Distal Muse Archives


by Mark W. Tiedemann

     I know, a catchy title.  A little unfair maybe, since there's nothing particularly titillating in what follows.  Or maybe there is, depending on what--what's the saying?--"pumps yer nads!"
     Did you know that the last week of October is now national Protection From Pornography Week?  Yes, indeed, signed into law by our illustrious president, Mr. Bush.  I for one had no idea I needed to be protected from it.  How reassuring to know that we are being defended from dangers both real and imagined by the ever watchful gaze of our very own homegrown clerics.
     We've spent tax dollars on this.
     There is a link to the official proclamation.  You can read it for yourself at


     Seems innocuous enough, even homey.  All that stuff about the destructive effects of porn on children, who can argue?
     Has it occurred to anyone throughout the last two decades of the war on pornography that--like alcohol and tobacco--pornography is simply not for children?  It seems a ludicrously simple idea to me--it was never intended for them.  We manage to have reasonable laws about things not intended for children.  We don't let them drive cars (except at amusement parks, in specially constructed rides), we don't let them drink booze, we don't allow the sale of tobacco to minors.  They can't vote, either, because we presume to decide on their level of intelligence and ability to make political statements.  That one may be arguable, but...
     We don't allow children to sign contracts.  We don't let them in to see "R" rated movies without a parent or guardian.      Technically, children aren't allowed to have credit cards, but sometimes that one slips through the cracks.
     Point being, we manage these other prohibitions quite handily.  Occasionally something goes wrong, but we have a system for dealing with it that doesn't require a national week signed into effect by the president.  I mean, we don't have a National Protection From Contracts Week detailing how contracts have debilitating effects on families and children (especially children, oh, those poor innocents who cannot defend themselves from the deprivations of over-zealous loan officers and contract litigators!).
     The other side of this is, however, perhaps a little more contentious.  We don't allow children to participate in all this stuff, but we make an assumption that adults may, can, and that there is, for the most part, nothing wrong with it!
     So why do we need this Protection From Porn Week?
     Well, it's not aimed at children.  With all that child sexual exploitation is an evil thing and no sensible adult would allow that it's not, the target here is not to protect children.  It's not even to protect.
     The target is Sex.
     Since the Sixties there has been a war going on in this country about the public function of Sex in our society.  I won't here detail that war--we sell products with it, but we can't actually sell the thing itself (except in certain places under strict licensing etc.); we all like to be sexy, even when we don't admit it, but we don't necessarily want to follow through on the implications, i.e. have sex commensurate with the degree of sexiness we like to pretend to; sex is one of the most wanted things we have, yet there is a perverse urge to deny it to others when we deem it inappropriate (or even when it is appropriate, just public).  The war has taken on all the canny subterfuge and annoying intangibility of the worst aspects of the Cold War, which I think is an ironic if apt comparison.  After all, the Cold War was as much about ideas as about actions.
     Our Attorney General spent $80,000 on a curtain to hide the tits of Justice so television viewers wouldn't be offended.
     Who really was?  We've been looking at public nudity like that for two centuries.  Except for a few extreme crackpots, I don't know of anyone who ever seriously complained--because we have all made the distinction between nudity and sexuality in these instances.  I mean, no one seriously gets turned on by the nakedness of Justice.  Do they?
     As a statement of principle, let me be up front.  I think sex between mutually consenting individuals is a wonderful thing.  Under any circumstances.  Sex itself is one of the best things we can offer each other.  Sex is beautiful, sex is great, sex is a thing to be sought and had and indulged.  I have always thought restrictions on it between mutually consenting people were silly if not obscene.
     Having said that, look at what I said.  "Mutually consenting individuals".  There's a lot of substance floating beneath the iceberg tip of that phrase.  What it implies is profound.
     No one should thoughtlessly indulge sex.
     No one should have sex under inequitable circumstances.
     No one should violate another's individuality in order to have sex.
     In order to mutually consent to something, we presume a kind of level playing field.  You have to know why you're there, know yourself, know what you're getting into, and know what you think you're getting out of it.  You have to UNDERSTAND what's happening.
     Which is what makes all forms of sexual coercion ugly and condemnable.  Which is why "No means No" has to be adhered to utterly.  Which is why, for all you frat boys, jocks, and hapless wannabe Don Juans (of either gender), getting someone drunk or stoned in order to screw them is a crime.
     It's also an act of cowardice.
     Equitable conditions is a little less concrete, but in the instance of children it's absolutely clear, and you can use that as a starting point.  There is no way a child is the equal of an adult in a practical sense.  Adults having sex with children can never be anything but abuse because of the fundamental disconnect in status and knowledge and experience.  There is no possibility of "mutual consent" in this case, because the basis on which such consent is given is absent.
     That shouldn't be too hard to understand.  Other bases of inequity are slipperier but no less real.  Financial inequity is a biggie.  When the boss threatens job loss if sex is not forthcoming, this is an inequitable circumstance.  Of course, this is a power game, and sex should be devoid of power games in order for it to be right.  (Unless power is part of the Game, in which both participants are agreed in advance, but that's not coercion.)  Unfortunately, in this society, it goes beyond such simple--and prosecutable--examples as that.  Despite our ardent political illusions to the contrary, we do have a class structure, and that alone tilts the scales into inequitable exchanges.  Money always shifts the balance.  Who you have sex with and why all too often has less to do with sex itself than with other factors.  We make jokes, always have, about "marrying money", but the basis of those jokes is not a laughing matter.  Coercion goes both ways, depending on circumstances.
     So you see, when I say Mutually Consenting Individuals, that is not a carte blanche.  It never was, even though we treat it that way more often than not.  Two people are over 21, they can vote, they should be able to do what they want with and to each other.
     Is it ever that simple?
     But aside from these considerations, if conditions of mutuality and consent are met, where does anyone get off suggesting it's wrong to have sex?
     It's a cliche, of course, but still powerful, that in this society we have no problem with people going to the theater to watch a film in which people kill each other in many and varied and devious and painful ways, but if two people are naked and fucking, we try to get it banned.  At least limit the audience.  Heaven forbid we give our children the idea that sex is good and all right and that maybe violence is bad.
     Now we have politicians getting in an uproar over gay marriage.  They've been in an uproar over abortion since Roe V. Wade, and I do not believe that for most of them it has as much to do with fetuses as it has to do with sex.  Notice, almost uniformly all prolife groups refuse to consider a broader, more comprehensive birth control education and availability program.  Randal Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue, has stated that all forms of birth control, to his way of thinking, are abortion, murder, and immoral.  No, it's not the morality of abortion, it's sex.  Abortions represent women having sex without consequence (which is a fatuously wrongheaded way to look at it, so self-servingly puerile in its refusal to see any other possible explanation than their own).  I would be less inclined to despise the Prolife Movement if they were out there encouraging people to use condoms, the Pill, or sterilization.  That they condemn these things almost on par demonstrates that the issue is, really, sex.
     Let's not kid ourselves.  True, there are economic considerations to all these things, but the bottom line here is a public aversion, even hatred, of sex.
     Or it's a control issue.
     Something to consider.  Traditionally, those in power who work to oppress sex--who enact sodomy laws, or things like the Mann Act, or marital status laws, or laws regulating pornography, or who condemn people who indulge themselves in sex without guilt--the leaders who condemn immorality, who tell us that society will collapse to anarchy if we don't control our sexual urges, who try to lock us in prisons of fear or guilt, who turn sex into property and then legislate it as such, those people have always indulged themselves, from popes to presidents. Those who are most aggressively anti-sex in public have usually lived private lives drenched in it.
     And they could, because they have the power to condemn those who they coerced.  The ultimate inequity.  The ultimate abuse.
     Not all of them, mind you.  I have no doubt that our current president is faithful to his wife.  In our present media-invasive climate, if he weren't we would all know soon enough.  But those who benefit from his position, those who support him, those who sycophantically proclaim their loyalty, those who donate money and give favors.  There is always a cadre, a circle, around such leaders who do get to have what they want.
     What is distressing is that this is a button so easily pushed.  We seem as a collective incapable of arguing back when our leaders tell us we need to oppress sex.  Maybe if we stopped acting like sex is something we "get away with" everytime we have it, stop acting like the children we claim to be trying to protect--in short, collectively pull our heads out of our asses and deny the politicians any right to tell us what is or is not appropriate private behavior, then we could begin to rationalize the discourse and subsequently the panic-driven legal paroxysms we seem to be going through.
     Many--possibly most--people behave quite reasonably about sex.  But their voices are not the ones dominating the public discourse.  Instead, the discourse is driven by those who wish us to be ashamed of arousal, of touching, of orgasm, as if civilization will perish if we collectively admit to enjoying it.
     Of course, if we did take this approach, then maybe we could also start addressing the real problems we have with it--the inequities in our relationships, the abuse that happens every day, the real disconnects we have between law and practice.
     In order to protect children from it, we should first grow up ourselves, instead of acting like children who've been caught with our hands in the cookie jar.
     Until then, we have present-day puritans dictating morality.  And we let them, even when we know that what they're doing is wrongheaded, because we don't want to admit...
     What?  That we like sex?  Or that maybe we don't really know how to deal with it?
     Start with what I suggest:  Mutual Consent means a great deal more than just two people saying yes.
     Protection starts with self-knowledge.
     Or maybe we should just wait for the presidential "Protection From Arousal" week.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann