ALMOST all that we really needed to know about last week's Sun on Sunday splash was in the first line of the story: "A married peer in charge of upholding standards in the House of Lords has been caught on video snorting cocaine with a pair of £200-a-night hookers.” Add in the notable fact that John Buttifant Sewel, now known to many as "Lord Coke", appeared to say that he was spending his £200-a-day expenses on the romp, and the necessary information for outrage was all there.

But, of course, the last week delivered so much more. It brought us the unforgettable front-page image of the peer, slumped in a chair, bare-bellied and sporting an orange bra and borrowed leather jacket, smoking, while seemingly high on cocaine. It brought footage of him calling Boris Johnson a "public school, upper-class twit"; cartoons lampooning him; the monikers Lord Coke and Lord Sewer; and an endless stream of Twitter fun, fury and mockery.

There was no doubt that this story was in the public interest. The Sun, the public and most of the media seemed to agree on this. As Stephen Pollard in The Telegraph put it: “When the peer responsible for drawing up the Lords’ standards guide is exposed as a cocaine-snorting, prostitute user, there’s not really any alternative to resignation." Sewel did resign. It would be hard to argue that there wasn’t a case for publishing the story. But what about the stream of details, the soap-opera-like way in which the story unfolded, providing days of page-filling entertainment for The Sun, the paper that still carries the infamous Page Three? What all-that self-righteous and moralising titillation, really public interest? Or is the University of Westminster's communications professor, Steven Barnett, right when he says that “the sanctimonious tones and moralising are essentially the fig leaf for publishing sex and drugs story to sell papers”?

Many of us purport to believe in some notion of privacy, yet we seem unable to resist a bit of scandalous gossip. As the philosopher AC Grayling points out, the Sewel sting has created a huge amount of extra interest because it’s about sex and “most of that is salacious interest”. Yet, he argues, the sex life of anyone, whether he or she be celebrity or politician, is really “absolutely nobody’s business”. Grayling believes “there should be no prying into private lives and sex lives”.

With Sewel, however, there is an element of public interest. “This is a man who is chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life,” says Grayling. “If somebody wants to go to prostitutes, take cocaine, that’s their own business. But what is a problem is if people say one thing and they do absolutely the opposite. So it’s hypocrisy which is the problem, not sex.” It is hypocrisy because as chair of committees, he was not conforming to the standards of the system over which he presided; hypocrisy because he had written in the Huffington Post celebrating "new, stronger sanctions" for personal misconduct; hypocrisy because he once wrote: "The actions of a few damage our reputation. Scandals make good headlines."

Of course there was more beyond the Lords hypocrisy to get upset about in the revelations. There was the fact that he appeared to be breaking the law by taking and possessing cocaine. There were the things he said about Asian women "looking innocent" when "you know they're whores". There was the fact that he appeared quite plainly on the videos to be saying that he was using his expenses to pay for the session. But it wasn’t just these issues that made it a big story, it was the titillating detail: the bottle of vodka, the studded leather jacket, the fact that he used a rolled-up £5 note to snort the powder off a woman's chest.

And who didn’t gloat over those details? There’s nothing like a good sex scandal involving consenting adults to provide a bit of light relief from the genuinely grim tales of abuse. We in the UK, have a long history of such sex revelations, all of which seem to have been enhanced by colourful detail. With Profumo, the 1961 affair between a Tory cabiniet minister and 19-year-old would-be model Christine Keeler, it was the vague tales of S&M parties and orgies featuring the "man in the mask", supposedly a high-ranking member of the establishment who served guests naked at dinner parties and ate from a dog bowl.

With the 1992 affair between Tory cabinet minister David Mellor and actress Antonia de Sancha, it was the fact that the story involved toe-sucking and him wearing a Chelsea football strip. With Labour politician Ron Davies it was the fact that he tried to pretend his sex act with a stranger on Tog Hill had never happened and he was merely up there watching badgers. With the extra-marital affair involving former LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown, it was the fact that he was dubbed Paddy Pantsdown on the Sun's front page.

Many of us remember the original Jeffrey Archer libel action for the fact that the judge described his wife Mary Archer as “fragrant”, and the second for another classic quote, from Mary Archer herself: “We are all human and Jeffrey manages to be human more than most.”

But throughout the history of the sex scandal, the press has always given excuses, or reasons, for publishing such stories in all their Technicolor and trivial detail: the threat to security, the lying, and, again and again the hypocrisy. With Profumo, there were plenty of excuses for telling the story of the affair, most notably the threat to security arising from the fact that John Profumo was secretary of state for war and Keeler had also slept with a Russian naval attache. But the real nail in Profumo’s coffin was that he lied. He made a statement denying the relationship and any impropriety. Like Jeffrey Archer later, who perjured himself denying going to the Albion hotel with call girl Monica Coghlan, it was perhaps really the lying that ended his career. Affairs are one thing, but lying and hypocrisy are the twin trust-trashing behaviours we hate most in politicians, and are almost unrecoverable from.

Mostly these politicians seemed hypocritical because they espoused or created for themselves an image of conforming to a particular type of family values. As Joan Smith has put it: “The charge against men like Profumo is not that they have sex with prostitutes – in any case, it has never been clear to me whether Keeler was literally a 'call girl' – but that they cannot bring themselves to be honest about sex, espousing an explicitly Christian morality in public which they flout in private. It's a form of hypocrisy, obviously, but I think it's worse than that, splitting off sex from human nature in a way that's essentially puritan.”

The grip that puritanical moralising has on our society has loosened a little since then. These days we like to think that, for the most part, what goes on between consenting adults, is accepted. The gay rights movement has meant that a great many of the scandals of yesteryear would, hopefully, not in these times cause more than a ripple. Think, of Jeremy Thorpe, whose career was ended by claims that he had hired a hit man to kill and silence a gay lover. Thorpe, a very significant political figure throughout the 1970s, led a life of subterfuge and secrecy, covering up his homosexual affairs, which one hopes today he would not feel cornered into. Of course, it’s hard to feel sympathy for a man of privilege who did so much to cover up his relationship with his stable groom lover, but it is possible nevertheless to see him too as a victim of the moral climate of his times.

Meanwhile we, in the UK, are not alone in being troubled by the hypocrisies of those in power. In America in 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign after a Federal Investigation revealed that he had spent many thousands of dollars paying for sex from women at an elite escort agency. It wasn’t just the fact that he paid for sex, but the fact that he was a former Attorney General who broke up call-girl rings and was on record as comparing prostitution to “modern-day slavery”. He had for some time appeared to be waging a moralistic campaign against paid-for sex.

One thing that has also come across in the reaction to Sewel, is that we remain divided, as a society, as to whether we believe what he did, beyond being hypocritical, was actually bad. Many people now consider that what people do in their own private lives is their own business, providing it doesn’t involve children or abuse. There is a pattern of increased acceptance around drug taking. An Observer study of drug usage in 2008 found 27% of the population had taken illegal drugs; by last year the figure was 31%. A decade ago, in 2005, a study estimated that the numbers of men buying sex had doubled in a decade. Last year a survey of British sexual attitudes showed that a fifth of British men had visited a prostitute, an increase of 4% on research done in 2008, which was itself a 2% increase on 2002.

But the politics and ethics around paying for sex are complicated, and while some now see sex work as an empowered choice made by women, the realities of the profession, which include high levels of homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance dependency, aren't quite so positive. The writer and feminist Joan Smith has critiqued a power dynamic that is common among disgraced politicians, who appear to have exploited young women as lovers, or used prostitutes. “Quite the worst aspect of the Profumo scandal, it seems to me, is the gross exploitation of working-class girls such as Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies by older, powerful men."

Sex scandals will long be with us. And that’s not just because they sell newspapers; it’s because there is a strand in sex scandal reporting (and this is not an element really in the Sewel case) that is driven by our changing attitudes towards gender and the increasing intolerance of our culture towards men who think that their power and wealth give them a permit to treat women badly, sometimes appallingly. In France, a country which seemed until recently willing to give a blind eye to the dalliances of its men of power, the trials of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel (a civil action that was settled for an undisclosed sum) and for “aggravated pimping” (he was acquitted), have profoundly changed attitudes towards the silence that has surrounded the sexual lives of these men – and what’s driving that is not puritanism but feminism.

There’s a feeling that men in power should no longer be allowed to behave the way they have done. And we can find that in a great many countries. “Men like Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton," writes Joan Smith, "are not very different from JFK in their belief that women exist to service them; they think they are entitled to blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office or unprotected sex with prostitutes in the Mayflower Hotel [as Spitzer did], but they move in circles where such attitudes are rightly regarded as prehistoric. So they get married, live a lie by parading themselves as family men and eventually expose their wives and themselves to gruesome public humiliation of one kind or another. It happens over and over again, not because their accusers are puritans but because it is no longer acceptable to abuse vulnerable young women in this way.”

Writing in the United States, following the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, known as Weinergate, in which the then Congressman sent a woman an explicit picture, Myisha Cherry asked why we as a society are so intrigued by sex scandals. She considered that it was “because of what they do for us and not just because of what they reveal about others. To put it frankly, sex scandals make us feel better about ourselves”. The feelings these scandals created, she suggested, were “moral superiority syndrome”.

There is undoubtedly a tone of superiority out there in the shaming of Lord Sewel. It’s also there in the attitudes to the sex workers themselves who did the sting. As Professor Steven Barnett put it to me: “There is something particularly nasty and vindictive about the tone of this story, as in much of our tabloid kiss and tell tradition. It’s not done with humour but with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. And it’s hardly as if our newspaper editors are paragons of virtue.”

I’m not denying that the Sewel news story was in the public interest. I do however question how good we should feel about the entertainment that was made from the peer's downfall. How self-righteous should we allow ourselves to feel? Sewel’s hypocrisy may be what infuriates many of us, but aren’t we also guilty of the same hypocrisy when we linger long over the titillation? And what precisely is it that The Sun, and other fulminators, are so angry about? The sex and drug-taking itself? Or those who arbitrate and set the rules for sex and drugs? Many say the story is not just about sex and drugs, but about hypocrisy. They would be right. But not just Lord Sewel’s hypocrisy; our wider cultural hypocrisy. We who delight in these tales, are, on some level, all Lord Sewers.