Reviews > Culture

Out of the dungeon

Culture | To get that old thrill of transgression, the cultural elite keeps defining sexual deviancy down

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

America has become one vast Temptation Island. Sixty-eight percent of all TV shows have something to do with sex. Eighty-nine percent of all movies-that is, those movies tame enough to be shown on the networks and HBO-feature some kind of sexual content. But these findings by a Kaiser Family Foundation study are only part of the story of how appealing to people's sexual desires has become endemic in pop culture. The music industry, from hip-hop to country, is singing primarily about sex. Pay-per-view pornography has become as common as room service in hotels-not the sleazy ones, but upscale and family hotels. Strip clubs have sprung up everywhere, with aggressive advertising in family newspapers and on huge billboards along the interstate. What is remarkable is how quickly this has happened. The Kaiser study showed that the amount of sex on TV has jumped 12 percentage points in only one year, with the amount of sex on sitcoms-which used to be staples of the now defunct "family hour"-shooting up 28 percentage points over the last season. A few years ago, a mere innuendo was titillating enough, but the portrayals of sex in the media keep growing more and more explicit, more and more extreme. More importantly, as the culture keeps stepping over the line that marks what is illicit, ever more outrageous sexual perversions slither out of the closet and make their claim to be socially acceptable. The reason that the jettisoning of sexual morality leads to such a slippery slope has to do with the nature of sinful pleasure. The Bible describes the process of the "hardening" of people's hearts, which is both the psychopathology of sin and God's judgment against it. Those who persevere in a particular sin after awhile no longer feel guilty about doing it. Whereupon they take up another vice, and the process continues, as they grow worse and worse and more and more depraved. Part of the pleasure of certain practices-and certain works of art-is the experience of transgression, the thrill of doing something wrong, what C. S. Lewis called the "tang" of evil. When the heart becomes hardened, the thrill is gone, and like a drug addict having to shoot up higher and higher doses to get the original high, sinners have to go to ever greater extremes in order to get the old forbidden pleasure. As it gets harder and harder to find a pleasure that is forbidden in our popular culture, what do we have to look forward to? From promiscuity to sadism
First the pop culture legitimized extra-marital sex, changing a transcultural millennia-old moral evil into something taken for granted-with absolutely no sense of shame-in sitcoms, PG movies, and real-life relationships. Homosexuality used to be seen as a private vice, something to be ashamed of and struggled against. Now, homosexuality has become socially acceptable, even en vogue. In fact, we are seeing a remarkable reversal of values. Psychiatrists used to consider homosexuality a mental disorder; now, they consider being against homosexuality a mental disorder, the perversion known as "homophobia." Opinion leaders used to hail the Boy Scouts as a model of American virtue. But now, editorial writers are criticizing, and some United Way agencies are defunding, the Scouts on the grounds of its immorality: The Scouts do not approve of the young children in their charge doing homosexual acts, nor do they allow homosexuals to be Scoutmasters. Not having such a rule in a volunteer organization, they reason, might attract exactly the kind of sexual predator that their young members need to be protected from. But this position makes the Scouts controversial-even sinister-in the public eye. Though most Americans still have some qualms about homosexuality, the normalization of homosexuality is an accomplished fact in the media and the cultural elite. With homosexuality accepted as perfectly normal, healthy, and good, we are seeing other sexual perversions coming out of the closet and into the pop culture. Recently, sadomasochism-getting sexual pleasure from inflicting or receiving pain-has come out of the dungeon. Sexual torture is a staple of heavy metal music. Whips, chains, leather, spiked dog collars, and other paraphernalia of the S&M subculture have become commonplace on MTV, and now this kind of imagery is showing up in mainstream TV shows and movies. The attempt to rehabilitate the Marquis de Sade-the 18th-century pornographer, child molester, and torturer of women-is evident in the award-winning movie Quills, which presents the decadent French nobleman as a champion of freedom of speech. The spate of vampire movies also trades on sexualized violence, and hit horror movies like Hannibal-with its theme of cannibalism plus sexual desire-share the same appeal. (In the bestselling books these movies are made from, the sadomasochism is even more explicit.) But now, S&M is becoming domesticated. New York City has a "theme restaurant" taking a touristy theme-park approach to the subject, with dominatrix waitresses serving scary-sounding dishes in a dungeon-themed d*cor. Even in the suburbs of middle America, mainstream nightclubs are featuring "bondage nights," where visitors can go to whip or be whipped, all to nonjudgmental reviews in the local newspaper. Undermining the next taboo: child sex
What do we have to look forward to next? There are signs that a major cultural and moral barrier is being undermined, namely, that children are off-limits sexually. Though the sexual abuse of children has been one of the few evils that all Americans could agree on, there is evidence that among the vanguards of cultural change-academia, the artistic and literary elite, Hollywood-this taboo seems to be weakening. WORLD has been documenting this shift for some time ("Crossing the lines," WORLD, Aug. 22, 1998, for example). In a recent article in The Weekly Standard titled "Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered," Mary Eberstadt gives further evidence about how "the defense of adult-child sex-more accurately, man-boy sex-is now out in the open. Moreover, it is on parade in a number of places: therapeutic, literary, and academic circles; mainstream publishing houses and journals and magazines and bookstores where the mere appearance of such ideas would until recently have been not only unthinkable, but in many cases, subject to prosecution." She discusses the article in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin (July 1998) that purported to show that boys, in particular, were not really harmed when molested by men ("Tossing the last taboo," WORLD, April 10, 1999). She goes on to uncover a whole network of research that tries to make the case that not all sex between adults and minors is a bad thing, that there can be consensual sex between men and boys, and that instead of classifying it all as "child abuse," we should just call it the more neutral "adult-child sex." Sympathetic treatments of older men seducing young boys has also become commonplace in literature. Ms. Eberstadt quotes Philip Guichard of the Village Voice who complained about how gay fiction today "is rich with idyllic accounts of Ôintergenerational relationships,' as such affairs are respectfully called these days." She cites novel after novel and the standard anthologies of "gay fiction"-all to be found in the substantial "gay studies" sections of your local mega-bookstore-that celebrate the "sexual initiation" of children by understanding older men. But the trend goes beyond books and articles. Gay support groups are making a special effort to include "gay" children, as young as 10 and 12. Now there is even a magazine for them, XY, aimed at adolescents as young as 12, complete with erotic photo spreads of boys, cover blurbs like "Underage," and articles such as "[Expletive] the Age of Consent." The magazine-again, available on the newsstands of many bookstore chains and record stores-has become a favorite of older gay men, as well as confused 12-year-olds who have no business considering themselves homosexual or anything else at their age. It is true that not all homosexuals are pedophiles, and more conservative gay activists (such as the Log Cabin Republicans) are on record as condemning sex with children. Still, organizations such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) have a strong presence in the "gay community," and causes such as lowering the age of consent and attacking the Boy Scouts for their protective policies demonstrate their influence. But as Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of The New Republic and a prominent and relatively conservative gay activist, points out in his response to Ms. Eberstadt's article, the problem is not just with homosexuals. The culture is also becoming more open to heterosexual pedophilia, with older men seeing young girls as sex objects. He cites the acclaimed movie, American Beauty, which won last year's Oscar for best picture, among many other accolades and box-office success. The story hinges on a man who rediscovers his vitality by lusting after an underage friend of his daughter. After an exuberant rejection of his middle-class suburban life, he actually does start to have sex with her. Though he stops in the act, the scenes of his erotic fantasies, the young girls' sexual talk-not to mention their nude scenes-present these children as fair sexual game. Nowhere does the movie present the main character as a repulsive figure, as movies usually depict pedophiles, and the audience is definitely on his side. Mr. Sullivan cites other signs of heterosexual pedophile chic. The British couple that is giving their daughter breast implants for her 16th birthday. The popularity of Britney Spears, whose image is one of virginal adolescent innocence dressed in sexually provocative clothes. Indeed, the sexy fashions inspired by Miss Spears-who, commendably, speaks of her faith in God and her virginity-have now become a look favored by little girls in grade school! Moreover, the entertainment manufactured by adults for consumption by underage children-MTV's sexual advice shows, the teen sex soap opera Undressed, the lyrics of much of the music targeted to adolescents and listened to by third-graders-largely has to do with underage boys and girls having sex. Though much of this is child-child sex, as opposed to what the activists prefer to call adult-child sex, the effect is the same. Children are sexualized. This is being done by adults. Neither children nor adolescents have control of recording studios, TV stations, or publishing houses. It is thus the adults in the entertainment industry who, in the name of commercial gain, are treating children as sex objects. And as this climate of pedophilia spreads throughout the culture, they are putting real children at risk. The new kiddie porn technology Of course, the law supports the taboo against sex with children. Child-abuse laws are rigorously enforced, although a spate of false charges has perhaps weakened their credibility with the public. There are also strict laws against child pornography, perhaps the last remaining bastion of the anti-obscenity statutes. But here new technology is stepping in. Certainly the Internet has been a major factor in the new pornography boom-including the boom in child pornography-enabling users to shed their inhibitions by privately tapping into their every fantasy, supplied by vendors who are among the few businesses making money off the Internet. But prosecutors are still going after buyers and sellers of kiddie porn. Now, though, a new technological frontier has opened up that may allow child pornographers to operate with impunity. Digital imaging technology makes it possible to take innocent photographs of children and to manipulate them into pornographic poses or so that it looks like they are having sex with adults. But they aren't really. Before, child pornographers could be prosecuted for child abuse, for forcing children into sexual situations. The pornography was photographic evidence of the crime. But with digital imaging technology, as used in movie special effects, porn makers and buyers can say that no children were harmed during the making of this pornography. Even this virtual kiddie porn is against the law. But the Free Speech Coalition, a consortium of "adult-oriented" businesses, is seeking to overturn the Child Pornography Prevention Act, which forbids, among other things, the making of computer-altered images that appear to show minors in sexual activity. But a San Francisco federal appeals court recently ruled that such a ban is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. The United States Supreme Court on Jan. 22 agreed to review the case. One would think that the protection of children is one of the main reasons to have a legal system, but in a cultural climate that cannot recognize that moral absolutes are binding on people's thoughts and imaginations, as well as their actions, who knows what may move from the "unthinkable" to the "permissible" to the taken for granted? Sex and culture
Does such permissiveness mean that we are in the midst of a new sexual revolution? Not necessarily. Although adolescents are the carefully calculated targets of the new media promiscuity, there is good evidence that sexual activity is decreasing among teenagers, largely due to the influence of the Christian-based abstinence movement. Among adults, the number of couples "living together" without being married is indeed at an all-time high and has become utterly socially acceptable in many circles. On the other hand, feminist-inspired "sexual harassment" rules are having a laudatory chilling effect, and have sparked a laudatory revival of decorum in language, manners, and propriety in the workplace and at school. It is also true that today's sexual depravity is nothing new. The Victorian age, for all of its reputation for sexual modesty, doubtless had more open prostitution than we do today, as well as homosexuality and pornography and even pedophilia on an embarrassing scale. The same could be said of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and the Greco-Roman world with which the early church contended. Sexual sin we have always had with us, though it was usually understood to be sin, or, even when tolerated, a private vice, something that should be kept out of the public eye as injurious to the public good. What we are seeing today is largely a phenomenon of the pop culture, which has made us so pleasure-centered, with such an insatiable appetite for being entertained, that the easily induced but ever growing stimulation of sex can hardly be resisted. Nevertheless, most ordinary Americans draw the line at perversions such as sadism and child abuse, just as they once drew the line at extramarital sex, and are uncomfortable with, though increasingly tolerant of, homosexuality. According to Marxism, the inevitable process of social change is heralded by a "vanguard," certain men and women who emerge ahead of their time, promulgating the ideas of the revolution in the face of opposition, before such ideas become popular and the inevitable fruition of history. The notion of a vanguard, as an agent of social change, survives the collapse of the Soviet Union among today's culture makers, for example in the concept of the "avant-garde" (advance guard) in the art world. The desire to be "cutting edge" is a great motivator in academia, the arts, and the entertainment industry. And one does not have to be a Marxist to recognize that what is at first avant-garde often becomes the next establishment. It is thus important to recognize the new sexual degeneracy that our cultural trailblazers want to lead us into. Because sex, properly, creates families, the foundation of every culture, shifting its locus away from marriage and the begetting of children is cultural suicide.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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