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Much Ado About Nothing

Vivek Rao

The CBS network presented the Grammy Awards with a five-minute delay that stretched the definition of “live television.” MTV has decided to eject a set of its racier music videos into the doldrums of late night from prime time. A Tennessee woman filed a massive class action lawsuit claiming emotional damages to herself and “all Americans,” only to withdraw the suit after claiming to have proved her point. And the United States Congress -- yes, the same venerable institution that devoted sessions and sessions to the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs -- has initiated a full-scale investigation into the propriety of a Super Bowl halftime show.

All of this because a single breast appeared on television for a few seconds.

It’s always fascinating to see what the American public will fixate on next. Ask your average joe who John Edwards is, and there’s a fair shot you’ll get a blank look, but is there any doubt that he’ll know which singer recently exposed her now infamous nipple piercing?

Clearly, there is something unique about the American character that allows the stunt pulled by Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson to make such a big splash. After all, it is hard to believe that in most of Europe, where nude magazines are displayed liberally at any and every newsstand, the striptease would have been more than a drop in a bucket.

The standard explanation for our country’s remarkably sensitive views on sex revolves around the Puritans. Apparently, when the Mayflower docked in Plymouth, it carried not only a bunch of disgruntled Europeans, but also a large enough supply of prude values to last for four centuries. The Puritan theory is not devoid of reason and plausibility, and one can certainly build a case that anything from the temperance movement to saying grace before meals in some way connects back to the philosophies of the ancestors of the Founding Fathers. That said, how long will it be before we start to recognize the unchecked hypocrisy that pervades our attitudes toward sex scandals?

You can argue that Puritanism made American sexual values conservative, but that doesn’t gel with most elements of our society. Hollywood blockbusters catapult to success by showcasing hunks and bombshells. The music videos that saturate cable television, despite featuring “clothed” models and dancers, are far more sexually suggestive than most nude scenes. And the pornography industry, spurred immensely by the Internet, has reached gargantuan proportions.

Yet when something sexual happens on the national stage, and not in the confines of our homes, all hell breaks loose. Sure, former President Bill Clinton was stupid to have lied about his relations with Monica Lewinsky. But is there any question why he lied? Obviously, he had his finger on the pulse of the American psyche, and he knew that a sexual scandal would rock his political world in a way that it would never come close to if he were the leader of almost any other nation.

Janet Jackson, meanwhile, though certainly a very talented musician and singer, has long relied on her sexy figure and flirtatious gyrations to enhance her entertainment appeal, and for decades, the American public has embraced her as one of its favorite performers. Yet when the breasts and butts that titillate us on a daily basis come without the packaging of a thin piece of cloth, the barrier of a pay-per-view fee or the apparent protection of an online adult verification service, entertainment suddenly crosses the line, becoming lewd and obscene exposure that should be banned, censored, fined, and lambasted.

Though we are well aware that sex plays a key role in our daily lives, we are ever reluctant to accept that fact in public. Perhaps we have some bizarre, subconscious notion that the higher powers that be can see everywhere except into our bedrooms, strip clubs, adult movie theaters, and stacks of Hustler. We are publicly “protecting” ourselves from an evil that we embrace in private, and the hypocrisy seems rampant.

Now before you start hammering out a letter about how conservative sexual values are necessary for the sake of our nation’s children, consider how such a system has failed to work in other walks of life. Artificially cocooning kids away from the vices of adults never worked with alcohol, drugs, or crime. That’s why youth educational programs are more widespread than ever before. And if we’re serious about teaching our kids sexual education in middle school to save them from STDs and early pregnancies, let’s try not to convince elementary schoolers that Janet Jackson’s right breast is an agent of Satan.

Just as troubling is the severe lack of perspective all of this exemplifies. The outpouring of anti-boob letters, articles, committees, and press releases rivals the attention given to a variety of key issues in recent years. Why aren’t we as passionate about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, or universal health care, or global pollution emissions, or the AIDS epidemic in Africa, or poverty in our own backyard? It’s time for us to get real.

If we really want to secure our younger generations’ future, there are plenty of substantive issues that need our attention, and maybe when we resolve all of them, we can come back and mete out a punishment for Janet and Justin.