Discussions around sex and sexuality can sometimes be dignified by being medicalized or being couched in the terms of education. But sometimes that very frankness makes these discussions culturally unacceptable, even alongside completely normalized images of sexualized bodies, themes of promiscuity, and genres of “romance” that serve as thin excuses to repeat a hackneyed story about sexual conquest.
I got thinking about this paradox a few weeks ago when Glee did an episode centered around two couples (Blaine and Kurt, Rachel and Finn) who decide to have sex for the first time. Entertainment Tonight (and maybe other entertainment “news” programs?) ran a story about the apparent scandal of depicting two teenage couples who go through a long period of deliberation (for a TV episode) on their decision to have safe sex, and whether it’s a healthy decision for them. “Has Glee Gone Too Far?” asked the program’s headline, dramatically. I thought the timing of this concern was maddeningly hypocritical because Glee has previously implied or joked about sex with regularity (including before Santana and Britney were dating, when they were just two teenage cheerleaders getting it on, in a simple mirror of the familiar porn plotline). But at the moment that it that talked frankly, responsibly, and unglamorously about sex, it drew new charges of “going too far.” Maybe other episodes had sparked similar a “debate” in the past? I’m only an incidental viewer of entertainment news, but I think the point stands about which visualizations and narratives of sex trigger moralizing discussion and which fly way under the radar of censoring impulses. After all, Glee is far from the first mainstream cultural product to capitalize on teen sex and the sexualization of teens.
We can find examples where certain depictions of sexuality in a hypersexualized culture only become objectionable when spoken of in serious and critical ways in the worlds of advertising and politics, too.
One particularly appalling incident, yet one which non-elites apparently had no say in was the firing of the former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in 1994 for suggesting to a World AIDS Day forum that masturbation was a normal, healthy form of sexual gratification. Then-White House Chief of Staff for the Clinton administration said that Elders’ “latest comment [was] just one too many” and that schools teaching masturbation “are wrong, and [Clinton] feels that’s not what schools are for.” “And it is not what a surgeon general should say,” he continued. (This brand of sex negativity once again also demonstrates the hegemony of right-wing Christian thought in the States.)
In my TV-watching experience, commercials for “erectile dysfunction” are acceptable during the daytime (was Jim Moran ever successful in passing a bill that would displace these commercials to an “adult” time slot?) while vaginal lubrication products aren’t allowed to run before 11pm. Some, like Zestra, can’t seem to get ad time at all. Some of these products aren’t erotic novelties, either. They’re for personal comfort and health, specifically, for post-menopausal women. Plus, of course, the commercials I’ve seen for Viagra and Cialis only imply sex within apparently married straight couples. Yet, like I’ve mentioned before, sex, or at least the “boy meets girl” romance story that implies sexual consummation, is constantly depicted, joked about, glorified, and shown in increasingly more graphic detail as censorship laws become more lax about “mature content” and become stricter on other topics in order to mute public debate and political critique (for instance, recent copyright bills with draconian implications for free speech and access to information—check out Michael Geist’s website for U.S. and Canadian examples).
There are obviously double standards when it comes to straight male sexuality—which is so often presented as the normative orientation, and that for which female sexuality is performed—versus other sexualities. There are immense inconsistencies when it comes to which kinds of sexuality are considered “normal” and essential for the reproduction of the nation and which kinds of sexuality are considered threatening to the nation and to Western civilization as we know it. (Janet Jakobsen has a hilarious and complex article where she takes this far-right fear to its logical conclusion).
Themes like those above, for all the rhetoric spouted by various political and educational officials about teaching kids how to be responsible about sex, are just some of those which underwrite the ways in which sex often cannot be talked about frankly—or, in other words, responsibly.