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On Celibacy, Cigars, and Sales Pitches
Sex in service of the marketplace
It's practically a cliché to say that the marketplace uses sex to sell. Not only do the commercials feature attractive female hands caressing gear shifts, but the shows themselves feature instant sexual gratification, without so much as a nod toward responsibility. In the old days, the Brady Bunch mom and dad kept their pajamas on and sedately read in bed. These days, the stars of our situation comedies are going at it like bunnies on prime time TV.
According to a report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the sexual content in supposedly family-friendly situation comedies, rose from 56 percent 2 years ago to 84 percent in the 1999-2000 television season. Other statistics are equally “eye- opening,” reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (February 12, 2001): 10 percent of shows have content in which sexual intercourse was depicted or strongly implied; 9 percent of those shows featured participants under 18.
While the number of TV shows portraying teens having has sex tripled in the last two years (St. Louis Dispatch, February 12, 2001), “programs that emphasize sexual risk or responsibility issues are a rarity on television.”
The corporate dominated media bombard us with one-dimensional, sexist images of sexuality because that's the kind of sex that best delivers advertising to audiences. Thoughtful presentations of complex sexual beings, who identify (fluidly or not) as homo and/or hetero and/or anywhere in between, who weigh pleasure and responsibility, and who function in the non-glamorous real world of real bodies that experience sexual pleasure as well as carry diseases, get pregnant, and experience infinite gradations of emotions, needs, inhibitions, desires, etc., are not the ideal context for ads that want to convince you to get your needs met through purchases.
Commercial media teaches us to meet our needs in the marketplace: we can experience freedom in a car, relaxation with a cup of coffee, safety with a mutual fund, camaraderie with a beer, fulfillment with a Coke, and sexual appeal with a cigarette. Instantly gratifying images of sex on TV take a complicated emotional and physical phenomenon, and reduce it to a commercial shell. A viewer receiving this message over and over again in a TV show is going to be more receptive to the advertising, which carries the exact same underlying message.
Punishing and Prescribing
But something funny is going on here. While the sex-fest happens on TV, policymakers are coming up with laws that punish women's sexuality, and minutely prescribe the parameters of when, where, and how it can be expressed.
Riding on the “success” of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (which already enforces marriage by only requiring single mothers to work), conservatives and liberals are hoping to renew the law with an additional focus on marriage. According to the Boston Globe (February, 12, 2000), there is bi-partisan support for requiring states to spend part of their welfare money on pro-marriage activities, encouraging caseworkers to talk to pregnant women about marrying the baby's father, judging state success based on reductions in out-of-wedlock births, and teaching about the value of marriage in high school. Oklahoma has designated May 5 as “Save Your Marriage” day; earmarked $10 million in welfare funds for marriage counseling; and hired two “marriage ambassadors” to appear on talk shows and at schools.
The Bush administration is further prescribing and punishing different kinds of sexuality. In January, Bush signed an executive order ending federal aid to overseas groups that provide abortion services and conservatives are urging him to deny funds to domestic groups such as Planned Parenthood that deliver contraceptive counseling to poor women under Title X of the U.S. Public Health Service Act. Even the Pentagon's “overly generous pregnancy policies” are coming under conservative scrutiny (Boston Globe, February 11, 2001).
Censorship and Celibacy
In addition to encouraging marriage, the 1996 welfare law allocated $250 million to promote sexual abstinence among the young—an amount that far surpasses spending on sex education (Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2001). Calling abstinence-only sex education a form of censorship, the National Coalition Against Censorship argues that schools violate students' rights by blocking student publications of articles referring to sexuality and by censoring information: “The school board in Franklin County, North Carolina, ordered three chapters literally sliced out of a ninth-grade health textbook because the material did not adhere to state law mandating abstinence-only education. The chapters covered AIDS and other STDs, marriage and partnering, and contraception. In Lynchburg, Virginia, school board members refused to approve a high-school science textbook unless an illustration of a vagina was covered or cut out. In abstinence-only classes, instructors force-feed students religious ideology that condemns homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, and sometimes even contraception.”
How have the beneficiaries of the abstinence-only campaign turned out? What choices are young teens making about sexuality given the vacuum of information about sex and the simultaneous glut in the commercialization of same? According to an article in Ladies Home Journal (March 2001), “one in twelve children is no longer a virgin by his or her thirteenth birthday, and 21 percent of ninth-graders have slept with four or more partners.” Many young people who aren't having intercourse are finding other ways to express themselves. As one eighth-grader said, “Oral sex rules!” This particular 13-year-old was pleased that at least oral sex doesn't get you pregnant. So do we have a situation where girls have found a less dangerous way to service the boys? Seventeen magazine determined that 55 percent of teens have engaged in oral sex, but I wonder just how gender-mutual the “engagement” is. The study doesn't say. Furthermore, do the kids know how to practice oral sex safely? Do they have information about what they're doing? With teachers getting fired for talking about sex and abstinence-only the norm in half of U.S. high schools, it's doubtful.
At the other end of the spectrum, some 2.5 million adolescents have taken sexual-abstinency pledges over the past eight years, according to a recent Columbia University study (cited in the Boston Globe, February 13, 2001). The chastity movement tells (mostly) girls that their “virginity” is a gift they should save for their future husbands. Their sexuality is not something they can control in an affirmative way. To one 15-year-old pledge-taker, sexual feelings are a dangerous “slippery slope.” He told the girl he was dating, “I don't feel comfortable with holding hands.” In other words, we don't help kids understand the variety of ways they might experience sexuality, use precautions, be generally self-determining about sexual expression. Instead, we steep them in a sex-saturated popular culture and then require them to “Just say no.” Worse, we cut them off from forums that might lead to self-understanding, knowledge, and opportunities to explore sexuality in all its complexity.
Their Cigars Are No Help
In public discourse, there are opportunities for talking openly and responsibly about sexuality, but unfortunately no takers. The current model for the public's grappling with sexuality is voyeurism: quickly peeking into the bedroom (or the Oval Office), and then slamming the door shut and running off to snicker about what we saw.
Occasionally, the media leads the public through another “fallen leader” ritual: Sexuality is portrayed as a rather unfortunate urge that seems to possess even the most capable of public figures—true grown-ups. Men, even—causing them to do seemingly ridiculous things. (Remember the pubic hair on the coke can, thanks to Clarence Thomas? And new uses for cigars, thanks to Bill Clinton?) It's a dark, though titillating, force that must be battled, driven away, conquered by moral rectitude. It merits punishment, humiliation, embarassed giggles, and a lot of praying.
Adding to the list of those who “succumbed,” Jesse Jackson recently begged our forgiveness for his extra-marital affair, which produced a child born almost two years ago. But it's none of our business who Jesse sleeps with (assuming his relationships are consensual). If the public has anything to be disappointed about, it is the fact that we have lost yet another opportunity to hear someone talk reasonably about sex and sexuality. The greatest cost of Jackson's infraction isn't the broken trust in his family, his public embarassment, and an unplanned pregnancy—though those are surely costs. The true cost is that, once again, and very publicly, sexuality is shrouded in equal parts mystery and moralism.
All the trumpeting about Jesse Jackson having “done wrong” creates a wall of noise that ultimately cuts us off from dialogue that might actually be enlightening.
What if Jackson came out and admitted he and his lover were seeking pleasure—that they are adults who made a decision with repercussions? Instead of taking up the public's time begging for forgiveness, how about doing something useful, like shedding some light on how couples might negotiate this tricky terrain. How about giving us a language to talk about sexual pleasure as a need, a right, or maybe nothing so grandiose as that, but still something that has physical and emotional consequences, and sometimes even generates new life.
How about the next time Jesse talks to a bunch of young people, he lingers for a moment over the complicated path they have to walk—becoming sexual beings in a culture that gives them no road map except the ubiquitous dead-ends of commercialized “tits and ass,” and the equally ubiquitous roadblocks abstinence-talk, which apparently has kids feeling afraid of hand-holding? How about elevating the discussion to something a little more complex? How about acknowledging the pleasure, the power, and the desire underlying sexual feelings, and mixing it with a good dose of reality—negotiating consent, birth control, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, etc.?
Public leaders have an opportunity to cut a path between the false images of sexuality a la mainstream media and the judgemental tsk-tsking of public commentators. But of course they choose to retreat. We live in a political culture, after all, that couldn't tolerate having a surgeon general mention the word “masturbation.” (Joycelyn Elders, Clinton's appointee, resigned in 1994 due to controversy she caused using that word.)
What do Progressives Have to Say?
Progressives should use the debate around welfare reform not only to fight for a stronger safety net for poor people, but also to guarantee that all people (of whatever class, gender, and/or race) should be free to make choices about sexuality, reproduction, and intimate relationships. Making choices about how to be sexual and how to be in a family are rights not privileges.
Pro-choice activists should be careful never to fall back into defending access to abortion for only the extreme reasons. Even when we are at our most defensive, we support choice not just for women whose health might be compromised by childbirth, or for women who are victims of rape or incest. We also support choice because being a heterosexually active woman means you run the risk of getting pregnant. When we defend access to abortion, we should say loudly and clearly that we are defending women's right to be sexual and make choices about the consequences of that.
Another way for progressives to enter the debate around how public policy regulates intimacy and rewards certain kinds of sexuality is to address the question of marriage and domestic partnership. To the mainstream gay and lesbian movement, which wants to participate in the institution of marriage, I say, “Be careful what you wish for.” While marriage has, at times, offered some economic protections to women and children, especially when divorce occurs or in ensuring access to the husband's pension or other assets, it has also served as a way for the state to determine who is deserving. We need to radically reconceptualize the idea that benefits should be doled out according to how people choose to be in intimate relationships. Liberal domestic partnership benefits only extend benefits to people who show they live together in a committed relationship.
The marriage/domestic partnership debate is an arena that progressives could use to pose an alternative vision of society—one that takes care of all its members, whether they are heterosexual, monogamous, domestically inclined, or not. In this society, we would ensure that everyone has health coverage, old age pensions, and an adequate safety net—and we wouldn't use public policy to pinpoint the exact sexual behaviors that are deserving while we punish the hordes of “others.”
There will be a time when public dialogue about sex and sexuality will more reflect what people experience—the problems and pleasures, the choices and consequences. We have the gay and lesbian movement to thank for bringing sexuality into public debate, for showing the world how it's possible to be pro-sex safely, and for fighting to remove the stigma from sexual expression. We should continue that work by addressing sexual issues in our alternative media, exploring sexuality as a phenomenon that we construct individually and in community, and countering the commercialization of sexuality.
Perhaps the commercial sex-fest and the punitive public policies that regulate and prescribe sexuality are not so contradictory after all. Both negate human sexuality, and remove it from its complex intersection in pleasure and responsibility. Both use sex for other ends—the marketplace for upping sales and reinforcing consumption, and public policy for creating classes of deserving and undeserving. Both provide progressives with plenty of opportunities to affirm alternative understandings of sexuality, and to contest its appropriation by institutions that use it to reinforce elite privilege. Z
Cynthia Peters is a regular contributor to Znet Commentary and Z Magazine. She has worked with South End Press, Radical America, and GCN.