The first law of thermodynamics says that energy can’t be
created and can’t be destroyed — it can only be changed from one
form into another. The same holds true of the puritanical
Puritanism in the historical sense is as dead as the Salem
witches. The religious group that settled in New England outlawed
theater, rejected any form of sex except marital intercourse,
banned celebration of Christmas and spent hours in church listening
to horrifying depictions of Hell.
But the term has come to be a synonym for any disapproval or
discouragement of carnal pleasure. Sexual puritanism has receded
even among devout Christians, who generally see nothing wrong with
husbands and wives gratifying each other however they please.
In society as a whole, things have changed
even more drastically. Virginity is no longer held up as an ideal
for young people; TV has an abundance of flesh and raunch; and the
majority of Americans no longer see homosexual acts as “always
Most people don’t think it’s their place to tell others what
sort of sexual behavior is acceptable. With few exceptions, it has
become a private matter of individual preference. Laws against
sodomy are extinct. Divorce is easy to get. Your sex life is
off-limits to government regulation. Busybodies have little impact
But puritans haven’t vanished. They’ve merely changed the
subject. The expansion of freedom in matters of sex has coincided
with a shrinkage in matters of health. New Yorkers would laugh at
laws policing sex, but they elected a mayor who has no problem
trying to control other physical indulgences.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought forth a ban on
large sugar-laden beverages, which this week was struck down by a
state court. But the idea won’t go away that easily: The city will
appeal the ruling, and other cities are considering similar
Nor is this approach out of character for Bloomberg, whose
attitude is: “Let my conscience be your guide.” He prohibited
restaurants from using transfats, banned smoking in bars and
restaurants as well as most outdoor spaces, compelled fast-food
chains to post calorie counts on their menus, proposed limits on
sodium and even stopped hospitals from giving bottles of infant
formula to new mothers. When it comes to what you put in your body,
nothing is off-limits to the city.
The sugary drink measure has been controversial, but if
experience is any guide, it will someday be as common and accepted
as smoke-free taverns. Individuals could be allowed to make their
own choices without coercing others, but that doesn’t satisfy the
public health zealots.
Many of them yearn to limit nicotine in cigarettes, at least
until they can ban them entirely. Many would like to curb fast-food
outlets as well: Los Angeles has blocked new ones from opening in
some neighborhoods. Several local governments, including Boston and
Philadelphia, have pronounced transfats verboten.
The usual rationale is safeguarding health, which Bloomberg said
would save taxpayer dollars that go to treat residents afflicted
with lifestyle-related diseases. His lawyers argued that sugary
drinks promote obesity, which is to blame for many of the 500,000
or more New Yorkers who have diabetes, each of whom average an
extra $6,649 a year in medical costs.
But the underlying motive is to enforce one model of acceptable
behavior on everyone. Obesity is commonly regarded as a grave
personal failing, an abdication of healthy restraint and
abstinence. Some of the virtuous feel entitled to demand virtue of
Sound like anyone who landed at Plymouth Rock? Truth is, sexual
puritans can make equally plausible arguments on the practical need
to regulate the exercise of bedroom behavior, which has major
implications for both health and government budgets.
Non-marital sex, after all, produces unwanted births, including
among teens who will become public burdens. It increases the
incidence of abortion, which some states cover under Medicaid. It
spreads diseases that can have fatal consequences, including AIDS
and human papillomavirus.
But in the realm of these fleshly pleasures, we have learned to
let people make their own decisions, even if they have some impact
on others. We’ve largely liberated ourselves from government
interference into deeply personal choices that are a central part
of what makes us human.
Well, some of them, anyway. Escaping the puritans is a task that
is never finished.
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