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Private Lives, Public Effects

June 15, 1997|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking)

SAN FRANCISCO — We know all about the sex lives of famous Americans. But the more we know, the less we have to say; the more we pry, the less we judge.

Aren't we curious? We Americans are obsessed by gossip. We watch "Hard Copy" to learn about Frank Gifford's indiscretion. We buy The Globe to find out about Paula Corbin Jones or what happened to the teenage baby-sitter in a Kennedy mansion. But the more gossip we hear, the more we are inclined, finally, to shrug.

After weeks of hearing about Kelly Flinn, the first woman B-52 pilot, we know that she had an affair with a married man, that she lied and that she disobeyed an order. We shrug. Polls released this week indicate that six in 10 Americans believe that the military applies rules of sexual behavior differently for men than for women, and differently according to rank.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen didn't read the polls. He made the mistake of saying that a decade-old extramarital affair admitted by Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston would not disqualify Ralston from being considered as a candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Poor Secretary Cohen! Poor Gen. Ralston! On matters of American sexual behavior, the male heterosexual Pentagon has not shown itself to be very sophisticated of late.

A few years ago, for example, the heterosexual Joint Chiefs of Staff was horrified by the notion of admitting homosexuals into our fighting ranks. What would happen to morale? What would happen in the showers?

What we are learning now is that it is the heterosexual male (and the officer, at that) who is out of control. This week, Sgt. Paul Fuller was convicted of raping a subordinate, indecent assault and three counts of forcible sodomy.

Meanwhile, there is Flinn. She strikes me as a not very honorable human being. And though some feminists have sought to portray her both as woman warrior and helpless victim, feminists did strike a telling blow against male arrogance by pointing to the unequal ways the military treats sexual misbehavior.

Overseas, societies older than our own are appalled by our military controversies, and amused. The French, for example, are said to be perplexed by American preoccupation with adultery in the military.

Ah, the French.

While I will agree with any Frenchman that adultery is not the worst of human sins, I do not find the French, on matters of morals, to be in any position to teach America. Not after World War II. Not after Petain and the Nazis. Moral cowardice is a worse sin than adultery.

Ah, monsieur. But in France the president dies and his mistress comes to the funeral, weeps alongside the president's wife.

It is true that we Americans are more preoccupied by sexual sin than people in many other countries of the world. We are, after all, puritanical by heritage. But curiously, our puritanism has been matched lately by a licentiousness. If we are obsessed by sexual sin, we are also obsessed by sexual pleasure. We brood, we fantasize over the latest Calvin Klein poster; we turn promiscuous and more promiscuous, because we are obsessed by sex as only Puritans can be.

What do the pollsters tell us about ourselves? We hear that Americans are growing less harshly judgmental about adultery. What Flinn did with the married soccer coach is not so very important to us. We are bothered more by the issues of sexual inequality raised by the case. The same with Ralston.

An important question is not getting asked by the pollsters, perhaps because it has no easy answer. The question is this: What is the proper relationship between our public and our private lives?

I remember feeling cheated by the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that the Pentagon offered to gays in the military. I do not regard my private life as simply a private matter. What I do in the bedroom is, finally, related to the kind of man I am in public.

The military, traditionally, has understood there is an interrelationship between public and private life. There is, after all, a great wisdom in the strict rules of military conduct: Persons in positions of public authority should not be privately promiscuous with subordinates.

The same rule applies to any number of public positions where authority is crucial to the job performed. A college professor, for example. Don't we believe that a professor should never be engaged in a sexual relationship with a student? Such a relationship would be unfair to the student, because it would play on the teacher's power. And it would be unfair to the teacher's position, because it would jeopardize academic authority.

There is, in other words, a relationship between public and private, but no one wants to think about it. We have grown cynical and democratic in our cynicism. "Boys will be boys" is matched by "girls will be girls."

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