Editorial: HOW MUCH SEX DOES AMERICA WANT?
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
HOLLYWOOD -- A cartoon in the news section of the LA Weekly's July 19 ed= ition shows a tiny fellow of indeterminate age, maybe 15 or so, masturbatin= g in one panel as he watches tv, and then angrily stomping on his emission = in the next.
That could be a portrait of America, feeling lustful almost at the same = time it feels guilty, angry and disgusted.
In the pages of Weekly, thoug= h -- and many other publications -- lust is winning the battle. In a featur= ed column just before the news section, a Weekly writer gives moderately gr= aphic descriptions of the same-sex erotic adventures of himself and a pal a= s they tour a gay sex celebration called Outfest.
The front and back sections' are loaded with ads promising bigger brea= sts and penises, pretty "masseuses" and "escorts" -- many of them prostitut= es.
New Times, the Weekly's main rival in the alternative press, fea= tures a column that calls LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks an alliterative phras= e that begins with a nickname for cats coupled with his last name -- and it= 's written by the newspaper's editor, who frequently refers to himself as a= "dildo" (a penis substitute some people use to achieve orgasm). Its own ma= ssage ads are even more blatantly fronts for female prostitution.
[The American Reporter bars offensive four-letter words but permits grap= hic descriptions of sexuality where appropriate. It carries no advertising= .]
Earlier this month, a front page column in the Los Angeles Times= went on for several thousand words about the use of Viagra by male actors = in porn movies. A few days later, an article about porn software for hand-= held computers extolled the portability of porn to the new devices. In the = first three weeks of July, the newspaper has profiled Larry Flynt, headline= d Playboy's acquisition of hard core cable and satellite sex channels, and = told us about gay actors who come out of the closet, a porn star crossing t= o the mainstream and a movie that uses porno as a comedic twist. In an iro= nic twist, the front page headline on the Times' Web site this morni= ng is about a $1 billion commitment to fight a sexually transmitted disease= that was mainly spread by anonymous sex, AIDS.
From the alternative press to the newspaper establishment, the print = press is soaking wet and sweaty, saturated with sex. Is that a problem? N= ot if the rest of the media is, too.
American culture used to change rather slowly. In the 1950's, forinsta= nce, the image of the ducktailed teenager and his bosomy, sweater-cladgirlf= riend was one that had evolved out of an earlier decade. In retrospect, the= mass destruction and death of World War II was a strangely liberating expe= rience which began to loosen the strong bonds of Church and State that once= suppressed sexual imagery.
In the '60s, the hippie movement along with the Be-Ins, communes, the p= opularization of "recreational" drugs and the psychedelic lifestyle, foster= ed more sexual "liberation," which is to say more casual sex, more sexual i= magery and more acceptance of pornography.
The Seventies and Eighties accelerated the trend, with the major innovat= ion being the display of female and male genitalia in major men's magazines= , first in Penthouse and Hustler, then in Playboy and Playgirl.
The Nineties slowed down the pace of anonymous sex dramatically, but boo= sted the popularity of vicarious sex via the Internet when the spread of AI= DS terrified the American middle class, gay and straight, and spread like w= ildfire throughout Africa -- where it currently endangers 20 percent of the= continent's population.
Now, though, something's changed dramatically. For sex -- and especial= ly commercial sex -- it's morning in America. Pornography, long the staple= of the Internet, is forcing its way into the mainstream media with the acc= umulated momentum of half a century and a multi-billion purse fattened by o= nline voyeurs.
A lot of the momentum pornography has gained has come from new media t= hat offer it more quickly, more discreetly and more cheaply while also maki= ng it ubiquitous.
Today, according to the New York Times, the nation's largest pur= veyors of commercial pornography are the automotive behemoth, General Motor= s, and the telecommunications giant, AT&T, which separately own many of the= cable systems that pipe porn into motel rooms across the country. The sin= gle greatest beneficiary of Internet sex sites is AOL, whose customers visi= t those sites in ever-growing numbers that pump billions of dollars into th= e firm. AOL Time Warner, of course, is a huge conglomerate that sells sex in a th= ousand different forms through movies, ads, music, the Net and television. = The vast economic engine of the Internet was fueled by dollars paid for se= x, while almost everything else -- even Internet access -- was free.
Under the First Amendment, the financial and marketing powerhousethat s= ells sex to Americans today is not subject to legal inhibitionexcept with r= espect to the highly-sensitive genre of child pornography,which in America = (but not in every country) is universally condemned. But as the cartoon in= the LA Weekly illustrates, even that bulwark ofpropriety may not long hold= . As I write, news is breaking on the radiothat a 13-year-old boy has bee= n charged with the rape of a 7-year-oldgirl. That's becoming an ever more = familiar crime.
Today's Los Angeles Times, in fact, also carries a storyabout tw= o actors on "America's Most Wanted" having oral sex with a14-year-old on lo= cation in the San Fernando Valley, where the $6 billionporn industry stimul= ates the media's profit-minded entrepreneurs andsex-hungry teenagers everyw= here. The fact that the sex was consensual gotone of the actors out on his own = recognizance and the other released on$20,000 bail. Just a few years ago, = the same actors might have beenjailed without bail, and would very likely h= ave faced the prospect ofbrutal beatings and jail-house rape before they ev= en got to prison.
The bonds that bind our deepest human urges are slowly beingloosed, and= many entrepreneurs have successfully bet that there is araging, ravenous a= nimal beneath -- Did I say animal? -- as in the movie by the same name that= features a popular comedian flirting sexually with a wide variety of four-= legged creatures.
At the other end of the spectrum the historic regulatory apparatusaimed= at sexuality is challenged to respond, and largely cannot. Utah has creat= ed a "porn czar," a woman who tries to rein public and pornographic display= s of sexuality. Vermont will unite gay couples, but 49 other states won't.= Los Angeles will provide health benefits to significant others regardless= of gender preference, but with San Francisco and West Hollywood, it is alm= ost alone in doing so. Pick one from a menu of adultery, sodomy, anal sex,= homosexuality, cross-dressing, and bestiality and it is probably outlawed = in your state. The nation's largest cable provider, Adelphia, has banned po= rn from its system.
The Catholic Church, and almost every other church, frowns not only on= unmarried sex but gay sex, adulterous sex, protected sex and abortion of t= he result of unprotected sex. Episcopal bishops have been excommunicated fo= r ordaining gay people, and the Boy Scouts won't let homosexuals be Scoutma= sters -- with the Supreme Court's approval. Once churches begin to examine= the morality of excluding gays from membership and ordination, the clash o= f pious and popular begins. Already, that clash has begun to end in painfu= l schisms.
Yet the magisterium of the Church, at least when it reaches the local p= arish, is highly flexible, and in practice priests across America are rarel= y as judgmental or even as curious about sexual pecadilloes as the Curia. = In California, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision has forbidden stat= e alcohol regulators to ban pornography in bars. In today's news, the funda= mental issue in the awarding of Federal grants by the Bush Administration t= o faith-based ministries is not separation of Church and State, as many bel= ieve it ought to be, but whether such ministries can discriminate against g= ay men and women.
Meanwhile, presidential and state commissions on pornography have come= and gone with thunderous declarations, mostly unaccompanied by lightning a= nd rain. There is no massive, unyielding rock against which the tide of por= nography will crash unnoticed; in America, the stone walls of resistance ar= e crumbling.
Outside the United States, in places like Afghanistan, of course, the op= posite is true: Harsh punishment for the display of any behavior that is re= motely sexual, including public exposure of a woman's face, is the norm ---= and repression is hardening. In India and Egypt, adulterers may legally b= e stoned, and in Malaysia, they are flogged; in China, couples may have onl= y one child, but two hundred million of them may do so.
How much sex does America want? In a nation where Puritan morality str= uck the fundamental chord for the evolution of law and social strictures re= garding it, and where it may sometimes be the sole respitefrom the anonymit= y of a society whose major issues are decided in the ebband flow of media a= ttention, the demand is probably unlimited. The profitpotential is indescr= ibable. The effect of major-media endorsement ofpornography in the mainstre= am of American life -- on families, sex lives,crime, consumption, work habi= ts and disposable income -- is incalculable.
That brings us to several conclusions: First, pornography is bigmoney. = Second, big money -- major corporations -- support it. Third, itis quickl= y moving from the margins to the mainstream, and that is a trend that our c= ourts approve of and our politicians probably cannot stop.
Mankind owes = it to history, after so many years of tediousself-exploration, to visit its= essential self in an open way. But welive in a world where a phone call i= n America can deliver a prostitutethat urinates on his client, where a chas= te kiss in India is prohibited onfilm, and where a sexual dalliance before = or outside marriage in SaudiArabia is punished by decapitation.
This kind of diversity, to understate it greatly, is a volatile mix. Re= ligion and politics are profoundly involved in, and with a few exceptions s= eems to be the fundamental antagonists, of human sexuality. In the future, = there are likely to be wars that are based on opposing cultures of sexualit= y; our casual display of it even now is one reason Muslim fundamentalists c= all America "the Great Satan."
Today, the unbridled urge to procreate has populated the world beyond = what many say are the natural limits to sustaining us even a few centuries = longer. For that reason, many proponents of commercial, protected sex seem = to sincerely believe that pornography is an antidote to overpopulation -- a= t least when accompanied by a massive education campaign aimed at reducing = family size (and hence, disposable income).
Yet in much of the developi= ng world, where funds and condoms are scarce, that idea is often just hopef= ul nonsense. Even in the United States, violence related to sex kills thou= sands every year in homicides, rapes and domestic disputes, some of them li= nked by research studies to pornography. And it is far from clear how far = religious fundamentalists may go to prevent a culture of commercial sex fro= m dominating their lives.
Thus, when we invite the retail commercializat= ion of sex -- witnessLarry Flynt's popular Hustler showroom at a major corn= er of the SunsetStrip in mostly gay West Hollywood -- we take a step away f= rom ourfundamental misgivings and stride ecstatically into the dark unknown= .Whether what awaits us there is a cliff, a desert, a fruitful plain or y= etanother mountain to climb is something we cannot know until we havearrive= d there, satisfied at last.
Joe Shea is a Catholic with two children b= y his second marriage.,p>