First they came for Howard

Why isn't everyone who cares about free speech rallying around the embattled radio personality?


Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed “King of All Media,” was booted off six radio stations owned by those Iraq war boosters at Clear Channel Communications, after the radio network was slapped with a half-million-dollar fine by the Federal Communications Commission because of his show. It all could prove to be a serious blow, though, if the King of All Media winds up starving to death in a ditch as a result; well, he’s got no one to blame but himself — if that man hasn’t socked away some of the tens of millions of dollars he’s raked in over the years, then I have absolutely no sympathy for him.

Professionally, though, I’m more than concerned for Howard. I’m furious and distressed, actually. While I’ll admit it’s been thrilling to watch Stern, famous momma’s boy, battle FCC chairman Michael Powell, famous daddy’s boy, and his flock of flying monkeys, when the hammer came down on Stern last week my eyes were suddenly opened. It’s not just that I make my living, however meager it may be in comparison to Stern’s, doing something similar. Indeed, I was accused of being “the gay Howard Stern” early on in what I laughingly refer to as my “career.” (It was a rival advice columnist who made the charge — whatever happened to Isadora Alman, anyway?) I’m not having a “First they came for Howard Stern, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an insanely wealthy shock jock …” moment. I don’t think I’m next on the hit list; my column is published on newsprint and the Net, not broadcast on our precious airwaves, the only scarce natural resource the Bush administration is remotely interested in defending. Thanks to the First Amendment, they can’t shut down “Savage Love.” Not yet, anyway.

No, what distresses me about Stern’s predicament is that civil libertarians, lefties and sex radicals aren’t furious and distressed, too, and that they’re not rallying to his side — and they should be. Stern’s fine, and his dismissal from those six Clear Channel stations, is the result of an April 9, 2003, show in which Stern discussed anal and oral sex. With his co-host, Robin Quivers, Stern raked one of his regulars, Stuttering John, over the coals about something John revealed about his sex life on the air during a previous show. Mr. and Mrs. Stuttering, apparently, enjoy anal sex — quite a lot — but they’ve been enjoying it a lot less since Mr. Stuttering blurted out this fact on the radio, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Stuttering. The moral of the segment was this: “You have to respect your partner’s right to sexual privacy — particularly if you want to keep banging away at her ass.” In another segment, Stern discussed a product called “Sphincterine,” a kind of spray/wipe/lotion for men who suffer from “swamp ass.” The guest invented the product after his girlfriend called off a blow job because he was rank. The moral of this segment? “Good personal hygiene is important.”

Both segments featured a lot of toilet humor, and Stern presided over them with his trademark salaciousness. (The transcript is available here.) And while most of Stern’s male listeners no doubt tuned in on April 9, 2003, to enjoy the shock jock’s bathroom humor, they nevertheless came away with two valuable lessons. Based on the mail I get every day at “Savage Love,” I would venture to guess that there are millions of men out there who need to be reminded to keep their mouths shut about their sexual conquests, and to shower on a regular basis. And if I may go out on a limb, I’d venture to guess that a disproportionately large percentage of these men listen to Stern’s show. More power to Howard for informing these stank-butts of the importance of sexual discretion and good personal hygiene in a way that they could understand.

Showing our support for good personal hygiene and sexual decorum aren’t the reasons why civil libertarians, lefties and sex radicals should be rallying to Howard Stern’s side, however. (Though you never know when you might wind up in bed with a Stern fan.) At bottom, this is an issue that transcends Howard Stern’s right to obsess over lesbian sex acts and the size of his own penis on the radio five mornings a week. It’s also bigger than the right of his millions of listeners to enjoy his brand of humor and, as we’ve seen, learn valuable lessons. We should be concerned because what’s being done to Howard Stern is part of a concerted effort by religious and cultural conservatives to stamp out the sexual openness that has come to define mainstream culture over the last 20 years.

Frank and explicit talk about human sexuality became a virtue in the wake of the AIDS epidemic that hit in the early 1980s. The United States had already been through a sexual revolution, but mainstream culture — television, radio and film — preferred to focus solely on the social impact of the sexual revolution (see “Love American Style,” “Three’s Company,” et al.), avoiding all talk of actual sex. It wasn’t until a new and fatal sexually transmitted disease emerged that Americans were forced to discuss not just the sex we were supposed to be having (heterosexual, missionary, procreative), but the sex many of us were actually having (hetero and homo; oral, vaginal and anal; procreative and recreational). AIDS forced Americans to start having open, honest conversations about sex and desire. It was an adult conversation about sex, and like all adult conversations about sex it involved a lot of humor. Dying is easy, as the AIDS epidemic made clear. Talking about sex is hard — and the sudden need to talk about sex in the wake of AIDS opened the door not just to condom commercials on television and safe-sex pamphlets in our mailboxes, but sexually explicit humor on “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” and Howard Stern’s radio show.

So now Howard Stern is in trouble for talking about sex like an adult, for using humor, and for doing it on the radio — something he’s been doing for more than a decade, something he was celebrated for doing until very recently. Stern didn’t say or do anything obscene — not by the standards of the communities where his show is aired, and certainly not by the standards of the people who tune in to his program. George W. Bush’s version of “the feds” are after Stern for what he symbolizes — the ’90s’ sexual openness, frank and humorous discussion of desire — and Stern is not the only one they’re persecuting. The through-the-looking-glass treatment of Janet Jackson after the Super Bowl, the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of mainstream porn producers, the prosecution of a woman in Texas for selling sex toys — these are all dots that someone needs to connect to the treatment of Stern. And the right’s culture warriors are not just moving against sex: Tommy Chong is in jail for selling a few bongs while Rush Limbaugh, abuser of maids and illegal drugs, is walking around a free man.

Perhaps this is a “First they came for Howard Stern …” piece. And it’s time for those of us who value the freedom of adults to speak in public, and value the idea that not everything on radio or television (or the Internet) has to be suitable for children, to speak up. After all, what the hell good is free speech if you can’t speak freely about swamp ass?

Dan Savage is the author of the widely syndicated sex advice column Savage Love, as well as the editor of The Stranger, Seattle's largest weekly newspaper. His most recent book, "Skipping Toward Gomorrah," is available in paperback.

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