Sex in Service of the Marketplace
Let's see. Where was I? Oh yes…lamenting the shallow, voyeuristic, mystified, moralistic ways we talk about sex.
By retreating into prayer after his extra-marital affair was exposed, Jesse Jackson (see my previous column, “Jesse, You Should Have Used a Condom”) left the public dialogue around sex and sexuality firmly in the hands of people and institutions that use it for all the wrong reasons. What are the consequences of having right-wing policy makers and corporate culture (basically) control the framework for how we think about and express sexuality?
In a nutshell: We have social policies that punish women's sexuality, being particularly harsh towards poor women, women of color, and young women. We have a popular culture that celebrates superficial sexual gratification and demonizes it at the same time, dangling before your basic everyday sexual being ideals of sexuality that are hopelessly unachievable and, oddly, shameful at the same time. We have the Right not only waxing poetic about the positively holy institution of marriage, but also throwing millions of dollars of federal money at shoring it up. Worst of all, the occasional squeak from the center-left that makes it into the mainstream media comes via Ann Landers (who – gasp! – favors sex education in the schools) and the mainstream gay and lesbian movement that, like the Right, is also fixated on marriage.
How can progressives use public forums to influence how we think about sexuality and the policy decisions that affect sexual expression? In a future commentary, I'll take a more detailed look at how welfare policy, limits on abortion and contraception, and marriage privileges prescribe sexual behavior and regulate how poor women are allowed to be in intimate relationships. In this column, I will explore how commercialism helps define sexuality, and suggest progressive responses.
According to a report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the sexual content in supposedly family-friendly situation comedies, rose from 56% two years ago to 84% in the 1999-2000 television season. Other statistics are equally “eye-opening,” reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (February 12, 2001): 10% of shows have content in which sexual intercourse was depicted or strongly implied; 9% 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 bombards us with ridiculous, 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 must weigh pleasure and responsibility, and who must 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 is not just the commercials. The shows themselves are designed to prime the viewer to be a better consumer of the advertising. A good consumer, in corporate eyes, is not one who is thinking deeply about responsibility or one who primarily gets his or her needs met by doing the hard work of constructing community and relationships – intimate and otherwise. 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. One-dimensional, instantly gratifying images of sex on TV take a complicated emotional and physical phenomenon, and reduce it to a commercial shell, thus reinforcing the idea that all human needs – no matter how profound – can be met through purchases. 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.
Just as progressives have critiqued stereotypical media portrayals of women and people of color, so should progressives analyze and counter the ways sexuality is portrayed. We should address sexual issues in our alternative media, explore sexuality as a phenomenon that we construct individually and in community, and counter the commercialization of sexuality. In essence, we should not cede the discussion to commercial venues, which currently exercise virtual monopoly control over images of sexuality, and use sex in service of the marketplace.
The religious right also gets too much airtime (mostly frothing at the mouth about fornication and abstinence) and policy makers get too much power regulating intimacy (welfare reform and limits on abortion and birth control are fundamentally about controlling women's sexuality). In addition to fighting the tightly scripted notions about sexuality we find in commercial media, contesting the Right and uncovering the ways that public policy attempts to define and control sexuality should also be prime targets of progressive activism. More on that in my next commentary.
Cynthia Peters is a writer and editor, and the coordinator of the Boston-area East Timor Action Network. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or in her forum in the ZNet Sustainer Forum system.