Every age fashions its own morality tales, updating them to suit the attitudes and conventions of the times.
More than 300 years ago, when Hester Prynne was forced to stand on a scaffold in a New England market with a scarlet A-for-adulteress embroidered on her bodice, her punishment reflected the unforgiving moral code of a stern Puritan era.
Today, despite far more relaxed standards of sexual behavior, a similarly unforgiving scenario is being played out at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. There 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the nation's first female B-52 pilot, faces a possible court-martial for having an affair with a married civilian. But unlike Hester, whose public humiliation remained local, Lieutenant Flinn must endure the glare of nationwide publicity, from front-page newspaper stories to a tearful "60 Minutes" interview.
Flinn admits that she has made serious mistakes that nobody would defend, including herself. Yet as her career crumbles amid reports that adulterous male officers in the Air Force receive only reprimands or fines, cries of "unfair punishment" justifiably echo across the country. And while Flinn's name has become a household word, her former lover, Marc Zigo, who lied to her about everything from his marital status to his age and his soccer career, remains safely out of view.
For anyone who assumes that the past 30 years have created not only professional equality but also sexual equality for women, the morality tale in Minot carries a double message: Sexual freedom has its limits. And the double standard lives.
Flinn's sad story is not the only morality tale sending a chill through the spring air. Other cautionary notes appear in two new books, written not by finger-wagging Puritans but by liberated thirtysomething women. Both offer startlingly honest first-person accounts of the changing sexual landscape, and the confusion it has sometimes wrought for women.
In "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End" (Little, Brown & Co.), Katie Roiphe chronicles the physical and emotional fallout from the sexual revolution. Naomi Wolf gives another perspective in "Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood," to be published next month by Random House.
As both books illustrate, the sexual promise of the 1960s to women - the pill will set you free - has proved too simplistic. Explaining the double bind women face, one young woman tells Ms. Wolf, "You're promiscuous if you do anything, but you're a prude if you do nothing." Indeed, Flinn, who is single, has said that when there were no men in her life, rumors circulated around the base that she was homosexual.
Severely punishing Flinn will not solve the problems women face in the military. Nor will it produce better pilots. The price she must pay for her admitted mistakes seems unbearably high. The woman the Air Force lauded as an "outstanding officer and aviator" may lose a shining career. And the military may lose a pilot in whom it invested $1 million in training. What a waste.
Whatever the outcome of Flinn's ordeal, one thing seems certain: If the Air Force prosecutes her, it must also apply the scarlet letter of its law equally to male adulterers.
Near the end of Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne's former lover, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, tells her, "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world." The same could be said of Flinn. Just as Hester eventually rose above her calamity, Kelly Flinn will surely channel her talents into a new beginning.
In the meantime, she could write a morality play of her own, offering a warning to other young women: Beware of being naive about affairs of the heart. You will certainly suffer for your confusions. That's one way - the hard way - to future enlightenment.
But to be made a scapegoat is to suffer for the confusions of others who administer punishment that not only fails to satisfy justice but also leads to divisions rather than solutions - and more confusion all around.