NEW YORK--If slavery was America's original sin, Puritanism was its original curse.
In recent years, the United States has made significant strides toward greater equality and freedom. Racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry have been significantly curtailed by new laws and cultural education. But we still have work to do. Four centuries after people so uptight they couldn't get along with the British invaded the New World, however, the United States remains one of the most sexually repressed Western countries.
"If expression of sexuality is thwarted," Christopher Ryan wrote in Psychology Today last year, "the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression."
In other words, mean parents, churches and right-wing politicians.
"Instead," Ryan observed, "the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame and ignorant pride."
Gays, for example. Fourteen states still had sodomy laws on the books by the time the Supreme Court invalidated them in 2003.
And the occasional politician. Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is the most recent in a long line of elected representatives to step down because of a "sex scandal."
I use scare quotes here for a simple reason: Sexual expression should never result in a scandal. Most of the Democrats I talked to had the same weird take on Weiner. They weren't offended. Not personally. They themselves didn't think he had done anything immoral, or illegal, or that he had betrayed his constituents. They didn't care.
What Weiner did wasn't bad, at least not bad enough to warrant resignation or impeachment. To most Democrats, including the House leadership, Weiner's mistake was tactical--his failure to anticipate the outrage that reflected lousy judgment--a personality flaw that required him to fall on his (much photographed) sword.
It is well past time we Americans grew up. No one should be pressured to resign because of sex. Even when they're a hypocrite.
Perhaps like you, I snorted when Sen. Larry Craig was arrested (and plead guilty to) cruising a men's room with his "wide stance." Here was a right-wing Republican who opposed gay marriage, allowing gays to get domestic-partner benefits, or even banning employment discrimination against gays, cruising for hunky tail at the Minneapolis airport.
"Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay," he said at a press conference.
Looking back on Craig now, however, I think we missed a teachable moment.
Rather than ridicule the man, we ought to have defended him as a victim of an unjust law. In the 21st century, why should anyone go to jail for soliciting consensual sex?
We should have exploited Craig's predicament as an opportunity to create a dialogue, to ask that, given his status as a gay or bisexual American, he reconsider his politics.
One day, I hope, we will live in a nation where another person's sexual expression is no one's business. Even if we take pictures and post them online.