The Media's Sexual Irresponsibility

Those of us who write about sex, not to mention all those heathen divorcees and masturbators, get plenty of flak. I'm tired of sex being seen as scandalous, inconsequential, or worse, pointless.
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I've had my iPhone since early November, but just the other day finally added the New York Times application. How excited was I to be able to access the paper of record at the touch of a button? Very much so, and the first thing I clicked on was the Opinion section. Lo and behold, that not only brought up the Op-Ed pieces and editorials, but also the Proof blog, their blog about alcohol. I started reading Jim Atkinson's Acts of Faith, about his 16-year sobriety. I was intrigued, until I reached this sentence:

We still make a lot of noise about being a sexually responsible and moral people, but we continue to have a 50 percent divorce rate and support a multi-billion dollar pornography industry.

It stopped me right in my tracks. I read it again, and found it just as offensive as I had the first time. In one short sentence, Atkinson managed to make all kinds of assumptions about sex, put down divorcees and porn users, and do his argument a giant disservice.

Let's start with the first clause: "We still make a lot of noise about being a sexually responsible and moral people..." Here, he's trying to draw a parallel between how we treat alcoholics and how we treat others who've somehow "sinned" in our society (the other example he picks is the overweight). The problem is, none of these terms are defined. I would agree we "make a lot of noise" about sex, but the noise doesn't all sound the same. In fact, sadly, much of it sounds exactly like the shaming, judging, and moralizing that Atkinson does here.

I read a lot about sex; as editor of the last two years of the Best Sex Writing nonfiction series (I'm about to start taking submissions for Best Sex Writing 2010), I pay attention to what our culture is saying about sex. It's an easy topic to find; on any given day, it's in the news in everything from politics to art to editorials.

But all too often, writers fall into the same trap as Atkinson: assuming we all share one view about sexuality. I'd venture to guess that to him, "sexually responsible and moral" translates to monogamy. Indeed, he then goes on to condemn those who've gotten divorced, and those who use porn...a group that, taken as a whole, probably makes up a population as large as some states'. Even though social networking may now be more popular than porn, porn is still pretty ubiquitous which means that even the most casual observer would be hard-pressed to make the point that all porn users are contributing to the decay of our society, something that Atkinson doesn't directly state, but implies.

In his bid to gain sympathy for his own interest group, alcoholics, he's tried to falsly claim that the "social drinking majority" saves all its opprobrium for alcoholics. Not true. On Friday night, at a reading for my anthology Best Sex Writing 2009, I chatted with contributors including writer Tracy Clark-Flory and San Francisco Chronicle sex columnist Violet Blue. We discussed the fact that their pieces regularly generate hundreds of comments, many of them of this variety:

I'm sorry that Ms. Tracy is so cavalier with her body, with her feelings, and with her future. I'm also sorry that feminism has turned into nothing more than soft-core porn

Keep it underground where it's actually cool, private and where those of us who think someone's bodily functions sprayed across the mainstream press is gratuitous and yes, VERY sexless, don't have to see it.

Those of us who write about sex, not to mention all those heathen divorcees and masturbators, get plenty of flak (it's not the subject of this piece, but so do the overweight, which should not be a news flash). I'm very tired of sex being seen as either inconsequential, scandalous, or to make a point like this that really has no point at all.

And I'm all for sexual responsibility and morality, but I recognize that my idea of sexual morality may be different from yours. If in order to make your point about being part of an oppressed group, you have to play a one-upmanship game in the "society hates me" game, maybe you need to rethink your argument.

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