A sex tour of Italy was the last thing I had on my mind when I decided to take two children along with me on a recent lecture tour, but each trip I take seems to construct itself thematically like an overwritten modern novel in which every scene reeks of symbolic significance. This time the reek was of Krizia perfume, and the symbol was the Green Party billboard sporting a frontal nude (all parts included) of the leader’s wife. Her message was a bit of not-too-coy innuendo: “This is the only fur I abuse.”

This is not the first nude billboard I have ever seen, and the other nudes had always been someone’s wife daughter sister mother; and it was not the first time that a politician had sexually exploited his wife to gain advancement: as a boy Lord Melbourne was told by one of his schoolfellows, “Your mother’s a whore,” which she was. But Melbourne’s father did not lead his wife through the streets of London offering to sell a peep to any citizen who had the franchise. It is the casualness, or rather the shamelessness of sexual advertising throughout Europe, that is so disconcerting.

There is nothing but sex on European television. I am not thinking primarily of the swinish German programs available in hotels all over Europe, but of the standard game shows and variety programming where the object is to pack as many women and as little clothing as possible into a space that can fill up a screen. The hottest program in March was La Zingara, a game show with half-dressed dancing girls bopping in and out among the contestants as if there were nothing unusual. At one point, contestants were required to bowl down one of a set of large pins which were inevitably representations of the same dancing girls. This was on RAI. Switch to a commercial channel, and the girls are younger and their covering less discreet.

Silvio Beriusconi, the ex-socialist plutocrat who is the last hope of the Italian right, helped to pioneer adolescent soft porn on Italian television. Most of his supporters, including rightwing Catholics, fail to see the irony, and they think Americans are puritanical in their obsession with the sex lives of their political leaders. Bill Clinton is abused for his indiscretions with a series of boopsies, while François Mitterrand not only had girlfriends, but also a long-established mistress who showed up at his funeral. Many American leaders, it is true, have acted like Europeans—Franklin Roosevelt, General Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson all had their flings, and more than one credible allegation has been made against George Bush—but all of these men took some pains to hide their follies and knew they could rely, for the most part, on the silent complicity of the press. Mr. Clinton, however, has been even less discreet than the French and Italian leaders who like to be photographed dancing with mistresses half their age. According to some reports, at least, our President behaves less like a European statesman than like a rutting Arkansas razorback running amok in a sty full of young sows.

It is not easy to compare the sexual mores of Europe and America, if only because both places are so diverse. Nabokov’s Lolita was described as an allegory both of the Old World seducing the New and of America seducing Europe. Italy and France, it seems to me, have both extremes; pagan licentiousness and medieval Christian chastity. In Eugenio Corti’s Il cavallo rosso (a novel covering the decades of the 1940’s through the 70’s), young men of different social classes—peasants, workers, industrialists—display a chastity and modesty toward women that would be inconceivable among the most pious Christians in America, where our habit of compromise and moderation makes it difficult to sustain extremes of either vice or virtue. It goes without saying that the weaknesses of the flesh are to be found everywhere, often in the company of hypocrisies of the spirit, but social ideals count for much. Manzoni’s great novel I promessi sposi includes a masterful portrait of lust, pride, and hypocrisy in the Nun of Monza, but the heroine, a simple uneducated girl, is a study in piety and modesty. The corresponding heroines of American literature, from Hester Prynne to Scarlett O’Hara, are, in comparison, gross and lewd. (I search for counterexamples of forceful fictional women who are models of chastity, and the best I can come up with is Simms’ Katherine Walton. I am sure there are other, better examples, but in French literature, for example, one can find examples from Corneille or even la belle prude in Laclos’ vicious novel Les liaisons dangereuses.)

In America, we have succeeded in making pornography mainstream and prime time, while at the same time persuading our clergy that they are justified, when they are off-duty, in telling indecent stories. Even from the pulpit I have heard scatological and anatomical references that a sailor would have blushed to make in a lady’s presence, only a generation ago. In Rome, on the other hand, the contrast was shocking, between the convent on the Gianiculo, where we spent a week, and the lewdness of Italian popular culture that assaults you from every billboard and TV screen.

Even the concepts of chastity and virginity are problematic in America. They are too untechnical, too absolute. Chastity implies a cleanliness of habits patiently practiced for years; one does not, in the ordinary course of a life, suddenly see the light and discover chastity at a tent revival; it cannot be sold in prescription form or patented as a device or acquired through therapy. Only by practicing and thinking chastity, can we become, bit by bit, more chaste.

In America, however, we do things the easy way, with public pledges to be “Promise Keepers” or second-chance virgins. I’m sorry kids, but if you spend five years hopping from bed to bed, there is no way you can reacquire your virginity, and to pretend that you can is not only an insult to the girls who have said no, but it is positive proof that you have learned nothing. The self-deception of the born-again virgins is on a level with the appeals for clemency made by convicted murderers: who, if they really had repented, would accept the death penalty as just retribution.

The Promise Keepers are even more obtuse than the once and future virgins. The brainchild of Colorado University football coach Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers bring together thousands of epicene sports fans in stadiums all over the country and commit them to keeping seven promises, some of them perfectly innocuous on the surface and others that put the PKs squarely in the sublimely loony tradition of American cults. In fact, some conservative Protestants (Herman Often at the Christian News, in particular) have dissected the various heresies promoted by the PKs, pointing out that several of the group’s leaders, including McCartney himself, claim to have received direct revelations from Jesus Christ.

On the surface. Promise Keepers might appear to be just one more Evangelical self-help group, asking its members to commit themselves to “honoring Jesus Christ,” and to “practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.” (One wonders how Coach McCartney would go about distinguishing the moral from the ethical.) If these promises sound all too much like the confessional statement of a new religion, some Evangelical critics have suspected exactly that, wondering why a new origination is needed to tell men what their pastors are already saying from the pulpit. I suppose the PKs would reply (Promise Five) that “a shocking number of pastors find themselves weary, wounded, discouraged and struggling with feelings of inadequacy.”

If several of the new commandments are boilerplate stuff, others are more original. For example, a PK is “committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men.” If this means only that a PK should be a loyal friend, the commandment would be harmless enough, but, no, the PK can’t just be a friend, he has to be a sensitivity counselor who meets with a small group of men several times a month in a self-criticism session at which each of the members “willingly grants the others the right to inquire about his relationship to God, his commitment to his family, his sexuality, and his financial dealings.”

Most men I know would punch out anyone who presumed to make such inquiries, and any married man who talks about his “sexuality” (presumably his relations with his wife) ought to be horsewhipped and branded with a scarlet “A” for the part of the anatomy he cannot distinguish from a hole in the ground.

The problem here is chastity. What is the difference between putting your nude wife on a billboard or talking dirty about her with a bunch of the guys? This is not a trick question, not for a sane man. The trouble is that we have come to see chastity almost exclusively as a “thou shalt not,” a conscious refusal to give into temptation rather than a positive virtue that infuses our soul with radiance. Chastity is not reducible to virginity; it can occur in different forms. As St. Ambrose observed, “There are three forms of the virtue of chastity, the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows, and the third that of virgins,” none of which is to be praised to the exclusion of others. It is not enough not to cheat on our wives; chastity requires us to avoid pornography, including the domestic manufactures of our own imaginations, but more than an avoidance of evil, chastity compels a married man to cultivate the good, a sentiment approaching reverence for his wife, a desire to protect her from contamination.

Without a sense of shame, there is no chastity. For the Greeks, Aidos (shame) was a powerful and divine force teaching us right from wrong. In Plato’s dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras told a myth of men living like savages, even after Prometheus has given the gifts of fire and technology. Finally, Zeus sends Hermes to endow the human race with shame (aidos) and justice (dike), which will enable men to live in political communities. Anyone lacking these virtues, enjoins Zeus, must be killed as a plague. The “private parts” were aidoia (that is, shameful), not because they were a source of embarrassment but because they inspired a reverential modesty. Greek women were, for the most part, kept under close watch, not because Greek men were particularly patriarchal—patriarchy is, as Steve Goldberg observes, an “inevitability” to which there are no exceptions—but because their chastity was revered and protected.

Today shame—and chastity—has all but disappeared, even among religious zealots. At some Evangelical revival meetings, it is all too common to hear members of the congregation publicly confessing to extramarital affairs with other members’ wives. Obsessed with the need to cleanse themselves, they think nothing of ruining the woman’s reputation by public scandal. Some years ago I attended a splendid conference given by Opus Dei to commemorate the anniversary of Humanae vitae, Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical on human life. But even here, among these conservative Catholics and Protestants, we had to be exposed to Judith Reisman’s child pornography slide show. Several nuns, I was happy to see, walked out in horror, as did I who saw nothing I had not seen many times before. At lunch, we listened to a man talk about natural family planning. With his wife present, he discussed in concrete, albeit circumlocutory terms, the intimate details of their payments of the conjugal debt. I am sure they were good Catholics, pious people, but chaste? Hardly.

It is sometimes at “right to life” conferences that the worst offenses against shame and modesty occur. Terrifying pictures of unborn babies are everywhere, and at some protests, the fanatics fling the corpses of aborted babies at their adversaries. If they really want to be creative, why don’t they come up with a book, 500 Uses for a Dead Baby—something both sides could enjoy?

Several years ago I heard ex-abortionist Bernard Nathanson cheerfully excoriating doctors for doing what he used to do to tens of thousands of unborn babies. Dressed in an expensive suit with designer shoes, Nathanson was passionate (eloquent he was not) in expressing his moral outrage, but gave no sign of contrition. He had made himself rich and successful killing babies, and now he was making himself famous by attacking abortionists. It is a wise investor who knows how to make out going in and getting out, and people like Nathanson are nothing if not wise investors in the volatile marketplace of popular morality. Now he says he is a Catholic convert, but blames his evil ways on an abusive father. Before long the fault will lie with Judaism, the Y chromosome, or the Prince of Lies himself, anyone and anything but Bernie Nathanson. “Ain’t that a shame,” went the 50’s song, “you’re the one to blame.” I’ll believe him when he sells all that he has and gives it to a home for unwed mothers, and I’ll be willing to listen to him after he has discharged a vow of ten years’ silence.

There are murderers on death row with more of a conscience than Dr. Nathanson, with more of a conscience than the Christian right-to-lifers who flock to his lectures, squirming with horrified delight at the horrors he narrates. Here is a pornography worse than anything Judith Reisman has ever pored over.

And now, thanks again to the wonders of science and medical research, we have an FDA-approved pill that will kill our kids. From what I gather, the main concern is that women who dispose of their unborn babies may have to see their victims, if they use the pill instead of the knife. What a shame! The whole object of American culture is to produce moral numbness. After six episodes of Seinfeld, the viewer can be both brain-dead and shame-dead. (Speaking of which, a neoconservative junior recently attacked the immorality of Seinfeld while conceding that it was “brilliant.” There’s a wattage problem, here, and it is not confined to Jerry Seinfeld.)

I do not wish to be naively apocalyptic. Nothing is more childish than the pro-life civil disobedients who go about denouncing the United States as a Nazi regime because our judges allow mothers to kill their babies. There have always been mothers who killed their babies, born as well as unborn. What is almost unique about our own society is that so far from hiding their sin, so far from showing any signs of shame or embarrassment, our latter-day Medeas want not just public monies but public approbation. Instead of slinking into the back alleys where they belong, they march in parades and testify in Congress. They go on Oprah and Sally Jessy Raphael to vent their outrage at anyone who refuses to celebrate their heroism and wisdom. Blinded by the lights and deafened by applause, they close their minds to the still small voice of conscience that tells them to repent, and so long as they keep their minds closed, they are damned, damned by their own deadness to shame, damned in Christian terms but equally damned as natural women who have repudiated the purpose of their existence.

The ancients exposed newborn babies, often with legitimate (if never sufficient) reasons: the infant might not be viable or its severe deformity might make it seem portentous; impoverished parents sometimes might have to make the agonizing choice of whether to rear another child, possibly at the expense of existing children. Besides, they were aware that a healthy child, if exposed in one of the conventional places, stood a good chance of being picked up and reared, either by a childless couple or, more likely, by a slave dealer. These were pagans, following the dictates of nature without the light of revelation, but even they did not celebrate either exposure or infanticide as a virtue. Laius and Jocasta exposed Oedipus, perhaps because of a deformed foot or, in Sophocles’ play, because he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. The servant who was given the job, however, turned out to be too tenderhearted, and he handed the baby over to a shepherd.

There is no hint from Sophocles that the servant’s kindness (as disastrous as it was in the result) was misplaced. The moral wrong in the play is on the shoulders of Oedipus himself, a liberated intellectual who despises traditional piety and who questions even the power of the gods themselves. His rashness and moral arrogance bring destruction to his family and a plague to his city. Infatuated by science (the dialectic and materialism of fifth-century Sophists), he does not even know, as the prophet points out to him, who he is. Science has liberated him even from the traditional Greek concern for ancestry and lineage. He is a child of fortune, the man who can make his own destiny, a man (until he is taught better) without shame.

In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy Sayers Fleming’s Lord Peter Wimsey meets a physician who plans “to make everybody good by glands.” A Chestertonian priest is ironically enthusiastic: “My dear man, if you can cure sin with an injection, I shall be only too pleased,” but he warns the medico to “be sure you don’t pump in something worse in the process.” Wimsey should not have been surprised to discover that the physician had murdered an elderly patient in order to get money for his clinic.

“The study of nature makes a man at last as remorseless as nature.” The apothegm belongs to H.G. Wells’s Doctor Moreau, but it probably expresses Wells’ own opinion. The good doctor, you will remember, had found a means of accelerating evolution and was turning monkeys, cats, and pigs into humanoid creatures. The process involved a good deal of pain being inflicted upon the helpless creatures. In the film version, a transparently homosexual Moreau, played by Charles Laughton, enjoys the suffering he inflicts, but sadism, while it lies just over the horizon of scientific materialism, is not the point, but moral obtuseness. In fulfilling his dream of progress, which is to make all the world’s creatures exactly like himself, the scientist must deaden himself against his own conscience.

“Don’t worry, I’m a scientist,” exclaims Peter Sellers as a psychiatrist assaulting one of his female patients, “I understand these things.” The film—a 1965 sex farce—was scripted by Woody Allen, an entertainer known for his kindness to children. Even when Mr. Allen’s seduction of his wife’s adopted daughter became a scandal, his career went on without interruption. A sex scandal destroyed the career of Fatty Arbuckle— a comic genius compared to Allen—and even in the 1950’s poor “Rock Hudson” was forced to marry a woman in order to divert attention from the obsessive homosexual activities that would kill him several decades later, but by the mid-90’s virtually every actress in Hollywood is either winning an award for playing a tart or, more often, acting out the fantasy in real life. In Hollywood, nobody is anyone unless she’s had at least one bastard; to fail in this duty might be construed as judgmental.

At one level, there is no reason to care what these women do. Every society has to tolerate a certain number of courtesans, trollopes, and sluts, and it was a mistake—a very grave mistake—to attempt to burn out the Old Adam from our flesh with fire and sword. That was the dream of oversexed Puritans, who preached the most severe chastity while tolerating the gross peasant familiarities of bundling which, even when they did not lead to intercourse, were hardly incentives to chastity. Our current moral numbness is as much a product of the Puritan legacy as the social idealism, bad cooking, and concupiscence that have characterized American life since the post- Puritan ascendancy of the 1860’s.

For the Puritan, a thing must be either bad, and therefore prohibited, or good, and therefore encouraged by church and state. So long as Puritans were in some sense Christian believers, they were merely irritating killjoys who banned archery and bowling on the Sabbath and bullied the imperfect into submission to their clerical masters. Once they turned Unitarian, that is anti-Christian, they began to have doubts, not about their duty to regulate private life, but only about the virtues to be encouraged, the vices to be repressed. When they were hot, they condemned fornication. Sabbath-breaking, and heresy. They even condemned the toleration of heresy. Now that their faith has cooled and frozen solid, they condemn anyone who is morally judgmental or intolerant of diversity. Dante located lust in the pleasantest outlying neighborhood of Hell; when it came to sexual sins, however, the Puritans lived up to their name. But if fornication was once a sin of devastating consequence, to be repressed by scarlet letters and public obloquy, it is now (since it cannot be as bad as all that) a positive virtue, a sign of liberation and personal expression. Sex is good for you and ought to be promoted in schools through special courses, and the consequences ought to be subsidized by AFDC payments, the rewards and incentives for the practice of the new morality.

America is neither Eden nor a New Jerusalem. At best, we were Old Europe springing to life on new soil. In turning our backs both on the practical morality of Dante and on the moral cynicism of European degenerates, we have turned the United States into an erotic Disney world, a glossy pornography shop where nothing is real, nothing is sacred. We do not have nude billboards—yet, but when we do, they will be justified eventually on moral and scientific grounds. Social scientists will receive grants to show how public nudity decreases rape and encourages a healthy respect for women, marriage, and family, and conservatives will write articles proving them wrong, without ever challenging the underlying assumption. Meanwhile, the rates of sexual violence, divorce, and abortion will rise from their currently very high plateau, but these regrettable statistics will be explained away as residues of patriarchal superstitions, because being shameless, we are also liars.