The morality police

Our hysterical attempts to shield kids from images of sex and violence are stunting young lives -- and trapping us all in a Big Lie.

Published June 11, 2001 5:18PM (EDT)

One of the most unbelievable conversations I've ever had took place a few years ago with a friend, a writer, who was in the midst of preparing for a visit from some relatives, including a young cousin of about 10. My friend told me that he'd gone through his house putting away any "inappropriate" material that his cousin might see. We're not talking porn here, or removing Henry Miller or "The Story of O" from the bookshelves, but stashing the copies of "Esquire" and "Entertainment Weekly" in the magazine pile in his living room. Why, I asked, would you feel the need to hide those? Because, my friend explained, they had swear words in them. I pointed out that the worst thing his cousin was likely to see in "Entertainment Weekly" was, as it's so delicately printed in that magazine, "f _ _ _," something the boy had certainly already heard in the schoolyard. But my friend wasn't buying. Why, he wanted to know, can't magazine articles be written so that they're suitable for everyone?

I felt as if I had been asked to justify why water had to be wet. Here was someone who depended for his living on the right to free speech, who wrote as an adult for other adults, who was advocating the false assumption that lies at the core of the censorious impulse: Children need to be protected from vulgarity and obscenity.

At the heart of that argument is the belief that society should be remade for everyone, not just children. Basically, my friend was arguing that all adult discourse should be rendered suitable for kids, that entertainment or writing specifically intended for adults is somehow dangerous and that, as journalists, we should all be required to adhere to a phony "family newspaper" standard.

He didn't come out and say that, of course. He fell back on the protection-of-innocence arguments that censors have used for years and that courts have upheld. There's an understandable impulse behind the desire to protect children, an awareness of their physical fragility, a wish for them to be able to enjoy their childhood and a frustrating sense that out in the world dangers await them that we are powerless to stop. But too often we have lost the ability to distinguish between what's inappropriate for kids and what is actually harmful to them. And, acting on fear and suspicion and assumption, we have, with the best of intentions, created situations that are potentially more harmful to kids and teens than what we want to protect them from.

The tradition of censorship in the name of the little ones is the subject of Marjorie Heins' new book, "Not in Front of the Children: 'Indecency,' Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth." Heins, the director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, has essentially written a précis of various legal rulings that have cited the protection of youth as justification for limiting free speech. Heins is blessedly clear on the legal ramifications of the obscenity prosecutions she considers. As a lawyer she's adept at pointing out the contradictions, false premises and just plain unconstitutionality of those decisions.

But Heins' book is essentially a long legal brief, and that narrow focus is disappointing. Put it this way: No one is likely to attempt to write a history of how in 20th century America free speech was denied and narrowed in the name of decency and protecting minors without consulting this book. But we are still awaiting the great piece of social criticism about modern society's fetishistic construction of childhood as a time of asexual innocence.

By any reasonable standard, that fantasy has to be counted among our most destructive and costly delusions. It's a poisoned tree that has borne the fruits of censorship; of teenage lives stunted or ended by denying minors access to birth control, abortion and sexual information; and of adult lives destroyed by the urban legend of ritual cult child abuse (best dealt with in the 1995 book "Satan's Silence" by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker) or by the junk science of repressed memory syndrome (the subject of Frederick Crews' pitiless and incendiary "The Memory Wars").

Cloaking themselves in concern for the welfare of children, censors have managed to successfully paint the people who oppose them as willing corruptors of children. And in the midst of outbreaks of mass hysteria, such as the '80s vogue for stories of Satanic ritual abuse, or the not-yet-abated horror stories about the Internet, speaking out against measures like the Child Pornography Protection Act (which got one man prosecuted for renting a video of Oscar-winning German film "The Tin Drum"), the Communications Decency Act (which would have meant that the article you're reading could have cost me a quarter of a million dollars and landed me in prison for two years) or the Child Online Protection Act, essentially the same legislation (whose constitutionality the Supreme Court has decided to review), is often enough to get you labeled as some sort of pervert willing to countenance the sexual exploitation of children. What kind of person, after all, would oppose a bill called the Child Pornography Protection Act?

Well, anyone who wanted to teach "Romeo and Juliet" for one. The CPPA outlawed the portrayal of sex between minors. Under that definition, child porn could be defined as the wedding night scene in "Romeo and Juliet"; the hugely popular family comedy "Big," in which Tom Hanks plays a 12-year-old who, in one scene, goes to bed with Elizabeth Perkins; the episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where Buffy sleeps with Angel on her 17th birthday. (Bob Dole, however, leering at Britney Spears over his Pepsi, would have been safe.) Unlike obscenity laws, the CPPA, since overturned, provided no exception for "redeeming social value"; if something fit the description, it was child porn. And lest those examples sound like exaggeration or worst-case scenarios, let me reiterate that the statute was used to prosecute a video store owner and the customer who rented "The Tin Drum."

Heins must have realized she was striding into a minefield. Shrewdly -- but also, I think, honestly -- she focuses on the harm done to children by censorship laws. She questions how children who have been so stringently shielded can be well prepared for life (especially when at age 18 -- poof! -- they magically become "adults"); how, under the Constitution, some citizens can be judged to have fewer free-speech rights than others; and how you can claim to be protecting children if, in the case of birth control or sexual information, you are depriving them of something that, especially with the public health crisis of AIDS, could save their lives. Some parents love to wag their fingers condescendingly at those of us without children who oppose free-speech restrictions. They say, "You'll change your tune when you have kids of your own." But why would anyone wish for a world in which their children would have fewer rights?

The notion that words and images and ideas can cause harm to young minds has become such an article of faith that it's hard not to feel a sense of futility when you point out that there is not a shred, not an iota, not an atom of proof that exposure to images or descriptions of sex and violence does children any harm. In the face of people who are certain about the evil Pied Piper effect of the media, insisting on the facts becomes pointless, even though every expert who tries to claim otherwise gives himself or herself away. On May 6, the Associated Press reported news of an American Psychiatric Association panel on online voyeurism in which a University of Michigan psychiatry professor named Norman Alessi testified that "the potential of seeing hundreds of thousands of such images during adolescence -- I have no idea what that could do. But I can imagine it must be profound" (emphasis added). God knows psychiatry isn't science, but you'd expect a doctor to be a little more circumspect when he has only his imagination to go on.

Yet this is exactly the kind of "data" that Congress swallows whole before coming up with some new way to put the screws to Hollywood. And witnesses who do try to testify to the facts are often treated with contempt. MIT professor Henry Jenkins appeared before the Senate in the hearings that convened in the panicked aftermath of the Columbine killings and found himself to be the only scholar present who didn't take it on faith (because there's no other way to take it) that media violence promotes real violence. Jenkins described a Senate chamber festooned with "hyperbolic and self-parodying" posters and ads for the most violent video games on the market. "Senators," he said, "read them all deadly seriously and with absolute literalness."

And why wouldn't they? What do senators, what do the most vocal media critics for that matter, know about video games, rock 'n' roll, current movies and television? Joe Lieberman admitted to "Entertainment Weekly" last week that he hasn't seen a movie since going to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" just before the Oscars. Think he had a chance to see many during last year's campaign? Think that will keep him from opening his yap about the sinister effects of media violence during debate over his new bill (sponsored by three other Democratic senators, Herb Kohl, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Byrd), which would allow the Federal Trade Commission to fine companies that promote adult material in markets with an audience that consists substantially of kids?

I have never come across one -- not one -- critic protesting the perniciousness of media sex and violence who had any sense of irony, or any substantial or direct experience with the way audiences experience sex and violence and the different ways they're portrayed. I know a 16-year-old girl who has seen "The Faculty" 14 times. Now, I can imagine what Lieberman or Henry Hyde would do with that tidbit -- turn it into the story of a teenager obsessed with a movie in which students take up arms against their teachers. The fact is, my friend has seen it repeatedly for the same reason she went to an opening night IMAX screening of "Pearl Harbor": because she thinks Josh Hartnett is adorable.

Why we resist facing the facts in this debate is understandable. People don't have to be stupid or corrupt to look at school shootings, or violence in America in general, and feel that something has to be responsible. And as someone who spends much of his time looking at pop culture, I won't deny being disturbed by some of the more mindless violence out there, of having felt cut off from an audience that was grooving on mayhem. People feel so overwhelmed by violence that they think there simply must be a connection between media bloodshed and the real thing. But the truth is that violent crime is down in America, and it has been going down for some years now.

Just because I think extreme protectionism is misguided doesn't mean that I think children should be exposed to anything and everything. Parents have to make those decisions for their own kids. And while I sympathize with their frustration over the proliferation of outlets like the Internet, video and cable that makes those decisions more demanding, parents' frustration isn't a good enough reason to limit the First Amendment. It sickened me when I heard stories about parents dragging along their young kids to see "Hannibal." But we see that kind of idiocy even with a damaging movie ratings system in place. Teenagers may be better able to handle material than their younger siblings are, but they too are the target of obscenity laws that don't distinguish between a 6- or 8-year-old and a 14- or 16-year-old.

Some will insist that there have been findings indicating a causal link between violent entertainment and violent behavior. But those studies have profound flaws. Is it really that surprising that toddlers become markedly more rambunctious after being kept in a room watching "The Three Stooges" for five hours? I have some faith in science, and it seems to me that if there really were a cause-and-effect link between real violence and media violence, then it would have been proven by now. At the least, people who believe in that link should work the flaws out of their methodology.

Would-be censors are often aided in their mission by the news media. Assigned to write a breaking story involving a movie or book or piece of pop music, and usually scrambling against deadlines, reporters often resort to the most simplistic, alarmist characterizations, failing to familiarize themselves with their subject, unable to put it in cultural context. When I worked at a Boston newspaper in the mid-'80s, the local news was dominated by a murder case in which a couple were suspected (but never proven guilty) of raping and killing their infant daughter. When it became known that the couple had gone to see "The Terminator" on the afternoon of the murder, a reporter asked me to tell him what the picture was about. I told him it was the story of a killer robot from a future ruled by machines, sent back in time to murder the woman who would eventually bear the rebel leader who would rally the humans to victory. When the reporter's story appeared, "The Terminator" somehow became a film whose plot prominently featured the murder of a child.

These are the "experts" who are feeding the suspicions and fears of parents. I understand that love isn't always rational. But too many parents seem to have thoroughly banished memories of their own youth in favor of the fantasy that childhood and adolescence are a time of purest innocence (which, Heins reminds us, is not the same thing as inexperience). Kids love dirty, gross jokes; they find bodily functions hilarious; they can be cruel and selfish; their energy often expresses itself in the sort of aggression that causes them to run riot around the house. My friends and I used to exhaust ourselves trying to hit my Superman punching bag so hard it would stay down -- what could be cooler than knocking out Superman? I'm willing to bet that most teenagers, at one time or another, have fantasized about blowing up their school or cocked a finger at some kid making their life miserable and made a shotgun noise. The adults who see such actions as alarming evidence of corruption are the ones who live in a dangerous fantasy world.

The most revealing and appalling expression of the parental fantasy of childhood innocence that I've ever run across was in a recent Salon Life article called "Click on and jack off" by the pseudonymous "Margot Nightingale." Unable to explain why her 12-year-old son, in his first year of junior high, goes from being a straight-A student to a distracted one with indifferent grades, Nightingale eavesdrops on phone conversations with his friends and peeps into his computer to discover that he's been visiting porn sites. While those of us who haven't blocked out the memory of sneaking peeks at dirty magazines might find it perfectly natural that a 12-year-old boy would be interested in the contents of, it causes Nightingale to hit the panic button.

Worried that she's losing her little boy, Nightingale and her husband sit him down for talks that are predicated on false assumptions (for example, that pornography degrades women) when they aren't just plain nonsensical. (The poor kid is reminded that "he has sisters." What is he supposed to do, think of his sisters whenever he feels a sexual urge toward women in order to evaluate its propriety?) Nightingale is careful to hit all the "tolerant" notes, telling her son that masturbation is perfectly normal. But how is he supposed to find it normal after being told that his fantasies are depraved and dangerous?

None of this, though, compares, to the next step Nightingale takes: Obtaining "an anonymous e-mail address from another Internet provider, I wrote to my son, pretending to be a stranger, a male stranger. I said something like, 'Hey, wasssssup, guy? Enjoying our Web sites? How old are you, man? See you around. Write back.'" He never does, but he spends nervous hours trying to figure out who this mysterious e-mailer is. Nightingale tells us she had no other choice, because she is trying to "raise this child into a responsible and caring man in the blitz of Celebrity Sex and Free Fuck Theatre." But who seems more normal to you -- a 12-year-old boy who'd rather waste time on video games with buddies and Internet porn than do his homework, or a mother who attempts to regulate her son's sexual fantasies and assumes the guise of an Internet stalker to frighten him into obedience, all in the name of holding onto her "sweet boy" just a little bit longer?

Nightingale sounds like she has a smart kid who'll survive adolescence. She also sounds as if she's outsmarted herself. Nothing attracts kids' curiosity or spurs their resourcefulness faster than what's forbidden to them. Have a shelf of books or videos you've told your kids are for Mommy and Daddy only? I guarantee you they've perused it. And sure, as kids all of us at one time or another came across things that upset us or confused us or gave us nightmares. I had to stop watching "Rod Serling's Night Gallery" because it gave me insomnia. And I vividly remember the unsettling mixture of queasiness and thrill in the pit of my stomach in elementary school when a classmate brought in some grainy black-and-white porno photos of a woman giving a man a blow job. But do you know anyone who's been done lasting harm by looking at dirty pictures or watching a violent movie who wasn't already emotionally disturbed to begin with?

There's a big difference between wanting to screen what your kids are reading or watching -- in other words, nudging them toward good stuff to balance the mountain of available crap -- and wanting to keep them in a hermetically sealed bubble that admits nothing of the outside world. The latter approach, which is the "good parenting" at the basis of so many government attempts to restrict kids' access to information, is, at root, an insult to kids, a presumption that they are too stupid or fragile to be given information about the real world.

And of course it's a threat to the civil liberties of the rest of us. Perhaps out of an instinct for the politic, Heins doesn't address the arrogance of parents who think that in order to solve their child-rearing problems, the rest of adult society should have key freedoms curtailed. It's time to put the responsibility for deciding what is and isn't appropriate for children squarely on parents.

I know often this is a question of time. I see how hard it is for friends to balance raising kids with the financial necessity of having two working parents. But parents' convenience isn't a good enough argument for measures that narrow the free-speech rights of adults. Consider: The Communications Decency Act could have landed me or any Web journalist in jail simply because a young reader accessed an article we wrote that his or her parent didn't consider appropriate. Internet "filters" that were proposed for public libraries would have blocked access to adult users as well. Television and radio broadcasts are subject to vague "indecency" standards that, Heins points out, operate under the same principles that have been found unconstitutional for books and newspapers.

And the granddaddy of all nincompooperies, the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system, originally supposed to protect filmmakers from interference, has instead resulted in studios contractually obligating them to cut their films to what's acceptable for a 17-year-old. Otherwise, they can't avail themselves of crucial newspaper and television advertising. (Many outlets won't accept ads for NC-17 films.) The ratings have never been constitutionally challenged. There's no telling how the current Supreme Court would rule on the system, though there's no doubt of its unconstitutionality. The courts have consistently ruled that adult discourse cannot be required to be conducted at a level suitable for children.

A few years ago I got into a heated discussion with some parents over the ratings system. It was startling because it revealed how much some parents believe the rest of us owe them. I argued that ratings should be abolished not only because they were unconstitutional, and have led to de facto censorship, but also because even a cursory glimpse at a review from a critic they trust would give parents better information about the content and tone of a movie. The parents I was talking to seemed outraged that they should have to read a review before deciding whether they would allow their kids to see a movie. Ratings, they insisted -- demonstrating that their minds were much more innocent than the ones they were protecting -- made sure their kids were only allowed into movies their parents had approved. When I asked why parents couldn't accompany kids to the box office to ensure the same thing, it was as if I had suggested some Herculean task.

I think it's fair to ask how parents who feel that reading a review or driving their kids to a movie theater is too much work ever manage to pull off the greater responsibilities that parenthood entails. What amazed me during this discussion was that the parents seemed completely willing to abandon their responsibility to be informed about the culture their kids were growing up in to some anonymous watchdog. And that willingness makes them much more susceptible to senators who know that calling for decency is always good for political capital, to citizens or religious groups that feel they have the right to make their values the standard for everyone else, to professional witnesses and "experts" who use their degrees and studies the way real-estate swindlers use phony deeds. Sure, it's easier to believe that "The Matrix" or "The Basketball Diaries" provided blueprints for the Columbine massacre, or that Eminem is promoting mother raping and homophobia. It's always easier not to think.

But fear and ignorance are never a good basis for making any decision. In the broadest terms, this insistence that children see only material that teaches approved values is a way of stunting kids intellectually. It institutionalizes the William Bennett definition of art as a delivery system for little object lessons on virtue.

I'm not saying that art (and even books and movies that may be less than art) has nothing to teach, but what it does teach is the complex and contradictory nature of experience, experience that resists easy judgments. So by making art abide by narrow and vague standards of decency, we're making kids ill-equipped not just to experience art but to experience life.

And there's a more urgent danger. In the midst of a public health crisis, denying minors access to sexual information is an insane way to "protect" them. Heins cites a 1998 study that puts our teen childbirth rate ahead of all European countries. Even Mexico, a country where the Catholic Church is such a strong presence, offers much more forthright public health information to teens.

By contrast, by the '90s a Phyllis Schlafly-inspired program called "Sex Respect" had gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grants and was still being taught in one out of eight public schools. "Sex Respect" informed students that the "epidemic" of STDs and teen pregnancy is nature's judgment on the sexually active; that "there's no way to have premarital sex without hurting someone"; that HIV can be contracted through kissing; that premarital sex can lead to shotgun weddings, cervical cancer, poverty, substance abuse, a diminished ability to communicate and death. Heins describes one video in which a students asks an instructor what will happen if he wants to have sex before getting married. The answer: "Well, I guess you'll just have to be prepared to die."

You have to admire the honesty of that response. Because of course, whether or not they admit it, the people who want to deny teenagers access to sexual information (to say nothing of access to condoms or abortion) are implicitly saying that kids should die rather than have their innocence sullied. It's always a temptation in the culture wars to sound superior, to give in to ridiculing the values and beliefs of others. But some values need to be ridiculed. The people keeping kids in the dark may be articulate and well dressed and prosperous, but the morality they're selling is that of hicks and ignoramuses and yahoos. How many times in the past 80 years has America proved that it hasn't learned one basic lesson: Prohibition doesn't work. The bodies pile up from our war on drugs and still we haven't learned it. How many teenage bodies need to pile up before we apply that lesson to our national preoccupation with decency?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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