Sunday, March 14, 2010

A is for Adultery

The other day I came across a helpful service from the New York Times online: alerts. You tell the New York Times what kind of story you are interested in, and an email lands in your inbox every time an article related to your interest appears in print. Readers can choose from a list of hundreds of “predefined” topics, or set up custom alerts if one’s tastes run to the more esoteric.

To my surprise,"sex scandals" did not make the list of set topics. Even more strange is the fact that the search term "adultery" did. What’s going on?

Beyond religious fundamentalists, the only people still using the term “adultery” today seem to be mainstream journalists covering sex scandals. But given that the New York Times is known for its commitment to presenting the news in an objective and value-free manner, why resort to the scarlet-letterish vocabulary when perfectly good modern equivalents are available?

My suspicion is that the nation's newspaper of record clings to the term "adultery" not just because sex sells, but because the term "adultery" lends crucial legitimacy to reports about private sexual relationships with its vague suggestion that some kind of actual crime has been committed. Without the adultery tag, it's a lot harder to justify obsessive coverage of sexual encounters between consenting adults.

My proposal: the word “adultery” should be stricken from the news. Just as the rhetoric of "out-of-wedlock births" has replaced references to “bastards," and just as the term “sex” is now used in the place of words like “fornication” and “copulation,” so too is it time for the New York Times and other serious news outlets to leave the moralistic rhetoric of adultery behind.