Just how funny was that story of the man in Fairfax County, Virginia, who got up early on the morning of October 19 and walked naked into his own kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee? The next significant thing that happened to 29-year-old Eric Williamson was the local cops arriving to charge him with indecent exposure. It turns out that while he was brewing the coffee, a mother who was taking her 7-year-old son along a path beside Williamson’s house espied the naked Williamson and called the local precinct, or more likely her husband, who happens to be a cop.

“Yes, I wasn’t wearing any clothes,” Williamson said later, “but I was alone, in my own home and just got out of bed. It was dark and I had no idea anyone was outside looking in at me.”

The story ended up on TV, starting with Fox, and in the opening rounds the newscasters and network blogs had merciless sport with the Fairfax police for their absurd behavior. Hasn’t a man the right to walk around his own home (or, in this case, rented accommodations) dressed according to his fancy? Answer, obvious to anyone familiar with relevant case law: absolutely not.

Peeved by public ridicule, the Fairfax cops turned up the heat. The cop’s wife started to maintain that first she saw Williamson by a glass kitchen door, then through the kitchen window. Mary Ann Jennings, a Fairfax County Police spokeswoman, stirred the pot of innuendo: “We’ve heard there may have been other people who had a similar incident.” The cops are asking anyone who may have seen an unclothed Williamson through his windows to come forward, even if it was at a different time. They’ve also been papering the neighborhood with fliers, asking for reports on any other questionable activities by anyone resembling Williamson–a white guy who’s a commercial diver and who has a 5-year-old daughter, not living with him.

I’d say that if the cops keep it up, and some prosecutor scents opportunity, Williamson will be pretty lucky if they don’t throw some cobbled-up indictment at him. Toss in a jailhouse snitch making his own plea deal, a faked police lineup, maybe an artist’s impression of the Fairfax Flasher, and Williamson could end up losing his visitation rights and, worse comes to worst, getting ten years plus being posted for life on some sex-offender site. You think we’re living in the twenty-first century, in the clinical fantasy world of CSI? Wrong. So far as forensic evidence is concerned, we remain planted in the seventeenth century with trial by ordeal, such as when they killed women as witches if they floated when thrown into a pond.

Let’s head north from Fairfax County to Massachusetts, home of the witch trials. How about if you’re white in Boston (wise decision), weigh yourself in your own bedroom with no clothes on and… But let my Boston friend pick up the story, because it happened to him.

“It was the early ’90s. Early on Xmas eve two burly cops pushed into our house and invaded our bedroom–no warrant. They only backed off after they realized that the scale in our bedroom where I weighed myself was in front of a window. To see me there the born-agains who moved in next door (actually on the far side of a vacant lot separating us) had to keep a tight watch since it does not take long to weigh oneself.

“My girlfriend was dressing in the bedroom and my mom and stepdaughter were visiting. By the time the cops understood that I had been weighing myself every morning, the paddy wagon was there ready to take me away.

“I would have sued them but I was running for Congress at the time. The cops liked my opponent, a right-wing pro-lifer, and I have always thought that had something to do with their moral diligence that day. One of the cops, the chief, later resigned in a corruption scandal.”

Now this was in the early 1990s, please note. This was when the wave of hysteria over satanic abuse of children was in full spate, with people being imprisoned for life on just the sort of “evidence” the cops are now trying to marshal against Williamson. Massachusetts actually saw the first trial of a daycare teacher charged with satanic abuse. Bernard Baran was released after nearly twenty-two years and exonerated three years after that, on June 9 of this year. As attorney Mike Snedeker, who wrote with Debbie Nathan the 1995 book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, recently reminded us on the CounterPunch website, there are victims of that hysteria, almost certainly innocent, still rotting in prison: Fran and Danny Keller in Texas, James Toward and Francisco Fuster in Florida almost a generation later.

Among the many brilliant observations of Morse Peckham in his 1969 book Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (written under the auspices of Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research) was that the concern with sexual behavior has nothing to do with sex but everything to do with policing. American sexual prudery is part of political and social policing within the nominally legal context of supposed individual freedom. People learn to be prudish about sex before they understand anything else in society, and this prudery is transferred to other areas later that are even more important for social control and stability. The control of sex and pornography is a major part of promulgating a puritanical political culture without ever imposing an overt censorship regime. Sexual repression, often through the allegation of “deviant” fantasy crimes, is the designated stand-in for violations of the social order that are hard to crush in a courtroom. The function of many sexual crimes is to advertise threats to the established order on the rationale of supposed personal deviance and not on any actual material challenge.