by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
July 20, 2001
HOLLYWOOD -- A cartoon in the news section of the LA Weekly's July 19 edition shows a tiny fellow of indeterminate age, maybe 15 or so, masturbating 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, though - and many other publications - lust is winning the battle. In a featured column just before the news section, a Weekly writer gives moderately graphic descriptions of the same-sex erotic adventures of himself and a pal as they tour a gay sex celebration called Outfest.
The front and back sections' are loaded with ads promising bigger breasts and penises, pretty "masseuses" and "escorts" - many of them prostitutes.
New Times, the Weekly's main rival in the alternative press, features a column that calls LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks an alliterative phrase 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 massage ads are even more blatantly fronts for female prostitution.
[The American Reporter bars offensive four-letter words but permits graphic descriptions of sexuality where appropriate.]
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, headlined 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 to the mainstream and a movie that uses porno as a comedic prop. In an ironic twist, the front page headline on the Times' Website this morning 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? Not if the rest of the media is, too.
American culture used to change rather slowly. In the 1950's, for instance, the image of the ducktailed teenager and his bosomy, sweater-clad girlfriend 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 experience 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 popularization of "recreational" drugs and the psychedelic lifestyle, fostered more sexual "liberation," which is to say more casual sex, more sexual imagery and more acceptance of pornography.
The Seventies and Eighties accelerated the trend, with the major innovation 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 boosted the popularity of vicarious sex via the Internet when the spread of AIDS terrified the American middle class, gay and straight, and spread like wildfire throughout Africa - where it currently endangers 20 percent of the continent's population.
Now, though, something's changed dramatically. For sex - and especially commercial sex - it's morning in America. Pornography, long the staple of the Internet, is forcing its way into the mainstream media with the accumulated momentum of half a century and a multi-billion purse fattened by online voyeurs.
A lot of the momentum pornography has gained has come from new media that offer it more quickly, more discreetly and more cheaply while also making it ubiquitous.
Today, according to the New York Times, the nation's largest purveyors of commercial pornography are the automotive behemoth, General Motors, and the telecommunications giant, AT&T, which separately own many of the cable systems that pipe porn into motel rooms across the country. The single greatest beneficiary of Internet sex sites is AOL, whose customers visit those sites in ever-growing numbers that pump billions of dollars into the firm.
AOL Time Warner, of course, is a huge conglomerate that sells sex in a thousand different forms through movies, ads, music, the Net and television. The vast economic engine of the Internet was fueled by dollars paid for sex, while almost everything else - even Internet access - was free.
Under the First Amendment, the financial and marketing powerhouse that sells sex to Americans today is not subject to legal inhibition except with respect 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 been 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 two actors on "America's Most Wanted" having oral sex with a14-year-old on location in the San Fernando Valley, where the $6 billionporn industry stimulates the media's profit-minded entrepreneurs and sex-hungry teenagers everywhere. 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 have faced the prospect ofbrutal beatings and jail-house rape before they even 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 animal 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 apparatus aimed at sexuality is challenged to respond, and largely cannot. Utah has created a "porn czar," a woman who tries to rein in public and pornographic displays 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 almost 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 porn 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 the result of unprotected sex. Episcopal bishops have been excommunicated for ordaining gay people, and the Boy Scouts won't let homosexuals be Scoutmasters - with the Supreme Court's approval. Once churches begin to examine the morality of excluding gays from membership and ordination, the clash of pious and popular begins. Already, that clash has begun to end in painful schisms.
Yet the magisterium of the Church, at least when it reaches the local parish, is highly flexible, and in practice priests across America are rarely as judgmental or even as curious about sexual pecadilloes as the Curia. In California, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision has forbidden state alcohol regulators to ban pornography in bars. In today's news, the fundamental issue in the awarding of Federal grants by the Bush Administration to faith-based ministries is not separation of Church and State, as many believe it ought to be, but whether such ministries can discriminate against gay men and women.
Meanwhile, presidential and state commissions on pornography have come and gone with thunderous declarations, mostly unaccompanied by lightning and rain. There is no massive, unyielding rock against which the tide of pornography will crash unnoticed; in America, the stone walls of resistance are crumbling.
Outside the United States, in places like Afghanistan, of course, the opposite is true: Harsh punishment for the display of any behavior that is remotely sexual, including public exposure of a woman's face, is the norm - and repression is hardening. In India and Egypt, adulterers may legally be stoned, and in Malaysia, they are flogged; in China, couples may have only one child, but two hundred million of them may do so.
How much sex does America want? In a nation where Puritan morality struck the fundamental chord for the evolution of law and social strictures regarding it, and where it may sometimes be the sole respite from the anonymity of a society whose major issues are decided in the ebband flow of media attention, the demand is probably unlimited. The profit potential is indescribable. The effect of major-media endorsement of pornography in the mainstream of American life - on families, sex lives, crime, consumption, work habits and disposable income - is incalculable.
That brings us to several conclusions: First, pornography is big money. Second, big money - major corporations - support it. Third, it is quickly moving from the margins to the mainstream, and that is a trend that our courts approve of and our politicians probably cannot stop.
Mankind owes it to history, after so many years of tedious self-exploration, to visit its essential self in an open way. But we live in a world where a phone call in America can deliver a prostitute that urinates on his client, where a chaste kiss in India is prohibited on film, and where a sexual dalliance before or outside marriage in Saudi Arabia is punished by decapitation.
This kind of diversity, to understate it greatly, is a volatile mix. Religion and politics are profoundly involved in, and with a few exceptions seems to be the fundamental antagonists of human sexuality. In the future, there are likely to be wars that are based on opposing cultures of sexuality; our casual display of it even now is one reason Muslim fundamentalists call 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 - at least when accompanied by a massive education campaign aimed at reducing family size (and hence, increasing disposable income).
Yet in much of the developing world, where funds and condoms are scarce, that idea is often just hopeful nonsense. Even in the United States, violence related to sex kills thousands every year in homicides, rapes and domestic disputes, some of them linked by research studies to pornography. And it is far from clear how far religious fundamentalists may go to prevent a culture of commercial sex from dominating their lives. Thus, when we invite the retail commercialization of sex - witness Larry Flynt's popular Hustler showroom at a major corner of the Sunset Strip in mostly gay West Hollywood - we take a step away from our fundamental misgivings and stride ecstatically into the dark unknown.
Whether what awaits us there is a cliff, a desert, a fruitful plain or yet another mountain to climb is something we cannot know until we have arrived there, satisfied at last.
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea is a Catholic and on his second marriage.