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Why are the stars falling? A look at recent celebrity scandals.

Updated on April 10, 2012

2008 and 2009 found first Eliot Spitzer, then John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Tiger Woods all confessing that they had violated their own ethical standards and betrayed loved ones. They are not the first public figures to fall into disgrace. They will not be the last.

I personally try not to pay attention such stories, but no one who follows the news can avoid them entirely. Why, everyone wonders, don't these people learn anything from earlier scandals? One common answer, that famous people somehow feel above the rest of us, won't work at all.

Over the last year, I have seen far too many stories on local television about teachers' illicit sexual encounters with students. In other times and places, it's law enforcement officers, local politicians, ministers, and all manner of other ordinary people.

Selling sex
Selling sex

Sexual scandals involving major public figures are no different from those involving ordinary people, unless, perhaps, the famous have enough money for more expensive flings.

Until he was caught, Eliot Spitzer paid perhaps $80,000 dollars over several years to prostitutes. Other men who cheat on their wives probably pay much less and romp with other women, paid prostitutes or otherwise, in less luxurious surroundings. Otherwise, what is the difference?

I have some other questions. If anyone else is asking them, the media do not find it worth reporting. Why is it any worse for these men to cheat on their wives than for anyone else, man or woman, to betray a spouse? Why do people get outraged at famous hypocrites, but not friends, neighbors, associates, or the people in the mirror who the same things?

As a society, we are hypocrites. We burn with rage when someone's sexual misbehavior makes it onto the evening news. Otherwise, we condone the same behavior. Apparently, adultery is only wrong when someone gets caught, or if the adulterer is either famous or one's own spouse.

Until the 1960s, social norms confined sex within the bounds of marriage. "Heterosexual marriage" would have seemed a mere redundancy. Of course both men and women occasionally strayed into adulterous affairs. Couples were not necessarily virgins on their wedding day, and unmarried women sometimes bore children. It happened, but it shocked. No one approved.

Leaders of the counter-culture proclaimed that chastity in singleness and monogamy in marriage somehow represented capitalist oppression and class domination. Any kind of restraint, even self-restraint, became suspect. Some even preached "open marriages," where both partners could have sex with whomever they wanted. They declared that the libido freed from all social restraints would result in happier, better-adjusted people who could express themselves sexually and form temporary relationships without guilt, shame, or jealousy.

Society seems to have forgotten guilt, and especially shame. Jealousy, on the other hand, displays itself whenever infidelity comes to light. Most adulterers suffer the consequences of their actions privately when they get caught. Public figures must eventually face the cameras, and all too often seem to regret only getting caught. For all the formulaic confessions of violating their standards, they do not typically declare that their behavior was morally wrong.

As I write, Tiger Woods is the latest celebrity to undergo a public whipping for adultery. Alas, he will not be the last. A society that has forgotten how to think in moral terms, that views restraint with suspicion, that blithely accepts sex outside of marriage until one's own partner has sex with someone else--such a society guarantees that sexual permissiveness will continue to corrode relationships, social institutions, and the ability to trust anyone.

The sexual revolution was built on a lie. Our movies, television shows, magazines, the Internet, and other mass media continue to proclaim that lie. Too many people believe it in their own lives. And when the fingers of blame get pointed at public figures who have been caught living that lie, they also point at the hypocrisy of those who have bought into it. The very fact that celebrity scandals count as entertainment indicts our entire society.

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