There’s a strange thing happening in America. A new fundamentalism is emerging in our midst. It is an erotic fundamentalism, and its champions, oddly enough, hail from the same ranks as those who yesterday decried the fundamentalism of the Taliban, the practices of Islamic extremists, the backwardness of Eastern burqa champions. The West is best, they told us—and there was some reason to believe them. In the West, you don’t get stoned for adultery, they said. You don’t segregate the sexes. You don’t hide women just so men will not be tempted. You don’t practice preventive mutilation to avoid erotic error.

This now seems forgotten. The United States is in the throes of a pious convulsion at odds with its image of itself. As Americans, our image of ourselves is that of a people of unprecedented liberty from taboo, of endless erotic opportunity, of a sexual freedom so wide it is lamented as loudly as it is lauded.

But a new—or is it an old?—reality intrudes. From the pages of Time magazine to the New York Examiner, on the blogosphere and on airwaves, pundits are telling us that men and women really shouldn’t speak to each other. “Most people underestimate the danger of close friendships with members of the opposite sex … , ” warns self-proclaimed “Infidelity Examiner” Ruth Houston: “Emotional affairs often start quite innocently, with regular e-mails, text messages, phone calls, or face-to-face conversations between two opposite sex friends. The frequency and intensity of their communication with each other gradually increases as time goes on. Their friendship deepens and strong emotional bonds are formed. … ” One would think this could be a good thing in our atomized modern world: communication and bonding. But no: Communication “can progress to emotional infidelity” to one’s partner, “which, in turn, can lead to a physical affair.”

The conclusion? Don’t befriend a member of the opposite sex! “If you or your spouse or significant other have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex that you think might be bordering on emotional infidelity, get a free copy of the Emotional Infidelity Quiz” so you can yank the cord, before it is too late, on that dangerous identification with the enemy gender.

Lest one imagine that such wisdoms are limited to a fanatical fringe, let us consider the pronouncements in America’s most popular newsweekly, Time, on the recent extramarital love confession of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. For essayist Caitlin Flanagan, the governor’s tearful and self-flagellating press conference did not go anywhere near far enough, either in contrition or scope: “Sanford told reporters the affair had begun ‘very innocently’ [nine years ago],” she scoffs, “which reveals that he still hasn’t been honest with himself about the willfulness of his actions. When a married man begins a secret, solicitous correspondence with a beautiful and emotionally needy single woman, he has already begun to cheat on his wife.”

Never mind that Sanford’s Argentine correspondent was not as needy as all that. Still legally married to one man and already courted by a bevy of new ones, Maria Belen Shapur was also the mother of two driving-age sons, a sometime television reporter and apparently well-established. But Sanford sinned because he dared to communicate with a woman who may have gleaned some encouragement from his conversation. He sinned because he conversed with a woman who was pretty. (Had she been ugly would it have been all right?) I don’t know how much we can say about the secrecy—or openness—of this correspondence, which went on very peaceably for almost a decade before moving, around year eight, into romantic territory, but this, too, is a very dicey call to make. What is the meaning of “secret”? Any words not read to the family after dinner or dispatched from a conjugal e-mail account? The questions one could raise are endless—and they are vain.

The fact of the matter is this: Any communication can take on romantic colors. The only way to consistently rule out such romanticization would be to outlaw social contact between persons susceptible—by virtue of their membership in half of the human population—to mutual erotic attraction. This is like saying we should amputate our legs lest ever we sprain an ankle.

To be human is to be tempted in different ways at different times. It is to navigate emotional ambiguities and erotic undercurrents. With any luck at all, it is to experience emotional connections to many different persons over the course of a lifetime. It is to reach out to “emotionally needy” individuals (who among us can claim to have always been emotionally “un-needy”?); to reach out to them whether they are male or female, homely or comely. If we train ourselves otherwise, we will soon find ourselves in a heartless world indeed. We will sacrifice the possibility of humanity for a frigid and isolating guarantee of fidelity.

* * *

I cannot help thinking, when I read diatribes like the one in Time, that this is one of those moments when the heterosexual majority can learn a few things from the homosexual minority. Living in the Paris Marais as I have for the past few years, I am regularly privy to the social lives of the gay people in my building. Across the courtyard from me is a pair in their 30s, together now for 15 years, who entertain a revolving — as well as a steady — series of male friends. Every time there’s a new kid on the block who seems a little lost, they extend a welcoming hand—sometimes mutually, but also often separately. Being very different personalities (one works as a university professor, another as an immigration officer; one comes from Algeria, the other from Pennsylvania), they communicate most effectively with very different kinds of people.

Were my neighbors followers of American advice columns, there would almost certainly be terrific jealousy between them. Why are you having dinner alone with that attractive so-and-so, would be the refrain. Why are you e-mailing so vivaciously with your student? Who’s that guy you always visit up north?

Are there sporadic sexual frissons between my neighbors and the occasionally “emotionally needy” men to whom they extend their hospitality and support? No doubt. Would it, for that reason, be better they forbid each other such relations?They would never try, for they know what some of their heterosexual peers have forgotten: that commitment is based not on the violent prohibition of competing contact; it is based not on the erasure of temptation and the criminalization of kindness but on something altogether different. It is based also on love and will, courtship and responsibility. It is also based on the continued quality of the relationship. And my neighbors’ enterprising friendliness not only enriches their community (one of the reasons I live in the Marais is its infectious conviviality), but dramatically enhances the quality of their own relationship. It does so by providing ever fresh material for exchange, and a reminder that both are independent agents—attractive, responsive and not to be taken entirely for granted. Trusted? Yes. Assumed as the other’s birthright? No. In my mind, that is a good thing. The rest of us could do worse than to learn from it.

* * *

What happens, though, if there really is an act of infidelity? Full-service physical infidelity, not “emotional infidelity”? The South Carolina-Argentina saga ended, after all, with some days of actual togetherness between the principals—though not as many as one might imagine from the pornographic spite-fest engaged in by columnists and bloggers as a result. In nine years of writing letters—letters rich with biblical quotation, literary discussion, offers of aid to each other’s children, tenderness and hand-wringing about tenderness — Sanford and Shapur managed to see each other for some portion of six days before meeting in the company of Sanford’s spiritual adviser in a New York church with the express purpose of breaking up. Whatever one’s moral judgments of the matter, it is extremely difficult to present this relationship as a sexual orgy.

But that is exactly how it is glossed in the American media. Sanford is a “travelling penis.” His purpose in life was “hot Argentinian f-cking.” It is worth mentioning that the hours he took off to visit Shapur on the famous “state-funded trip” to South America in 2008 came not out of any political activity he was pursuing at the time but out of dove hunting. The people of South Carolina lost nothing at all — but the birds of Brazil got a brief break from the carnage.

It is an existential irony that when an American politician takes time off to kill, his constituents are all applause or indifference. But when he takes time off from killing to love, they are aghast and begin to worry whether it might have cost them anything. Nobody cared that former Vice President Dick Cheney took time out from overseeing the killing of Iraqis in order to frequently kill ducks—not even when he shot a fellow American by mistake in the process—but when a small-state governor has dinner with a South American divorcée, now that’s a scandal.

One of the most tragic aspects of this sort of journalistic lynching is the extreme reductionism about human relationships that it reflects and perpetuates. An interaction that—for all the damage it may have done—probably clocked thousands of hours of letter-writing for each second of kissing, is glossed, simply and confidently, as a “booty call”—an opportunistic groping after “free sex.” Is it not obvious to us that opportunism has a different face? It does not write reams of prose to a person on the other side of the globe and risk public ruin for a few minutes of gratification more reliably obtained in a toilet stall with a magazine — or with a willing groupie on your staff at lunchtime. Women in general are far too much trouble, said poet Philip Larkin to a friend. In the very best of cases you have to take them to a movie and express interest in their career goals and take their phone calls for some time afterward. Larkin himself “would rather stay home with my hand.”

So would others. So would others some of the time. But even Larkin—as his poems occasionally showed—had other aspirations at other moments. Most of us do—or we would not go to the trouble we do to mess up our lives. There would be no allure to the distant bad girl, no myth of the irresistible bad boy, no attraction to hard-to-get mates. As regrettable as we sometimes think such phenomena are, they are also, in a way, reassuring. They demonstrate clearly what we might otherwise forget: that human beings are motivated by more than “free sex.” They long for more than easy gratification. For worse or better, they actually like to work for relationships; to spend time, effort, imagination and—yes—idealism on them.

I wager the following: Even sex is not about sex. Even sex, in many cases, is as much about seizing and offering tangible proof of affection and esteem as it is about the procurement of pleasurable spasms. Those spasms are easy to come by if they are what you’re after. But few of us seek them where they are most easily accessible. Most of us stray farther and wider than ever the desire for physical pleasure would sanction. For all of our cynical posturing and occasional self-incrimination we are a hell of a lot more romantic than we say we are. We are a hell of a lot more interested in intimacy and earned closeness than we are asked to believe by the New Erotic Fundamentalists.

The New Erotic Fundamentalists would call Tristan himself a pig. They would call Isolde a slut who couldn’t find her dildo in time to avert political catastrophe. They would call Romeo—who flouted family to embrace his soul mate—a self-indulgent sop with “pants on fire.” Ultimately, the new erotic fundamentalism stems from a failure of the imagination. It leads, moreover, to a failure of reality—to a turning back of the clock on social progress and gender liberation and human trust. It leads us into a land where university professors cannot close the door during office hours; employers and employees cannot pay each other a heartfelt compliment, and married people cannot joke, work, sympathize or commiserate with members of the opposite sex. It brings us back to burqas and barriers, scarlet letters and scaffolds.

There is still time to turn back. The price, admittedly, is perfect safety. But the prize is freedom, equality and the possibility of love. It’s our choice.

Cristina Nehring has written for numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Conde Nast Traveler and the London Review of Books. She is the author of “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century.”

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