Ross Douthat detects a double standard in the GOP’s treatment of Larry Craig as compared to David Vitter. He writes, “I still think it’s unfortunate that Larry Craig might be forced to resign by his fellow Republicans, while David Vitter has apparently survived being outed as a client of a major D.C. prostitution ring.” Douthat’s reasoning? “[F]rom any social-conservative calculus (or at least my social-conservative calculus) prostitution has to be considered a greater social evil than cruising for gay sex in bathrooms.”
I’m not sure I entirely agree. Morally, I disapprove of both prostitution and “cruising for gay sex,” as well as all forms of adultery. But from a public policy perspective, I think the state should generally butt out of private sex between consenting adults — even if money is involved — while retaining the power to regulate public sex acts in order to maintain quality of life in the community. While governments are justified in protecting women from coercion and cracking down on street walking, I actually do think there is a stronger rationale for criminalizing Craig’s conduct than Vitter’s — not because of a distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality, but because of a distinction between public and private behavior.
In other words, one can be tolerant of a wide range of private sexual behaviors without wanting public restrooms to turn into brothels. This is a distinction some social conservatives — and some libertarians — seem to miss.
That said, I do agree with Douthat on his larger point. Republicans and social conservatives have frequently tried to score points by picking on gays rather than offering a morally consistent but politically risky defense of the traditional family. This is wrong. And the only reason Craig is slowly being pushed out while Vitter has been allowed to stay is that Vitter’s resignation would cost the GOP a Senate seat while Craig’s might save one.
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