Sex in Service of the Marketplace

Cynthia Peters


see. Where was I? Oh yes…lamenting the shallow, voyeuristic, mystified,

moralistic ways we talk about sex.


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?


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.


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



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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


Peters is a writer and editor, and the coordinator of the Boston-area East

Timor Action Network. You can reach her at [email protected].

Or in her forum in the ZNet Sustainer Forum system.


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