time when the stability of the world economy is a major concern, and when the stock market seems poised on the brink of collapse, when we face many pressing global crises.

And all over what? A friendly love affair? Okay, lying about a friendly love affair?

Researching this column, I came across a copy of the 1948 report Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey. In this pioneering study, Kinsey and his colleagues tried to figure out how many married men were having sex with people besides their wives. The thousands of subjects would talk reasonably candidly about everything else: masturbation, wet dreams, oral sex, to some extent about homosexuality, and even their sexual relations with animals. But when it came time to reveal their extra-marital affairs, anonymously and strictly for science, the authors said there was an obvious coverup based on no other factors but the subjects' experiences of extramarital sex. And the more prominent the men—the golf-course and social club types, for example—the more often they were later found to be lying.

Kinsey estimated its occurrence at 50 percent of the male population; that is, in 1948, before the `60s, the `70s, the sexual revolution and the divorce boom, half of all married men had sex with somebody besides their wives, often up to once a week, and many of them lied about it. Bearing in mind the principle of law which makes "selective prosecution" illegal, let's remember that whatever Bill Clinton may have done, a significant part of the engrossed television audience, a significant portion of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, all of which will be sitting in judgment, will be watching the dramatization of an aspect of their very own private lives.

And after all of this—after the hundreds of millions of dollars and the months or years and thousands of hours of work, after the neglect of other duties and the truckloads of paper and the enormous emotional expense of it all—the Senate could quite easily find that there was nothing new, nothing particularly impeachable, and fail to get the votes necessary to remove Clinton from office. And then?

And then, well, and then we come slamming down from the bizarre high of witnessing and partaking in death-by-vivisection, by sexecution. Then we pass out. And some time later, we wake up and check to see who's lying next to us in bed.

This article was based on a reading of the United States national horoscope.

Originally published in Chronogram, 1998 as The Sex Penalty at