Nobody in human history has ever been entirely sensible and rational about the Big Five subjects, at least not for long: sex, power, children, money and God have been agitating and confusing human beings since time began.
Note which comes first on the list: sex is both inescapable and inescapably confusing.
America’s own peculiar forms of sex craziness were beautifully on display this week. There is the sad and very shocking news that David Petraeus has stepped down as the head of the CIA due to an adulterous affair with his biographer. And over in another wing of what has clearly been a very active military-industrial complex recently, Lockheed Martin’s CEO-designate Christopher Kubasik has been forced to give up his post following the revelation that he was conducting an “improper” relationship with a female employee of the company.
Both affairs came to light as the result of investigations; the FBI apparently stumbled on l’affaire Petraeus while investigating threatening emails that General Petraeus’ apparently unbalanced companion had sent to a third party. The Lockheed affair was discovered by a private team of investigators hired by the company’s board following allegations by a third employee.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, thanks to the alert news sleuths at Rt.com we have this fascinating look into the state of American mores:
Los Angeles County voters have passed a law requiring actors in adult movies to wear condoms while performing on set. US porn film producers are outraged, and are planning to go to court to challenge the decision, calling the law “unconstitutional”.
Apparently the adult film business is worth approximately one billion dollars a year to the Los Angeles economy, and there are concerns that this burdensome new regulatory requirement will cause the industry to locate production to more understanding venues. The Los Angeles Times looked into the results of the referendum and found an interesting pattern. Support for the condom requirement was strongest in non-white, working class neighborhoods, while the upper income mostly white districts in the city preferred leaving this question to the actors and producers themselves.
As the Times puts it:
Countywide, Measure B won by 56% to 42%, but the ballot initiative requiring condoms to be used during porn filming racked up huge margins in lower-income neighborhoods that are either heavily Latino, black or both, like East Los Angeles (67%); Inglewood (75%); Compton (76%); Los Angeles’ 8th City Council District in South L.A (76%); and Willowbrook, south of Watts (77%).
In contrast, neighborhoods voicing the most opposition to a condom requirement were higher-income areas that have significant white majorities. The “no” vote for the measure rose to 54% in Malibu, Ranchos Palos Verdes, Westlake Village and Sierra Madre; 55% in Calabasas, La Crescenta, and Topanga; 56% in Redondo Beach; 57% in Hidden Hills and Rolling Hills Estates; 58% in El Segundo; 59% in Manhattan Beach; and 60% in Hermosa Beach.
Interestingly, the neighborhood in the city with the highest rate of HIV measure voted for free porn against public health; West Hollywood voted against the measure. There are no doubt people in the city who believe in banning circumcision while refusing to mandate condoms for pornography performers, and are perfectly sure that these two opinions are part of a rational and responsible worldview.
This being America, the fight is not over. The lobbying association of the adult film industry is threatening lawsuits, and there are questions about how the law will be enforced and by whom.
What these stories from the military-industrial and pornography-industrial complexes have in common is the irrational state of contemporary American sexual mores. At one level, anything goes: we can have a billion dollar adult film industry in Los Angeles County alone with a lobbying association and a PAC all to itself. And these ‘adult films’ take, shall we say, a very broadminded attitude about the types of sexual scenarios and activities that are suitable for filming, guided one presumes by the tastes of the audience. At another level, in a time of serious terror threat we publicly shame and ritually fire the very successful head of our intelligence agency when an affair comes to light and we disqualify a capable executive and throw the management of a major public corporation into turmoil because he had an affair with someone else who worked there.
We are simultaneously the most licentious and sexually open society since Nero was fiddling around in Rome, and the most uptight and rigid country this side of Saudi Arabia. Our social judgements and tolerance about sexual behavior swing back and forth between the views of the Marquis de Sade and those of Cotton Mather depending on complex and ever changing calculations.
As far as I can make out, the authorities American society listens to most on the subject of sex are Hugh Hefner and Gloria Steinem. We combine, somehow, a pleasure seeking hook up culture with a feminist puritanism that takes us back to the 19th century bluestockings, and the line between the libertine and the bluestocking in our culture is constantly shifting and highly politicized.
As a society, our sexual values change rapidly and without a lot of warning. Neither General Eisenhower nor President Franklin Roosevelt could have stood the scrutiny provided by today’s mix of press vigilance and puritan standards. On the whole I’m glad that the powerful are being held to a higher standard, but I don’t think the world would necessarily be a happier place if Dwight Eisenhower had been forced out of the Army in 1942 and FDR driven from the White House a year later. (Of course, both men seem to have chosen more discreet and psychologically better balanced partners than some of our contemporary playboys; as the Fifth Form dorm master used to tell his charges when I was just a sprout at Pundit Prep, “Be good, boys, but if you can’t be good, be clever.”
It is hard to predict what the future will think of the present, but something tells me that the day will come when people will look at horror and incomprehension at our social tolerance of an “adult film” industry in which very young people, often of immature judgment, frequently dependent on drugs, often emotionally vulnerable in the absence of strong family ties, often the victims of shoddy school systems that leave them without more conventional skills and economically prone to the most vicious exploitation, are drawn into situations and actions which very few of us think are in their best interest or serve the greater good. Our successors looking back on what we accepted as normal will be sickened and moved to unbelieving horror at the thought that the wealthy and affluent white professionals of the Los Angeles basin opposed extending even minimal public health protection to these misguided and exploited “workers,” presumably in many cases thinking their consumer satisfaction with pornography was more important than the health of the pathetic losers in the porn industry.
Probably the best and most honest thing about America’s current approach to the regulation of sexual activity is that as a society we are trying to think through the tangled and perhaps ultimately mysterious relationship between power and sexuality. Any sense that the person with more power and authority is using — abusing — that power to gain sexual conquests triggers our anger. This is part of the reason why we are so angry about reports of teachers, priests or other authority figures having sex with their charges. It also affects our reaction to stories of sexual harassment by supervisors and superiors on the job or in the military.
This is a healthy and decent instinct; what’s interesting is that our tolerance for the porn industry runs so blatantly in the face of the commitment to what might be called sexual fairness. There are of course many individual variations and stories here, but in general the relationship of a penniless, socially marginal, unskilled pornography ‘actor’ seeking casual work from a well organized, well capitalized business run by some pretty hard nosed characters is about as unequal as relationships get. Apparently, as a people we don’t much care about what happens to these people and aren’t bothered at all by the inequality and oppression surrounding the work that they do.
The indifference by so many consumers and by society at large to their welfare and their rights can only be called brutal. It is not, of course, simply that they are often paid poorly for work that doesn’t exactly enhance their future prospects or self respect or that filmmakers refuse to take elementary health precautions because the audience demands a more interesting product. In every way the workers in this industry confront powerful interests on unequal terms, and to argue that their consent is freely given is to ignore exactly the circumstances and considerations that rightly inflame us when we hear about harassing bosses or other abuses of power.
This blog is not Savonarola.com; it is not our job to tell people what to do and the one thing we can be sure of is that while original sin still shapes the human condition there will never be a society that gets sexuality ‘right’. As much harm can be done by hypocrisy and denial as by permissiveness and however a given society organizes and regulates sexual activity, a great many human beings will fail to live up to their own personal ideals and standards in this field. Because sexuality is such an important aspect of human life, the personal and social consequences of these ethical failures will often be cruelly high.
But that said, America’s current disjointed approach to these issues seems unsustainable. At the end of the day, our society will either have to become less tolerant of the pornography industry or more tolerant of hanky panky on high. Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner can’t live together long. Sodom or Saudi Arabia: those aren’t the only alternatives out there and we don’t (and shouldn’t) have to pick either one. Our current strategy, however, of oscillating between them doesn’t seem all that becoming.