The Sexual Media and the Ambivalence of Knowing
From Judith Levine's Harmful
to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex
The twin concepts of
innocence and ignorance are vehicles for adult double standards. A child is ignorant if she doesn't know what adults want her to know,
but innocent if she doesn't know what adults don't want her to know.
--Jenny Kitzinger, "Children, Power, and the Struggle against
At the turn of the twenty-first
century, America is being inundated by censorship in the name of protecting
"children" from "sex," both terms capaciously defined. In
the 1990s among the most frequent targets were Judy Blume's young-adult novel Deenie,
in which a teenage girl likes to touch her "special place," and
Maurice Sendak's classic In the Night Kitchen, because its main
character, a boy of about five named Max, tumbles through his dream with his
The student editor of the
University of Southern Louisiana yearbook was dismissed because she published a
picture of a young woman feeding spaghetti to a young man. Both were shirtless.
The New York State Liquor Authority denied a license to Bad Frog Beer. According
to the authority, the label--a cartoon frog with his middle finger raised
and the legend "An Amphibian with Attitude"--was "harmful
Paul Zaloom, the star of the
children's television science program Dr. Beekman's Universe, was
forbidden by his producers to answer his viewers' most-asked question: What is a
fart? Even sex educators are not allowed to speak about sex. In 1996, when
author Robie Harris went on the radio in Oklahoma to promote her children's book
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health,
the host requested that she not mention the S-word. Harris was obliged to refer
to sex as "the birds and the bees."
The cultural historian Michel
Foucault said that sex is policed not by silence but by endless speech, by the
"deployment" of more and more "discourses" of social
regulation--psychology, medicine, pedagogy. But our era, while producing
plenty of regulatory chatter from on high, has also seen an explosion of
unofficial, anarchic, and much more exciting discourses down below. When the
sexual revolution collided with the boom in media technologies, media sex
We started collecting statistics to prove it: 6.6 sexual incidents
per hour on top-rated soap operas (half that number ten years before); fourteen
thousand sexual references and innuendos on television annually (compared with
almost none when Ozzie and Harriet slept in twin beds); movies most popular with
teenagers "contain[ing] as many as fifteen instances of sexual intercourse
in less than two hours" (Gone with the Wind had one, off-screen).
Sexual imagery proliferated like
dirty laundry: the minute you washed it and put it away, there was more. In
Times Square, whose streets were transformed into a Disney-Warner
"family-friendly" mall, the neon signs from shut-down peep shows were
put on exhibit in a sort of museum of the smutty past at the back of the tourist
information office. Meanwhile, looming over the heads of camera-toting tour
groups from Iowa, half-block-long billboards advertised Calvin Klein underwear,
inside of whose painted shadows lurked penises as large as redwood logs.
As the ability to segregate
audiences by age, sex, class, or geography shrinks, we have arrived at a global
capitalist economy that, despite all our tsk-tsking, finds sex exceedingly
marketable and in which children and teens serve as both sexual commodities (JonBenét
Ramsey, Thai child prostitutes) and consumers of sexual commodities (Barbie
dolls, Britney Spears). All this inspires a campaign with wide political support
to return to reticence, especially when the kids are around.
History refutes the notion that
we live today in a world of sexual speech but did not, say, three centuries ago.
A child could witness plenty of dirty song-singing and breast-and
buttock-grabbing in any sixteenth-century public house. Yet there is
reason for concern about the world of unfiltered, unfettered sexual knowledge
that is particular to the past several decades: pictures and words have attained
unprecedented cultural influence in our time. Our marketplace produces few
actual widgets; we make almost nothing but digitized ideas and the media to
distribute them. As the economy moves from the Steel Belt to Silicon Valley, the
boundary between the symbolic and the real is disappearing. Representation is no
longer just a facsimile of a thing: it is the thing itself.
Nobody lives more in the "hypermediated"
environment than the young. The critic Ronald Jones, writing about two young
artists in the 1990s, distinguished them from the now-middle-aged postmodernists
of the 1980s, who stressed that "the way the media represented the world
was a constructed fabrication." Younger artists, the critic said, work from
an assumption of "inauthenticity as a normal course of life."
end of the twentieth century, a quarter of kids had their own televisions by the
time they were five years old. It was no use telling them to go outside and get
a "real" life. Why play sandlot baseball when you can pitch to Sammy
Sosa from a virtual mound? Even technologized sexual speech no longer just
stands for sex; it is sex. Sherry Turkle, a social analyst of computer
communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the
on-screen erotic exchanges that Netizens call "tinysex": "A
13-year-old informs me that she prefers to do her sexual experimentation online.
Her partners are usually the boys in her class at school. In person, she says,
it is 'mostly grope-y.' Online, 'they need to talk more.'"
Where do you learn about sex? a
television interviewer asked a fifteen-year-old from a small rural town.
"We have 882 channels," the girl replied.