Sex Still Repels Many People

(distributed by New York Times wire, December 1993)

By James A. Haught

Pope John Paul II recently decreed that unmarried sex, contraception and the like are "evil.''

Iran's parliament is drafting a law to execute repeat sellers of sexual photos.

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph destroyed 28,000 copies of its USA Weekend national magazine because a carrot in a photo looked phallic. Editors wrote that the carrot "violates this newspaper's family standards.''

Some West Virginia fundamentalists are trying to make sure that sex education classes in schools don't teach about sex -- only about abstaining from it.

Teays Valley Christian School barred a pregnant girl from this year's graduation ceremony.

And North Carolina's 1.2 million Southern Baptists are to turn off their TV sets for a day to protest "moral depravity'' in shows such as NYPD Blue, which contains partial nudity and sex.

Obviously, sex still repels many, many people.

Despite all the changes wrought by the 30-year "sexual revolution'' -- millions of unwed couples living together openly, nude lovemaking in most R-rated movies, romantic-looking condom displays in every pharmacy, sex features in every woman's magazine -- the old taboos remain powerful.

America has a split personality -- relishing sex and condemning it. Our society is a stew of prurience and prudery. We're obsessed with sex and ashamed of it.

I guess that's why the national media went ballistic last week over a claim by two Arkansas troopers that President Clinton had lovers while he was governor of Arkansas.

One of Clinton's political enemies fed the tale to a right-wing magazine -- and also to Cable News Network, saying he "needed the national TV hammer.'' Soon it was blaring on NBC Nightly News, Nightline and everywhere. A magazine writer went on C-Span with innuendos that Hillary Clinton once hugged Vince Foster, the Clinton family friend who later committed suicide.

The troopers making the accusation both acknowledged they had committed adultery -- yet they felt compelled to warn America that Clinton was like them. "I thought the American people ought to know this man,'' said one trooper -- who admitted that his wife divorced him because of his extramarital affairs. The other trooper's ex-wife accused him of beating her.

Frankly, I thought the news furor was disgusting. I was ashamed of my trade. It seemed like salacious lip-smacking -- which occurs only because of the taboo that makes sex "dirty.'' The episode turned us news people into bedroom-peepers.

I don't know whether Bill Clinton had lovers, and don't care. His sex life is none of the public's business. A president has more vital responsibilities than serving as a target for smutty speculation.

As historian Arthur Schlesinger remarked last year when the Clinton smears began: "Criticism on the issues is fine, but criticism of alleged personal conduct is nonsense. I'm told that Pol Pot was never once unfaithful to his wife, but murdered millions of his countrymen.''

Adultery talk has tinged many leaders and women: George Washington and Sally Fairfax, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hennings, Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin, Warren Harding and Nan Britton, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, Dwight Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, John F. Kennedy and Judith Exner. But the gossip has nothing to do with how well the leaders led.

It's true that marital fidelity is one precept that hasn't faded in the sexual revolution. When a husband or wife strays, pain often results. But the pain is the personal problem of the couple, and it's up to them to resolve it between them in privacy. It isn't up to CNN and Nightline.

The force driving last week's uproar was the puritanical sense that sex is wrong, wrong, wrong. During the hubbub, I remembered a remark by Abraham Myerson about Goethe's classic:

"Nothing is so pathetic, because it is so ridiculous, as the great and high tragedy of Faust, wherein murder, damnation, hell, choirs of angels, God and the Devil become cosmically involved in a sexual affair between a human male and female.''

That sounds a bit like the new Clinton tempest.

Why are some people so tormented about sex? Why the rush to condemn? Why can't people just shrug and let sex hold its natural place in life? Sex is normal, healthy -- and universal. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100 million couples make love on a typical day. Yet it's a deeply personal and private thing with nearly every couple. A president's sexuality should be deemed the same: personal and private.

Most of the condemnation comes from shame. If society had less guilt about sex, there'd be no reason for salacious allegations to be pounded by "the national TV hammer.''