Monica, Bill, History, and Sex

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By Marc Stein

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. Democratic President Bill Clinton began having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. More than two years later, during testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, Clinton denied that he was having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Several months later, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr reported to the U.S. Congress that Clinton had committed perjury and obstruction of justice in his testimony about Lewinsky and related actions in the Jones litigation. The U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican Party, impeached Clinton in December 1998. In January and February 1999, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate tried Clinton, but the president was acquitted when the Senate failed to meet the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote for conviction.

This essay was originally written in 2000 for “Historians and Their Audiences: Mobilizing History for the Millenium,” a conference sponsored by the York University History Department. My goal was to address the privileging of traditional political historians over historians of sexuality in mainstream public discussions about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, but I also wanted to use my presentation to consider the place of humor, satire, and parody in the work of historians. If the opening parody of both The McLaughlin Group (a long-running public affairs television program) and historical scholarship in sexuality studies seems excessively reliant on inside jokes that only historians of sexuality of a certain generation might understand, my hope was (and is) that this, too, might contribute to new ways of thinking about historians and their audiences.

For the most part, I have avoided editing or revising the essay, wanting it to stand as a reflection of my thinking about these issues in 2000, but some of the parodied names have been changed to protect the innocent and prevent further litigation.


Welcome to this edition of the McLaughlinstein Group, hosted by me, Marc McLaughlinstein. Today’s topic: Monica, Bill, Sex, and History. Our regular guests, Doris Kearns Johnson, Michael Wilentz, and Sean Beschloss, were unable to join us today, so instead our program will feature widely acclaimed historians Mary Contrary Daly, Carroll Rosen-Smithberg, John-Boy Howard, George Chancy, Lilliana Faderwoman, and Steve Edgwick.

Question: Monica and Bill—did they or didn’t they? What do the historians say? Professor Mary Contrary Daly? Would you like to begin?

“Not really, but I will. Bill Clinton sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped Monica Lewinsky. But even more significant is the fact that all of this occurred in the Oval Office. And the oval, as all womyn know, is a spiritually, metaphysically, and herstorically feminine shape. Originally, men were not meant to exist inside the Oval Office. The rape of Monica and the rape of all women began on the day that men first began entering womyn’s oval offices.”

Professor Carroll Rosen-Smithberg? Did they or didn’t they?

“What I think we have here is a White House world of love and ritual, and it would be wrong for us to transpose the sexual values of the world outside the White House to the world inside the White House. Monica and Bill touched, they were intimate, they were physically with each other, but did they have a sexual relationship? Bill certainly was exploiting Monica for sex. But Monica was not a passive victim. She resisted. She had sexual agency and sexual subjectivity.”

What do you think, Professor John-Boy Howard?

“So far all of the panelists have missed the critical issue: the distinctive regional, spatial, and generational sexual cultures that shaped this series of sexual encounters. Bill was a Baby Boomer from the rural South. Monica was a member of Generation X from suburban California. As long as we keep using a northeastern and urban framework for understanding this relationship, we won’t get anywhere.”

Yes, Professor George Chancy. I see that you’d like to say something.

“I’d just like to add that, if it’s true that Monica performed oral and manual sex on Bill and that he did not reciprocate, Bill resembles some of the men I discussed in my book Gay York. I’m thinking of the straight men whose masculine identities were not threatened by having sex with men, as long as they played the ‘masculine’ role in sex. Similarly, Bill’s identity as a devoted husband was not threatened by having sex with Monica, as long as he received but did not give pleasure.”

You’ve been awfully quiet, Professor Lilliana Faderwoman. Would you like to respond?

“For me, the most significant relationship here was not Bill and Monica’s, but the one between Monica and her confidant Linda Tripp. Before Linda betrayed Monica, this was a classic romantic friendship. These two women exchanged confidences and talked intimately. Their love surpassed the love of men. Sex was not the issue at all.”

And what do you think, Professor Steve Edgwick?

“Well I agree that Monica and Linda’s relationship was significant, but we have to remember that this homosocial relationship was triangulated via their heterosocial relationships with Bill. And even more significantly, Bill’s homosocial relationship with presidential advisor Vernon Jordan was acted out on the body of Monica. Come to think of it, Monica and Hillary’s homosocial relationship was acted out on the body of Bill. And Bill and Kenneth Starr’s relationship was acted out on the body of Monica. So what we have here are complex triangulations, rather than simple pairings.”

Well that just about completes our show. Thank you to our special guests and thank you to our audience for joining the McLaughlinstein Group.


The impeachment and trial of U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton in 1998-1999 were fascinating political episodes witnessed by worldwide audiences of millions. For those of us who are professional historians, one of the most intriguing aspects of this extravaganza was the prominent role played by some of our colleagues. Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss were featured regularly on television news programs, initially commenting on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson more than a hundred years ago and then offering historically-informed commentary on the proceedings concerning President Clinton. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz testified before Congress, famously warning the Republicans that future historians would not look favourably upon their actions. Dozens of other historians commented publicly on the impeachment and trial on radio and television programs and in newspaper and magazine articles. Perhaps never before have historians reached a larger public audience on a matter of contemporary political significance.

As a historian of politics I was fascinated by all of this. But as a historian of sexuality, I was troubled. Where were historians of sexuality in the parade of experts called upon to comment on historical issues related to the presidential crisis? During this period, the North American public was exposed to an unprecedented education in U.S. constitutional, legal, presidential, and congressional history, and an unprecedented discussion of political sex. Yet somehow the relationship between history and sexuality was never consummated, this despite the fact that the whole controversy turned on the question not of what “is” is (as Clinton famously asserted) but of what “sex” is. While historians may not have been able to answer this question, they could have shed light on the related question of what “sex” has been.

Sexual questions were at the heart of the national impeachment drama. Did Clinton have a history of extramarital sexual experiences before he entered the White House? Were these experiences consensual, quasi-consensual, or non-consensual? Did Clinton continue to have such experiences after he became President? What sexual acts did Clinton engage in outside of marriage? Oral sex? Mutual or non-mutual masturbation? Penis-in-vagina, vagina-around-penis sex? Did Clinton and his partners regard each of these sexual acts as sex? Did they regard each of these sexual acts as sexual intercourse? How did Clinton and his partners define a “sexual relationship,” as opposed to just “sex”? Did Clinton’s wife Hillary Rodham Clinton know about her husband’s extramarital sexual experiences? If so, when and how did she find out and did she talk about them with her husband? Did Hillary have her own sexual experiences, with men and/or with women, outside of marriage? What kind of marriage and what kind of sexual understanding did Bill and Hillary have? What, if anything, did Bill’s sexual experiences and sexual values reveal about his character? Was there a relationship between his “private” life and his “public” life? Each of these questions could also be reframed to focus on the sexual experiences, relationships, and values of Clinton’s supporters, Clinton’s opponents, and the American public as a whole. While some might claim that the central impeachment issues involved lying under oath and obstructing justice, rather than having extramarital sex, determining whether and in what ways Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice arguably turns on how one answers these and other sexual questions.

Despite the fact that sexual questions were central in Clinton’s impeachment and trial, I saw no evidence that mainstream politicians, political advisors, judges, lawyers, or journalists were interested in what historians of sexuality, or for that matter any scholars in sexuality studies, might contribute to the public debate or the legal proceedings, this despite the virtually unprecedented interest in the contributions of traditional political historians. As I began to think about this, I called to mind a number of historians of sexuality and imagined what they might have had to say if asked to comment. I thought first of John Howard, whose work deals with sexualities in the American South. Howard argues against the inappropriate use of northern and urban sexual frameworks, insisting that southern sexualities be understood in different terms. Howard, I imagine, would have encouraged us to think about distinctive southern sexual traditions and how these traditions may have played a role in shaping Clinton’s sexual values and behaviours. Continuing along this regional train of thought, I began to imagine what historians of sexuality in Chicago, including Joanne Meyerowitz and Leslie Reagan, might have had to say about the Chicago or Midwestern roots of Hillary’s sexuality, and what historians of sexuality in California, including Peggy Pascoe, Susan Johnson, and Nan Boyd, might have had to say about the California or Western roots of Monica’s sexuality. Were the sexual encounters that did or did not occur between Bill and Monica, Bill and Hillary, Bill and the courts, and Bill and the American public shaped by distinctive regional sexual histories?

Historians of sexuality might also have commented on relevant generational continuities and discontinuities. Bill and Monica encountered one another, after all, not only as an Arkansasan and a Californian, but also as a Baby Boomer and a Generation Xer. And they encountered one another in the Age of AIDS. What would John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, for example, or the authors of various recent sex surveys have said about the significance of generational change in values, discourses, and practices associated with oral sex, masturbation, marital sex, non-marital sex, and marriage? Were Bill, Monica, and Hillary in step or out of step with their respective generational cohorts, with subgroups within generational cohorts, and with American society as a whole? And how did this shape the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?

In addition to exploring regional and generational differences, historians of sexuality might also have had much to say about sex and gender differences. One tradition of feminist scholarship, exemplified by the very different perspectives of Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, and Karen Dubinsky, could have helped us understand the history of men’s sexual exploitation of women, setting Bill and Monica’s sexual encounter in the context of changing practices and changing conceptions of sex in the workplace, sex between older men and younger women, and sex between empowered men and disempowered women. Another tradition of feminist scholarship, exemplified by the work of Marybeth Hamilton Arnold, Ruth Rosen, and Lisa Duggan, might have encouraged us to focus on Monica’s sexual agency, exploring Monica’s use of her sexuality to gain particular things that she wanted. And George Chauncey might have urged us to consider the relationship between gender identity and sexuality, focusing, for example, on the ways in which Bill used a masculine discourse of non-reciprocal sex in his attempt to deny that he had had “sex” or a sexual “relationship” with Monica. After all, some of Bill’s testimony suggested strongly that while Monica may have had sex with Bill, Bill did not have sex with Monica. All of these traditions might have helped us to set the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the context of the history of sex and gender.

And the list could go on. Historians of sexuality could have set Bill’s, Hillary’s, and Monica’s families and Bill and Hillary’s marriage in the context of the history of marriage, the history of the family, and the history of relationships between marriage, family, and sexuality. They could have set the public discussion of Bill’s, Hillary’s, and Monica’s sexual “problems” in the context of the history of sexual sin, crime, and disease. They could have explored the history of the commercialization of sex and how this shaped the national political drama. They could have pursued Eve Sedgwick’s theories of triangulated homosocial, heterosocial, homosexual, and heterosexual relationships. They could have explored historical intersections between class, race, and sexuality, helping to contextualize, for example, representations of presidential secretary Betty Currie as a sexually respectable African American woman, depictions of Bill Clinton’s interracial friendship with presidential advisor Vernon Jordan, and suggestions that at some level Bill had become the country’s first Black President. And finally, perhaps most interesting of all, historians of sexuality could have commented on the history of sex panics and sex scandals in the United States, setting the Christian Right and Republican Party’s use of sexual politics within the context of a long history of right-wing sexual campaigns.

In other words, historians of sexuality might have made important contributions to the public debate and legal proceedings surrounding Clinton’s impeachment and trial. And yet they did not. It’s not difficult, I think, to account for this. Unlike politics, sexuality continues to be viewed by most people as a transhistorical, essential, and unchanging phenomenon, a form of experience without history. Politics may change, according to this view, but sexuality does not. Moreover, whereas politics is seen as an arena in which expertise matters, sexuality is seen as an arena of general expertise. Who, after all, is willing to admit lack of knowledge and expertise in matters of sex? And finally, despite the unprecedented level of public discussion of sex during the impeachment scandal, most of that discussion remained incredibly superficial. In the end, who could imagine television journalists Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, not to mention Doris Kearns Goodwin or Michael Beschloss, talking about the history of oral sex and masturbation, the history of what counts as “sex” or a sexual “relationship,” or the history of extramarital sex? And so even in a period in which traditional political historians claim that their work is undervalued, they effectively maintained a monopoly on the mainstream public’s interest in history.

Rather than simply bemoan this fact, I want instead to juxtapose the absence of historians of sexuality in the developments just discussed with the astonishing successes that historians of sexuality have had in reaching large, though not necessarily mainstream, public audiences. In a period in which many academic historians have become quite anxious about a perceived crisis in getting scholarly work published, maintaining large student enrollments, and reaching large public audiences, historians of sexuality are sought after and fought over by academic and trade presses alike, they attract large numbers of students, and they sell books. Just to take one index of this, graduate students in the United States and Canada who are working on topics in the history of sexuality are often approached by academic and trade publishers long before their dissertations are completed. In fact, it is not uncommon for graduate students working in the history of sexuality to have literary agents who succeed in obtaining royalties advances for their clients. While I would like to think that this reflects the high quality of work being produced (and indeed much of this work is of very high quality), it also obviously reflects market-driven considerations and the perception by publishers that books on the history of sexuality sell. Whatever the reason, clearly publishers perceive this field as having a track record and a future promise of reaching large public audiences.

And relationships between historians of sexuality and their public audiences are not purely commercial. To take the specific case of lesbian and gay history, there is now a 25-year history of productive and organic relationships between lesbian and gay historians and lesbian and gay communities. Many lesbian and gay historians develop community-based oral history projects, they work with community-based libraries and archives, they publish their work in community-based media, and they share their work at community-based events. Even more than is the case for lesbian and gay studies scholars in other disciplines, lesbian and gay historians have a highly productive and mutually beneficial relationship with their large public audiences. Perhaps, then, the issue here is not just that historians of sexuality have been excluded from mainstream public debate but that such historians have chosen to work in dialogue with different publics.

Having juxtaposed the absence of historians of sexuality in the mainstream public sphere and the successes of historians of sexuality in reaching large alternative publics, I want to turn finally to the place of historians of sexuality within academic history departments. Here, the unfortunate truth is that public and student interest in the history of sexuality has not been matched by interest on the part of academic history departments in hiring faculty who do this work. (York of course is an exception here.) To take the specific case of U.S. lesbian and gay history, of the dozen or so people who have now completed dissertations in this field, two have primary appointments in women’s studies units, two have primary appointments in American Studies units, and one has a primary appointment in an African American Studies unit. Two of us have left the United States for appointments in history departments in other countries. The majority are unemployed or under-employed. As far as I know, only one person who has completed a dissertation on U.S. lesbian and gay history has a primary appointment in a U.S. history department.

And so what we have here seems to be an alignment on the one side of American political elites, mainstream media pundits, and academic historians, who collectively demonstrate little interest in the history of sexuality, and on the other side of American historians of sexuality, members of sexual “minorities,” book publishers, university students, and the reading public, who collectively demonstrate great interest in the history of sexuality.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that political, media, and academic elites should pander to public interest in sexual matters, or, for that matter, in nonsexual matters. But nor should such elites ignore the enduring significance of sexuality in the past, present, and future.


Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University; he previously was a professor of history and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at York University in Toronto. He is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves, Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia (University of Chicago Press, 2000), Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Routledge, 2012).

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