My own thoughts--for me.
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Sunday, February 15, 2004

Just Sex? 

Janet Jackson makes me uncomfortable. That's too mild a term for my feelings about her stunt; outrage is closer. But it makes me uncomfortable to be outraged about it. Am I just the latest release of the 1960's parents who were outraged by Elvis and his blatantly sexual gyrations?

Janet Jackson is just a sensational example of a bunch of stuff in teen popular culture, where performers grab their crotches, singers croon about banging on the bathroom floor, and rappers rap about their girlfriends as bitches and whores. My kids--10,12, and 14--are in the prime market for that stuff. Do I have to be a prude to object to it?

To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I am not a prude. I just don't want my kids to ever know anything about sex. No, just kidding. I'm not even that kind of prude. Not at all. I'm actually glad when my family and I are watching a good movie (and it's being a good movie is crucial here) where sex plays a strong and frank role. I want my kids to be comfortable with the sexual side of life. And as they grow up they ought to know all the diversity this involves, including the continuum from tame to wild. So why am I fairly furious at Janet Jackson?

It's been fun watching the anniversary airings of footage of the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan 40 years ago. The girls in the audience were going wild, and jeez they were young. Parents were worried. But I now think those parents were, if not silly, at least mistaken. At least mostly. The 60's weren't good for everyone, and the Beatles were the beginning. But still, they were, in themselves, good clean (even if sexy) fun. And I don't think sexiness should be frozen in time, as if anything wilder than the Beatles is over the line.

Janet Jackson's intentional wardrobe malfunction is not good clean sexy fun, but it's not easy to say why. The answer can't be that there is a sharp line, and nudity is on the wrong side of it. My family and I watch films in which breasts are bared, sometimes in erotic contexts, and I have no problem with that. (I mean from a parental point of view.) So what is my problem with Janet Jackson anyway? As many commentators have helpfully pointed out: it's just a breast.

Here's an analogy that seems to capture something. Another problem parents face these days is vulgar junk mail turning up in their kids' email accounts. I don't know about you, but the junk email I get knows no content limits. Even the subject lines can be uncontroversially indecent. Open the message, and there is no sex act, and no number of participants, that is sure not to be depicted, possibly in animated form. Now let me try out this reassuring observation for the benefit of parents who are angry that their kids might receive and open such email: it's just sex.

Hmm, that doesn't help? What are you a prude? I suppose you would have tried to ban Elvis too. Well, I'm with you. It doesn't help to point out that it is just a breast, or just sex. Those are fine things, but our attitudes toward them can be more or less appropriate. Appropriate attitudes toward sex, nudity, erotica, pornography, etc., don't just arise automatically regardless of a person's experiences, or regardless of what the social context says or thinks about them. This is one reason why these are important matters for parents. But if parents are to have any control over the way kids come to learn about sexual matters, then people like Janet Jackson will have to confine their breast-barings--and couples and trios will have to confine their coupling and trioing--to settings where parents know what is likely to happen, at least roughly. I think it is fair to say that the Super Bowl is (was?) not one of those settings. Janet Jackson and her co-conspirators did it precisely for that reason, maximizing the scandal for financial gain. I don't think she damaged my kids (yes, we were watching), although I don't know what to call what that sort of thing does to kids. It's just a breast, and that email is just sex. It gets absorbed, it affects their view of things, it shapes them and everyone around them a little, and, if you ask me, not for the better.

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