On Celibacy, Cigars, and Sales Pitches

Cynthia Peters

It’s practically a
cliché to say that the marketplace uses sex to sell. Not only do the
commercials feature attractive female hands caressing gear shifts, but the
shows themselves feature instant sexual gratification, without so much as a
nod toward responsibility. In the old days, the Brady Bunch mom and dad kept
their pajamas on and sedately read in bed. These days, the stars of our
situation comedies are going at it like bunnies on prime time TV.

According to a
report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the sexual content in
supposedly family-friendly situation comedies, rose from 56 percent 2 years
ago to 84 percent in the 1999-2000 television season. Other statistics are
equally “eye- opening,” reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(February 12, 2001): 10 percent of shows have content in which sexual
intercourse was depicted or strongly implied; 9 percent of those shows
featured participants under 18.

While 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.”

The corporate
dominated media bombard us with 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 weigh pleasure and
responsibility, and who 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 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. Instantly gratifying images of sex on TV take a complicated
emotional and physical phenomenon, and reduce it to a commercial shell. 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


and Prescribing

But something funny is
going on here. While the sex-fest happens on TV, policymakers are coming up
with laws that punish women’s sexuality, and minutely prescribe the parameters
of when, where, and how it can be expressed.

Riding on the
“success” of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (which
already enforces marriage by only requiring single mothers to work),
conservatives and liberals are hoping to renew the law with an additional
focus on marriage. According to the Boston Globe (February, 12, 2000),
there is bi-partisan support for requiring states to spend part of their
welfare money on pro-marriage activities, encouraging caseworkers to talk to
pregnant women about marrying the baby’s father, judging state success based
on reductions in out-of-wedlock births, and teaching about the value of
marriage in high school. Oklahoma has designated May 5 as “Save Your Marriage”
day; earmarked $10 million in welfare funds for marriage counseling; and hired
two “marriage ambassadors” to appear on talk shows and at schools.

The Bush
administration is further prescribing and punishing different kinds of
sexuality. In January, Bush signed an executive order ending federal aid to
overseas groups that provide abortion services and conservatives are urging
him to deny funds to domestic groups such as Planned Parenthood that deliver
contraceptive counseling to poor women under Title X of the U.S. Public Health
Service Act. Even the Pentagon’s “overly generous pregnancy policies” are
coming under conservative scrutiny (Boston Globe, February 11, 2001).


and Celibacy

In addition to
encouraging marriage, the 1996 welfare law allocated $250 million to promote
sexual abstinence among the young—an amount that far surpasses spending on sex
education (Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2001). Calling
abstinence-only sex education a form of censorship, the National Coalition
Against Censorship argues that schools violate students’ rights by blocking
student publications of articles referring to sexuality and by censoring
information: “The school board in Franklin County, North Carolina, ordered
three chapters literally sliced out of a ninth-grade health textbook because
the material did not adhere to state law mandating abstinence-only education.
The chapters covered AIDS and other STDs, marriage and partnering, and
contraception. In Lynchburg, Virginia, school board members refused to approve
a high-school science textbook unless an illustration of a vagina was covered
or cut out. In abstinence-only classes, instructors force-feed students
religious ideology that condemns homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, and
sometimes even contraception.”

How have the
beneficiaries of the abstinence-only campaign turned out? What choices are
young teens making about sexuality given the vacuum of information about sex
and the simultaneous glut in the commercialization of same? According to an
article in Ladies Home Journal (March 2001), “one in twelve children is
no longer a virgin by his or her thirteenth birthday, and 21 percent of
ninth-graders have slept with four or more partners.” Many young people who
aren’t having intercourse are finding other ways to express themselves. As one
eighth-grader said, “Oral sex rules!” This particular 13-year-old was pleased
that at least oral sex doesn’t get you pregnant. So do we have a situation
where girls have found a less dangerous way to service the boys? Seventeen
magazine determined that 55 percent of teens have engaged in oral sex, but I
wonder just how gender-mutual the “engagement” is. The study doesn’t say.
Furthermore, do the kids know how to practice oral sex safely? Do they have
information about what they’re doing? With teachers getting fired for talking
about sex and abstinence-only the norm in half of U.S. high schools, it’s

At the other
end of the spectrum, some 2.5 million adolescents have taken sexual-abstinency
pledges over the past eight years, according to a recent Columbia University
study (cited in the Boston Globe, February 13, 2001). The chastity
movement tells (mostly) girls that their “virginity” is a gift they should
save for their future husbands. Their sexuality is not something they can
control in an affirmative way. To one 15-year-old pledge-taker, sexual
feelings are a dangerous “slippery slope.” He told the girl he was dating, “I
don’t feel comfortable with holding hands.” In other words, we don’t help kids
understand the variety of ways they might experience sexuality, use
precautions, be generally self-determining about sexual expression. Instead,
we steep them in a sex-saturated popular culture and then require them to
“Just say no.” Worse, we cut them off from forums that might lead to
self-understanding, knowledge, and opportunities to explore sexuality in all
its complexity.


Their Cigars
Are No Help

In public discourse,
there are opportunities for talking openly and responsibly about sexuality,
but unfortunately no takers. The current model for the public’s grappling with
sexuality is voyeurism: quickly peeking into the bedroom (or the Oval Office),
and then slamming the door shut and running off to snicker about what we saw.

the media leads the public through another “fallen leader” ritual: Sexuality
is portrayed as a rather unfortunate urge that seems to possess even the most
capable of public figures—true grown-ups. Men, even—causing them to do
seemingly ridiculous things. (Remember the pubic hair on the coke can, thanks
to Clarence Thomas? And new uses for cigars, thanks to Bill Clinton?) It’s a
dark, though titillating, force that must be battled, driven away, conquered
by moral rectitude. It merits punishment, humiliation, embarassed giggles, and
a lot of praying.

Adding to the
list of those who “succumbed,” Jesse Jackson recently begged our forgiveness
for his extra-marital affair, which produced a child born almost two years
ago. But it’s none of our business who Jesse sleeps with (assuming his
relationships are consensual). If the public has anything to be disappointed
about, it is the fact that we have lost yet another opportunity to hear
someone talk reasonably about sex and sexuality. The greatest cost of
Jackson’s infraction isn’t the broken trust in his family, his public
embarassment, and an unplanned pregnancy—though those are surely costs. The
true cost is that, once again, and very publicly, sexuality is shrouded in
equal parts mystery and moralism.

All the
trumpeting about Jesse Jackson having “done wrong” creates a wall of noise
that ultimately cuts us off from dialogue that might actually be enlightening.

What if Jackson
came out and admitted he and his lover were seeking pleasure—that they are
adults who made a decision with repercussions? Instead of taking up the
public’s time begging for forgiveness, how about doing something useful, like
shedding some light on how couples might negotiate this tricky terrain. How
about giving us a language to talk about sexual pleasure as a need, a right,
or maybe nothing so grandiose as that, but still something that has physical
and emotional consequences, and sometimes even generates new life.

How about the
next time Jesse talks to a bunch of young people, he lingers for a moment over
the complicated path they have to walk—becoming sexual beings in a culture
that gives them no road map except the ubiquitous dead-ends of commercialized
“tits and ass,” and the equally ubiquitous roadblocks abstinence-talk, which
apparently has kids feeling afraid of hand-holding? How about elevating the
discussion to something a little more complex? How about acknowledging the
pleasure, the power, and the desire underlying sexual feelings, and mixing it
with a good dose of reality—negotiating consent, birth control, protection
from sexually transmitted diseases, etc.?

Public leaders
have an opportunity to cut a path between the false images of sexuality a la
mainstream media and the judgemental tsk-tsking of public commentators. But of
course they choose to retreat. We live in a political culture, after all, that
couldn’t tolerate having a surgeon general mention the word “masturbation.”
(Joycelyn Elders, Clinton’s appointee, resigned in 1994 due to controversy she
caused using that word.)


What do
Progressives Have to Say?

Progressives should use
the debate around welfare reform not only to fight for a stronger safety net
for poor people, but also to guarantee that all people (of whatever class,
gender, and/or race) should be free to make choices about sexuality,
reproduction, and intimate relationships. Making choices about how to be
sexual and how to be in a family are rights not privileges.

activists should be careful never to fall back into defending access to
abortion for only the extreme reasons. Even when we are at our most defensive,
we support choice not just for women whose health might be compromised by
childbirth, or for women who are victims of rape or incest. We also support
choice because being a heterosexually active woman means you run the risk of
getting pregnant. When we defend access to abortion, we should say loudly and
clearly that we are defending women’s right to be sexual and make choices
about the consequences of that.

Another way for
progressives to enter the debate around how public policy regulates intimacy
and rewards certain kinds of sexuality is to address the question of marriage
and domestic partnership. To the mainstream gay and lesbian movement, which
wants to participate in the institution of marriage, I say, “Be careful what
you wish for.” While marriage has, at times, offered some economic protections
to women and children, especially when divorce occurs or in ensuring access to
the husband’s pension or other assets, it has also served as a way for the
state to determine who is deserving. We need to radically reconceptualize the
idea that benefits should be doled out according to how people choose to be in
intimate relationships. Liberal domestic partnership benefits only extend
benefits to people who show they live together in a committed relationship.

marriage/domestic partnership debate is an arena that progressives could use
to pose an alternative vision of society—one that takes care of all its
members, whether they are heterosexual, monogamous, domestically inclined, or
not. In this society, we would ensure that everyone has health coverage, old
age pensions, and an adequate safety net—and we wouldn’t use public policy to
pinpoint the exact sexual behaviors that are deserving while we punish the
hordes of “others.”

There will be a
time when public dialogue about sex and sexuality will more reflect what
people experience—the problems and pleasures, the choices and consequences. We
have the gay and lesbian movement to thank for bringing sexuality into public
debate, for showing the world how it’s possible to be pro-sex safely, and for
fighting to remove the stigma from sexual expression. We should continue that
work by addressing sexual issues in our alternative media, exploring sexuality
as a phenomenon that we construct individually and in community, and
countering the commercialization of sexuality.

Perhaps the
commercial sex-fest and the punitive public policies that regulate and
prescribe sexuality are not so contradictory after all. Both negate human
sexuality, and remove it from its complex intersection in pleasure and
responsibility. Both use sex for other ends—the marketplace for upping sales
and reinforcing consumption, and public policy for creating classes of
deserving and undeserving. Both provide progressives with plenty of
opportunities to affirm alternative understandings of sexuality, and to
contest its appropriation by institutions that use it to reinforce elite
privilege.                                   Z

Peters is a regular contributor to Znet Commentary and
Z Magazine.
She has worked with South End Press,
Radical America, and GCN.