EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Smut: A Sex-Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough is Enough, released today.
Let me sketch out a day I spent with my middle-school age daughter. It started with an episode of a “tween” sitcom–that is, a show targeted for kids between the ages of nine and twelve. I passed through the room where my daughter was watching the program and just happened to catch a scene where twin seven-year-old girls tried out a new cheerleading routine they were practicing.
”Shake it, shake it, shake it,” the seven-year-olds squeaked, sticking out their fannies, slapping them, and then reacting as if they’d just touched a hot stove. I looked at my daughter, who gazed at the tube with the vacant-eyed look that is, if statistics about TV watching are right, the most common facial expression in America. I felt upset at the clear sexualization of a pair of prepubescent girls, and especially annoyed that their antics were played for laughs. “Shake it, shake it, shake it,” chanted the seven-year-olds.
Ha, ha, ha, went the laugh track.
“How cute” was the barely subliminal message being conveyed to my daughter. “Look at these tykes acting like a pair of pole dancers!”
Real funny, I posed my unspoken thought against the canned laughter. But I resisted the impulse to point out the inappropriateness of the message. Just the day before, my daughter and I had talked about a Ludacris song she liked, about thuggin’ and clubbin’ and ho’s (street slang for “whores”), and I didn’t want to come off as constantly preaching. In present-day America, we learn to swallow many of our responses to modern culture, so as not to appear prudish, vanilla, or outré.
A commercial interrupted the seven-year-old lap dancers. A trailer for The Girl Next Door, the latest theatrical movie from Fox about to open. “I want to see that,” my daughter said. I let that pass, too. The movie is rated R, and my daughter is not allowed to see R-rated movies. The plot involves a porn star moving in next door to a teenage boy.
Why are they advertising an R-rated movie on a program aimed at twelve-year-olds? That was my thought, but again I said nothing out loud.
We got into the car for a drive, my wife up front next to me, my daughter in back with her beloved iBook laptop. She had just received the computer as a present for her birthday and had already downloaded seventy-five songs into her iTunes jukebox. She sang along as the iBook trolled automatically through her playlist.
My wife and I were talking, not really paying much attention to what was going on in the backseat, when I heard my daughter mouthing the words to D12’s hit “My Band,” featuring Eminem (who was born Marshall Mathers) as lead rapper. “I swear to f****n’God,” my twelve-year-old sang, “Dude, you f****n’rock! Please, Marshall, please, let me s**k your c**k.”
“What was that?” I asked, twisting my head around and almost running off the road. In our household, which is not a free speech zone, we have well-articulated boundaries about what sort of words are inappropriate. “You don’t even know what that means!”
“I do, too!” my daughter responded, even though I know she doesn’t, and she knows I know she doesn’t. It turned out she had downloaded “My Band” from the Internet, where there was a choice of the cleaned-up “radio” version (which she is allowed) and the unbleeped explicit version (which she is not allowed). My wife and I fell asleep at the switch, not monitoring which version our daughter actually chose.
But what happened next we could not have stopped or avoided through any action of our own. We drove into Manhattan along the West Side Highway, through a commercial district of warehouses and garages. The carriage horses that operate in Central Park are stabled here, and across the highway the military museum installed in the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid looms massively on the docks. Also located in this neighborhood, so that it acts like something of a portal to all of New York City, is Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, a sprawling burlesque house situated in a former automobile showroom. Flynt adorns the side of the building with a billboard-sized sign showing a woman, her mouth pursed, blowing on her hand.
I glanced back at my daughter, who was gazing out the window, keeping an eye out as she always does, for a glimpse of the carriage horses. What she got instead was a teasing display of adult sexuality. I didn’t say anything, but I tried to imagine what was passing through her mind.
She had asked about the club before. “What’s that?” How to explain a strip joint to your pre-teenage daughter? Keep it simple, my wife always advised, when communicating grown-up concepts to children. “Some men like to watch women dance,” I had told her, back when she first asked about it.
Even for someone such as myself, with experience in the world of commercial sex, the explanation sounded lame and incomplete. I recall suddenly feeling unworthy of the charge of being a parent. How could I unravel the tangle of politics, morality, exploitation and hedonism that represents the knotted sexuality of America today? I had trouble explaining it to myself, much less to my daughter.
That specific day was not atypical. My family has been treated to X-rated movies on the DVD screens of cars in the lanes next to us. The Howard Stern radio show has boomed out of what seemed like nuclear-powered car stereo speakers when we were attempting to enjoy a morning in a riverside park. Now as I watched her gazing out at Larry Flynt’s smut emporium, I realized the degree to which we have failed our children.
In a political sense, the young are powerless, voiceless, totally reliant on adults. In myriad important ways, in providing them with health insurance and legal protection, our record as a society is spotty at best.
But we also have left unfulfilled our function as guardians of their cultural environment. The boundaries of their world have been repeatedly breached, many times by people interested in making money and dismissive of all other considerations. All too often, our children are exposed to the loud, frenzied, garish spectacle of adult sexuality. They get their faces rubbed in it. So within the course of one hour of one very ordinary day, I had been treated to a vision of twin seven-year-old fanny slappers, a sex professional taking up neighborhood residence, and groupies begging for oral sex. I didn’t like it. It made me mad. What had happened to my family that day was that we had been “culture-whipped,” a term that measures the gulf between the expectations of the viewer (or listener) and the content of the media. When you whip your head around, asking “What was that?” not believing your eyes and ears, you’ve been culture-whipped.
In today’s media climate, whether we want it or not, we are inundated, saturated, beaten over the head with sex. Television, our national public commons, has an ever-mounting percentage of explicit sexual content on cable, shading down to the mere leering double entrendre and snickering innuendo of broadcast sitcoms. It’s difficult to find a program that doesn’t reference sex. It’s egregious, it’s out of control, it’s too much. Media, advertising art, and entertainment constantly shove images at me that I am just not interested in seeing.
The average child in America puts in a full workweek, forty hours, consuming media. That means our kids are getting a snootful of this stuff, all day every day, week in and week out. I am reminded of Groucho Marx, who once had a guest on his interview program You Bet Your Life, a woman who said she had nine children and that she and her husband liked it. “I like my cigar,” Groucho responded, “but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.” In today’s culture, the “cigar” of smut has been permanently and surgically stapled to our lips. We can’t take it out of our mouths at all, much less every once in a while.