Who’s Sorry Now?

Jesse Jackson Marches in the Penitents Parade

In fact, America has always been a nation of extremely diverse sexual mores. The Mormons, the Indians, the emancipated slaves, all practiced something other than marital monogamy. There was a broad tradition of sexual radicalism among early feminists, free lovers, and communards like the Oneida colonists in upstate New York. These experiments were crushed—often by force—but in the age of latter-day sinners, the old order cannot be enforced by lash or law. Most of us live in something other than a two-parent, divorce-free, heterosexual household, and sexual practices once deemed unspeakable are now the stuff of merchandising. The economy has flourished from this shift, which is why it will probably survive the current upchuck from the right. But we do need some way to pretend we are living in a world where virginity until marriage and monogamy thereafter are the norm. And so we expect our public figures to apologize.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was right to call America a nation of "promiscuous puritans." As he understood, there's something essentially moral about wearing the scarlet letter rather than repenting for an act you don't regard as sinful. So let's hear it for Harvey Milk, the gay politico who once answered an opponent's charge that homosexuals had thousands of partners by snickering, "If only!" One cheer for Rudy Giuliani, who refused to apologize for his extramarital life. And if Al Sharpton is ever caught in a compromising situation, let's hope he has the courage to stick with the rule he applied to Tawana Brawley: Never apologize—unless you mean it.

illustration by Justin Hampton

Research: Michael Corwin

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