Paul Reubens is living out every man's and every boy's worst nightmare. He is alleged to have been seen touching himself.

The police claim Reubens was caught in the act. The case is all the more sensational because Paul Reubens is better known as Pee-wee Herman, the TV man-child, entertainer of children, someone presumably sexless, a squeaky-voiced character who cannot be easily reconciled with the disheveled figure who admits that he patronized a porno parlor. The simple equation of fame plus alleged sex crime equals news, requiring that the entire clammy story be exposed to the world.

This case is not just about masturbation, of course. Indeed, the average person who has read or heard about it probably thinks the allegation against Pee-wee is something much worse -- flashing, perhaps. He was, after all, charged with "exposing himself" in public, which raises the image of a guy in a raincoat prowling outside a schoolyard. The moral of the story so far, to judge from office banter the past couple of days, is that Pee-wee's a pervert.

The Pee-wee jokes started circulating within a day: "Q: What's Pee-wee Herman's favorite baseball team? A: The Expos."

The truth is so much more mundane.

According to the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, Paul Reubens sat alone Friday night in a darkened adult movie house during a pornographic film and "did begin to masterbate {sic}."

Reubens denies the allegation, his publicist said Monday. "Paul, who is emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation, is currently in seclusion with friends and eagerly anticipating his complete vindication," publicist Richard Grant said in the only statement so far from the Reubens camp.

There were no witnesses to the event other than one of the undercover officers assigned to stake out the theater -- masturbation is apparently such a grave public threat in Sarasota that the Sheriff's Office assigned not one but three detectives to infiltrate the place and watch for flapping elbows. The arrest report gives no indication that Reubens wanted anyone to see what he allegedly was doing.

As Reubens was walking out, he was confronted by an officer and arrested for indecent exposure, in violation of Florida statute 800.03, Exposure of Sexual Organs. It was hardly a novel thing to happen in an X-rated porn palace; three other men were spotted doing the same thing that night and were arrested as well, police said. Reubens, a Sarasota native, was released from jail later that night after posting a $219 bond.

"As long as these laws are on the books, we're going to enforce them," said Lt. Bill Stookey, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.

All laws, he said, are enforced identically.

Stookey added that the South Trail Cinema has been targeted in the past for "this type of criminal or unlawful activity."

Would that crime be masturbation?

"I like to use the term 'manipulating the genitalia,' " the lieutenant said. "Don't ask me why."

Perhaps, says sexuality educator Debra Haffner, the executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, the real problem here is that society is "anti-pleasure."

Solo sex, in particular, is an ancient taboo.

It is the sin of Onan. In the Book of Genesis, Onan violates Jewish law by spilling his seed rather than inseminating his brother's widow. The biblical passage implies that Onan withdrew before ejaculation, but history, as always, got confused about the story, and onanism became known as the crime of self-pollution. (God punished Onan, by the way. Slew him.)

Since then, masturbation has been linked to all manner of deviancy, disease and bodily mutation -- it makes you blind, puts hair on your palm, causes syphilis and generally weakens the body against the invasion of malign humors and spirits.

The American doctor John Harvey Kellogg invented cornflakes so people wouldn't eat meat and get carnal desires. He recommended that a father sneak into his son's bedroom, rip off the covers, and, if the boy had an erection, beat him up.

Samuel Pepys put a secret symbol in his diary to designate each time he masturbated. Freud called masturbation the only real addiction; smoking and all other addictions, he said, were mere substitutes for it. In the early 20th century, parents seeking more drastic prevention could outfit their boy with the McCormick "Male Chastity Belt," patented in 1897. It was designed to "prevent self-abuse" and "control waking thoughts."

The 1934 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook had a paragraph on "sex fluid conservation" and implied that losing "fluid" would weaken a boy and invite disease. Even in the enlightened 1990s, masturbation remains taboo. Husbands and wives deny to each other that they do it. Focus groups, according to sex educator Haffner, will talk of all manner of unusual sexual activity, but not that. It is universally practiced, and it is universally considered vile.

Which brings us to Pee-wee.

Haffner asks, "What do they expect happens in those movie theaters? I certainly don't advocate public masturbation in any way, but my understanding of why people, men in particular, attend those movies is to become aroused. That the police in this area spent their time patrolling this area makes me wonder what they're not doing."

Police said Reubens did not try to keep his identity a secret. He admitted in the patrol car on the way to the station that he was the actor who played Pee-wee Herman. His lawyer told a reporter before the story broke that Reubens's career would be ruined if the arrest were publicized. Certainly the situation raises the question of whether the very real punishment of national humiliation (the press doesn't hesitate to pounce on sex scandals of the rich and famous) fits the merely alleged crime of masturbating in an adult movie theater.

John Money, professor of medical psychology and pediatrics emeritus at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says Reubens's alleged behavior might have been foolish, but is not necessarily abnormal in any medical sense.

"Pee-wee Herman's behavior was ideologically abnormal because other people had more power than him and they could arrest him for doing it," says Money. "Is it harmless? Yes, except for the person who gets caught. And it would be purely harmless were it not considered criminal and illegal."

It is also sensational. Sarasota police say they received more than 100 media inquiries Monday. The Pee-wee Herman story seems to have inspired more publicity than, to pick an example, the one about boxer Mike Tyson, who has been accused by a Miss Black America contestant of raping her July 19. Tyson hasn't been charged, but police are investigating. The corporate sponsors of Tyson's championship fight against Evander Holyfield in November say they won't cancel the bout if Tyson is arrested and tried for rape.

But Pee-wee's career may be finished.

CBS canceled Reubens's Emmy-winning Saturday morning TV show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse," in April, and Monday the network said that reruns are being pulled as well. Disney-MGM Studios in Florida has stopped showing a video starring Pee-wee on its theme park tour.

The sex crime allegation stings so much because he is not just any actor, he's one who prances around and talks in a squeaky voice and entertains children. It does not help that, to an extent unusual among major stars -- he had about 3 million adult viewers on Saturday mornings in addition to all the kids -- Reubens has had no public persona outside that of his fictional character. He was almost always Pee-wee in an interview, never Paul Reubens.

He gets arrested, and now a person can say, "Oh, I always knew there was something weird about that guy." People cast a jaundiced eye at any adult who makes a living around children; witness the Mr. Rogers jokes that have endured for decades despite the man's record of professionalism and decency.

Reubens apparently was tiring of the Pee-wee character anyway -- he'd been playing him since 1979 -- so perhaps this oversize pre-adolescent figure was already destined to be a 1980s novelty.

"When you work 12 hours a day, you literally have no {personal} life," he said in an interview with Newsday in 1989. "I'm up at five in the morning and on the set by seven. By the time I get home at eight, take a shower and eat dinner, it's already past my bedtime. It's built into this schedule that I can't get enough sleep. One is forced to be disciplined."

Since the show was canceled he grew his hair long, down to his shoulder blades. He adopted a scraggly goatee. Friends have said in interviews that Reubens wanted to travel and take it easy for a while. Last weekend he was visiting his parents in Sarasota -- which may answer anyone's question as to why a 38-year-old man who wanted to see a skin flick wouldn't just rent a video and bring it home.

His mother, Judy Rubenfeld, declined yesterday to talk about what happened. But Reubens admitted through his publicist that he did go Friday night to the South Trail Cinema, the XXX-rated movie house on Tamiami Trail, just down from the Red Lobster family restaurant.

The movies that night included "Nancy Nurse." Starring Sandra Scream.

Later he was photographed, as all suspects are, from both the front and the side. The look on his face is of a man condemned to death. The punishment of Onan.