Sexual dealing

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

There being so many other serious distractions in the world-for the foreseeable and unimaginable future-sexy TV is getting very little attention these days. On the one hand, it’s soothing to hear a beneficent silence from all those preachy pious pressure groups that normally rise and whine each day with some new indignant complaint. Britney Spears shows too much midriff, or a boy kissed a boy or a girl kissed a girl on a sitcom or a drama. Eventually they doth protested so much that people stopped listening anyway.
Then at some point the floodgates broke and in a twinkling, television-not HBO and Showtime but ABC, CBS, NBC and of course Fox-turned a big corner and became not just sex saturated, as it had long been, but sexually explicit to a degree some of us thought would never be reached.
Now here comes The New York Times to tell us what we already knew: “It’s a Fact of Life: Prime-Time Shows Are Getting Sexier.” The story quoted a new study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showing that two-thirds of all programming between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. had sexual content, double the amount calculated a mere four years earlier. The Times said the usual suspects, those self-appointed watchdog groups, are gearing up for another assault, but there’s no sign that the general audience is in the least bit concerned, much less upset.
After midnight
It wasn’t that long ago that a satellite service showing hard-core movies, much to the delight of some of the big-dish owners who were able to receive it, was put out of business because one of the Southern states that the signal passed through filed suit and killed the service. And yet today, at least four channels on my DirecTV system, including the previously soft-core Playboy Channel, show hard-core porn after midnight. Erections, penetration, the whole kit and caboodle. And some of those caboodles are quite impressive -not that I spend much time watching, of course.
Maybe when the war ends or when the threat of terrorism subsides, which may not be in this century, then the bluenoses, prudes and busybodies will come out of the woodwork armed with lawyers and the intention of saving us all from ourselves and our naughtier urges.
A recent and lavishly illustrated report on the ABC News magazine “PrimeTime Live” pointed with alarm at major corporations who were supporting or contributing to or somehow underwriting hard-core porn because they are part owners in satellite services or cable systems that show it. Somehow the big corporations were held accountable for all the innocent little girlies who go to Hollywood to become stars and end up appearing only in porno. That’s one giant leap for logic, really.
Those satellite and cable channels showing hard core are essentially responding to viewer demand. People were frustrated by all the edits that came along at the juicy parts. Intercourse was over in a matter of seconds. Reaction shots were repeated ad infinitum to cover the deletion of glandular close-ups. Hard-core porn is, after all, documentary filmmaking; it chronicles an event, or events, that really happened. Thus mucking about with the footage is mangling the truth. Or so it might be argued. Not by me, of course. No, no, I am merely pointing out what some other people might say.
That same New York Times once reported that in olden days, as part of the effort to protect the delicate sensibilities of readers, the Times itself used to airbrush the nipples off wrestlers seen in photographs on the sports pages. Now the wrestlers strut around the ring on television in tight trunks (or “tights” as some older announcers still refer to them) with bulges bulging. And “bad guy” wrestlers frequently will kick their opponents in the groin, or appear to.
There are some lines that have not been, and perhaps never will be, crossed, however, at least by the broadcast networks. There is still great fear of the penis, perhaps much of it from male executives who don’t want their favorite organ demystified through overexposure. Or even exposure period. Female nipples, while not quite as incendiary a subject, still rarely make an appearance, unless it’s a documentary about a near-naked native tribe or about breast cancer.
Even saying the word “penis” was verboten until not that long ago. “Saturday Night Live,” of course, celebrated the word’s liberation with the famous or infamous “Penis Song,” in which the word was repeated ad infinitum, or almost.
Sometimes increased sexual candor was sparked by a public health issue. When it became apparent that AIDS was spreading wildly through the population, talk shows and PSAs began using relatively frank language urging the use of condoms during sex. Introduced into the mainstream, the word “condom” quickly began popping up in Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s monologues. Then, when Kenneth Starr insisted on televising as many details of Bill Clinton’s sex life as possible, oral sex was suddenly being discussed on newscasts. From there it’s only a short jump to comics’ routines.
A recent edition of NBC’s “Kingpin” included unmistakable references to fellatio and to a lurid epithet used to describe the proverbial Bad Girl. One problem with documenting the new candor on television is that newspapers and some magazines still won’t print some of the words that are being spoken or implied on prime-time TV.
179-degree shift
ABC was the first network to advertise a movie it planned to air as “erotic.” This was at least a decade ago. Previously, a network would never use such an inflammatory adjective in an advertisement. The film in question was a theatrical feature edited down for TV, though not by all that much. A CBS censor once told me in long-ago days, “We edit all movies so that no child could be harmed by them.” Standards have shifted by about 179 degrees. Then there’s the issue of whether anyone can truly be “harmed” by exposure to erotica. The media like to make a big fuss whenever pornographic magazines and pictures are found in the lairs of captured serial killers or hurtful perverts, but if exposure to porno led to blood lust, a third of the population would probably be running around firing guns and throwing knives at the other two-thirds.
What porno does do is lower property values in a neighborhood. That is, the dirtier prime-time gets, the more disreputable the networks seem. ABC, desperate for viewers, is scraping rock-bottom these days with “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People.” The low-minded show is a skinflicky variation on Fox’s “American Idol.” The contestants don’t have to have any talent at all. They only need to be buff hotties willing and eager to parade their pulchritude before a panel of “judges” and a cheerfully leering audience.
Notable on the show’s premiere last Thursday was the fact that while women came out in the briefest of bikinis during the swimsuit competition, and cameras zoomed in for breast and crotch shots, the male contestants all had to wear long, baggy, surfer-style shorts. Most of them were covered from the waist to below the knee, a sort of throwback to the 1890s. It looked like fear of the penis still prevailed. Maybe the producers were worried that if the men came out in Speedos, nobody would pay attention to their pecs and abs and deltoids and doo-dads.
A clergyman told me in college, “America is sex-obsessed and sex-starved.” Sometimes the new candor is just cheap smut aimed not at the lowest common denominator but somehow even lower. But overall, the death of the old prudery-or the nap of, if it’s just a temporary phenomenon-is, as Martha Stewart would say, A Good Thing. You might think that when America is no longer in a state of stress and the world is no longer plagued with terrorists and demagogues, social reformers will turn their attention to sex in the movies and on TV once again. It’s beginning to look more and more, however, as though that day will never come.#