Start Table of content What is new? Ipce Magazine

[Back to Books, General]

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 Sexual Abuse"


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 genitals bare.

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 to minors."

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 mushroomed.

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."

At the 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.


[Read more about this book]

[Back to Books, General]

Start Table of content What is new? Ipce Magazine