Even by the standards of those libertine French, this would be cradle-robbing.
The French believe the perfect affair is one between a man and a woman half his age plus seven. The amour President Clinton is alleged to have had with Monica Lewinsky, however, would have paired a 49-year-old man with, not the French ideal of a 31-year-old woman, but someone a full decade younger.
And yet, for all the sound these allegations have spawned, there is surprisingly little fury about the age difference. Perhaps that is because there is so much else swirling about the mix -- the politics, the tapes, the rumors, the breathless speed at which each new development overtakes the one from the minute before.
But it also speaks to the murky state of being 21 today. By 21, you can legally drink, drive, smoke, vote, marry, have sex, get an abortion, go to war and otherwise proceed as an adult. And yet, there are signs that society doesn't quite trust young people to act their legal age: Some college campuses have policies on whether professors can date students. At convenience stores, signs warn that you'll be carded if you try to buy cigarettes and look younger than 28.
Age is relative. Asking how old is old enough often can only be answered with a second question: In comparison to what? With Clinton and Lewinsky, the age gap doesn't seem as great as it should because Clinton seems younger than his years, and she seems older than hers.
This president, one of the nation's youngest ever, has always retained the whiff of the callow youth even in so powerful an office. He allowed himself to be photographed jogging in shorts and chomping on McDonald's burgers; he discussed his underwear on MTV. He is of course the ultimate baby boomer, all too representative of a generation of Peter Pans who refuse to grow up.
Lewinsky, though, is of the next generation, and thus the inheritor of the loosening of the old strictures that took place during the youth of her parents -- and Bill Clinton. Her generation grew up faster if not wiser, becoming sexually active earlier than their parents did. In 1970, 71 percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls were virgins. Over the years, according to one report, the situation has almost reversed itself: By age 19, only 20 percent of women are still virgins. That Lewinsky at 19 was having an affair with a married man and former teacher doesn't seem so much surprising as sad.
That revelation has silenced much of the "poor young thing" reaction that was occasionally -- though not pervasively -- heard during the first days of the scandal.
Even the way her attorney, William H. Ginsburg, referred to her shifted as the events of the week unfolded. He went from calling her a child in need of protection to an adult in full charge of her life.
Day One: "If the president of the United States did this -- and I'm not saying that he did -- with this young lady, I think he's a misogynist. If he didn't, then I think Ken Starr and his crew have ravaged the life of a youngster."
Day Four: "I represent a young girl. My job is to relieve her from the jeopardy that she's in. . . . She's a 24-year-old doe caught in the headlights of an international scandal."
Day Six (after revelations that Lewinsky had a five-year affair with a former teacher): "This is a grown woman. She has had relationships with men. That is neither shocking nor is it surprising."
So which is it, child or adult?
"I think that in this country, at 21, most women are pretty experienced and worldly," says Katie Roiphe, author of "The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus" and "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at Century's End." "We have this idea about women that childhood lasts till she's about 30. The larger point is this is not someone who didn't have her own sexual desires."
Roiphe, 29, is one of a new generation of feminists who have broken ranks with their elders on subjects like date rape and sexual harassment. For them, women are not necessarily the victim, even in so imbalanced a relationship as an intern and a president.
"In general, we as a culture are invested in the idea of female innocence, which bears no relation to the reality of the average college student," Roiphe says. "We have this Lolita story -- the older man, the young girl. It's only one side of the story. It's one of the archetypical narratives that we have. The president -- he's the most powerful man in the world. This is the quintessential example of that."
Roiphe has a skewed story of her own to tell in the latest issue of Vogue: In an article titled "The End of Innocence," Roiphe writes about an affair she had at 16 with a 36-year-old man. Her take, though, is a surprising departure from the expected tale of the old wolf preying on the innocent lamb. The fact that an older man was attracted to her, she says, gave her the first taste of her own sexual powers.