Freethought NOW!

Puritanism causes our split attitude on sex

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A picture of the Clintons with the words "Puritanism causes our split attitude on sex" overtop

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This column, for instance, rings true even a full 30 years after its original publication.

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 embarrassed by it.

Despite all the changes wrought by the sexual revolution, the old taboos remain powerful.

I guess that’s why the national media went ballistic 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 CNN, saying he “needed the national TV hammer.’’ Soon it was blaring on NBC Nightly News, “Nightline” and everywhere.

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, Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, 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 the uproar is 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 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. 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.’’

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