I came across this book review in the New Republic. It points out, correctly, that my progessive cohort has a weird relationship with premarital sex and promiscuity. Namely, we’re terrified to admit that casual sex might be something other than perfectly ok. And yet 3 out of 4 people who identify as liberal on this issue have felt regret after a hook-up, booty call, or other trip to the meat market. Not to mention that there is a strong correlatation between women with depression and women with a high number of sexual partners (though who knows which came first).

I was out walking around yesterday with this on my mind when I passed a couple of women pushing a stroller down the street while, (gasp!) smoking. Hah, I thought to myself, Italians and their smoking, I know more than one person back home who would have a fit if they saw these ladies.

Then it occurred to me: What’s the difference, really, between smoking and promiscuity? 

Think about it, both carry some pretty hefty health risks: Smoking can result in emphysema or lung cancer; promiscuity in unwanted pregnancy and a colorful (sometimes literally) assortment of venereal diseases, a few of them potentially deadly (HIV or cervical/anal cancer caused by HPV). Evolutionary biology further suggests that promiscuity is emotionally detrimental for women; it seems that, during sex, we apparently (unfortunately) release some sort of bonding hormone indifferent to the unsuitability of our partners.

Ah, you may be thinking, but smoking hurts everyone around while casual sex is just potential self-destruction between consenting adults. Maybe. But I feel obliged to point out that secondhand smoke outdoors is not really a big risk factor for anything. At least no more than traffic, almost certainly less. Indoors it’s largely banned, everywhere. But even when it was permitted in bars, one might point out that these were places where consenting adults went voluntarily to engage in risky behaviors, and so: once again, little difference.

Furthermore, I can come up with a number of scenarios where promiscuity is a threat to unsuspecting third parties. For instance, I learned on an hour-long segment from NPR that, as a result of increasing promiscuity, up to 50% of men are now infected with HPV. The more we sleep around, the more we increase our risk of picking up this and other (again potentially cancer-causing) viruses and passing them on to partners who may be making less risky choices. Condoms, it seems, don’t prevent the spread much more effectively than light cigarettes prevent lung cancer.

And let’s not overlook the psychological problems that can arise from sex. I once had an acquaintance who was enthusiastically ethical about her dietary habits, but blithely indifferent to the implications of bedding a married man with children. While I hardly think this individual would broker friendship with a remorseless child abuser, the prospect of causing a divorce–of tearing a family apart and making children aware that their father prioritized getting a bit of trim over their emotional well-being–caused her no great concern.

I have known people who have been slapped by their parents and I have known people whose families broke up over extra-marital affairs. Although this is anecdotal, the latter, in my experience, caused far deeper and more permanent damage to the kid. One guy I dated still carried an open grudge against, and deep distrust of, women twenty years after learning his mom was sleeping around on his dad.

Adultery, in effect, is child abuse, with plenty of collateral damage, often worse than the physical kind. And yet, once again, in our straining to be non-judgmental and sex positive, we force a hypocritical sympathy for the less damaging act. We say cheating is understandable where passion or love erupts–at least more understandable than a severe physical addiction to nicotine, or a moment of frustration at a screaming toddler. Really?

It seems to me that it requires less moral frailty to pick up an unwise habit like smoking, usually in a teenaged attempt to be cool, or to lose one’s temper and slap an errant child, than it does to engage in flirtation, establish a mutual willingness, check into a hotel room, disrobe and ignore the potential for destroyed emotional lives–the possibility of which our consenting adults tend to be well aware.

One wonders if we are even bothered by child rape anymore. After all, the French court system is pressing charges against John Galliano for his anti-semitic ranting while Roman Polanski, who drugged and sodomized a protesting thirteen-year-old and then fled prosecution, is deemed worthy of political asylum. As despicable as Galliano’s sentiments were (and they were) they were the ugly ramblings of a drunk to a stranger in a bar. Perhaps he should have flashed her, maybe then we would feel for him.

Have we lost our handle on sex, felt such a need to drag it down from its Judeo-Christian pedestal that we have stripped it of the biological and experiential import it bears even sans any mystical association? In our effort to rescue its pleasures from hysterical moralizing, have we stripped it of its rightful moral dimensions? I, for one, am following the smoke signals.