Another scandal victim

January 21, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Well, well. Here it is, the first anniversary of life with Monica and someone finally got fired on account of sex.

No, not House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, the corpulent adulterer lecturing us about broken oaths. Not Rep. Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican and twice-divorced champion of the Defense of Marriage Act. Not even President Clinton. Not yet.

The man handed his walking papers was George Lundberg, a doctor and editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Lundberg was canned after 17 years for printing a survey in this week's JAMA showing that 60 percent of college students think oral sex isn't sex.

The AMA summarily ditched the editor who brought JAMA from the medical backwaters to the too-cutting edge for "inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine."

Until now, I had never thought of Dr. Lundberg as a member of the media although Lord knows we could use a doctor. But with a nose for news and an outsized ego, Dr. Lundberg helped put public health issues from domestic violence to tobacco on the agenda.

As for the notion that the AMA is apolitical? This group traces its roots back to the days when doctors played golf on Wednesday afternoons and thought Medicare was "socialized medicine." Remember last year when the AMA wanted to endorse products for Sunbeam?

More to the point, this survey is no pro-Clinton potboiler nor is it junk science. It's a tip sheet of sexual attitudes that was designed for doctors, not Geraldo.

Back in 1991 when Mr. Clinton was in Arkansas and Monica Lewinsky was still in high school, the study's co-author Dr. June Reinisch, was worrying about high-risk sex among college undergraduates. The issue was AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, not impeachment. But accurate information was hard to assess. If you asked students whether they'd had sex, how could you evaluate their answer? What was their definition of sex?

Dr. Reinisch was then directing the Kinsey Institute, those wonderful folks who shocked my parents' generation in 1948 with data about masturbation. This time the researchers asked 599 students to answer specific questions: "Would you say you `had sex' with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was . . .?" The students were then given a list of options from kissing to intercourse.

Everyone agreed that intercourse counted, but 2 percent also thought that kissing was "having sex." And in the infamous statistic, 60 percent of these overwhelmingly conservative students didn't think oral sex was "doing it."

Somewhere between the first and second Clinton administrations, the researchers broke this news to doctors at various conferences. Then last January, as Dr. Reinisch remembers all too clearly, "we hear all these pundits, lawyers and senators saying very strongly that all Americans believe that oral sex is sex. We had the data to show that wasn't true."

So they finally wrote it up, sent their paper for the usual peer review process and had it accepted. The rest is history -- as is Dr. Lundberg. But the data lingers on.

At the risk of alienating the AMA for sounding too political myself, I too think this is Mr. Clinton's story.

We know more than we want to know about one man's sexuality. You get the queasy feeling that this is one weird guy trying to cut a fine moral deal with his own conscience.

If he wasn't, well, satisfied, it didn't count. If he didn't touch her in return, it didn't count. If it was only oral sex . . . you get the idea.

Think Mr. Clinton's confused? Consider an October poll showing that 81 percent of people in post-Monica America do think oral sex is a "sexual relationship." Can you have a sexual relationship without having sex? As Monica would say, "Hello?"

So what is sex? "There is no right answer. It's what people think it is," says Dr. Reinisch.

This all reminds me of the wonderful moment after my pre-Christmas speech in Hawaii when an older woman with a thick Viennese accent brought down the house with a complaint that she didn't understand all this American talk about sex. In Europe, she said, this isn't sex; it's foreplay.

Maybe the Republicans are right. Maybe this impeachment isn't about sex after all.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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