Sex-and-Speech-Related Question: Am I Normal?

In the course of pondering the correct response to internet trolls, my law school classmate David French poses an interesting question — "isn't there a middle ground between porn and prude?" Or, as I'd put it — is there a middle ground between being in favor of censoring sex-related expression, on the one hand, and being completely uncritical about public depictions of sex on the other? Is there, for want of a better word, a "normal?"

David — who has unimpeachable free-speech credentials — comes to this question courtesy of his wife, Nancy, who was quoted in a newspaper article about encountering a rather vivid sex-related display while leading her kids through a bookstore. Many people treated her as if she had expressed some Victorian-era sentiment that sex ought to go unmentioned in public at all, that children should be shielded from all mention of it, and that any depiction of homosexuality is particularly offensive. Like so:

Heterosexist swine. And what harm comes from your kid knowing that sex exists at a young age. It is a beautiful thing created by God, and this Victorian attempt to cover it up is exactly what has created our hyper-sexualized culture.

And so on, in that vein.

I think David has the right of it — there must be a middle ground between saying "that ought not be allowed" and "people ought to feel free to criticize gratuitous, or gratuitously promoted, sexual expression." This is at the heart of one of my favorite themes here at Popehat — criticism is not censorship. As a parent, like David and Nancy, I am frequently appalled by sexual content in culture — not because it is sexual, but because it is relentlessly commercialized sexuality. The culture sexualizes children at a younger and younger age — for instance, by encouraging girls to dress skanky earlier and earlier — because it makes money for the skankifiers. It's not a celebration of the beauty of human sexuality — it's a celebration of commerce. I think that both commerce and human sexuality are swell, but I reserve the right to argue that perhaps a bookstore ought to make more responsible marketing decisions than placing soft-core porn displays in the paths of children. It's the difference between thinking that (1) the government ought not prohibit clothiers from selling sweatpants to tween girls with "juicy" written across the ass, but (2) if anyone sells that to my nine-year-old daughter, I will be contemplating visiting them with a cheese grater, a lemon, and some sea salt.

We all have sensibilities, and I think it is not inherently prudish — not inherently censorious — to engage in dialogue about those sensibilities. But here's the dilemma: sensibilities are held — tightly, and in a manner hostile to criticism or question — by people. Some of those people are silly and irrational, particularly when you put them in groups.

As a result, we're always going to be struggling to find "normal," walking the razor's edge between people who denounce us if we criticize expression, and people who seek to squelch speech in foolish and unprincipled ways because of their own sensibilities or because of what they assume about the sensibilities of others. Nancy's detractors are an example of the first category; for the latter category, consider the case of Jennifer Dinoia. Ms. Dinoia, the spouse of a Foreign Service officer, wrote a blog featured on a State Department-sanctioned website. The State Department features such blogs because they allow a network of mutual support for Foreign Service families and provide a glimpse of the life for aspirants to the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, the State Department removed Ms. Dinoia's blog when she dropped the n-word. No, not that ugly one. I mean "nipple." Ms. Dinoia, in the course of describing how she battled breast cancer and endured treatment while her husband was on assignment in Iraq, dropped that word. Apparently on at least one occasion she used the n-word without the level of clinical detachment that some State Department funky thought was appropriate. Maybe it was this:

In an April 26 post headlined “I have a new kind of cozy,” Dinoia, who lives in Annandale, described the “nipple cozy,” part of her post-surgery recovery regimen.

“I have the new style (close your eyes if you fear TMI…this is one of those posts), er, nipple cozy, if you will,” she wrote. For levity, she posted two images of tea cozies she pulled from the Internet.

Quoth the funky whose sensibilities were upset (or, perhaps, who believed the sensibilities of others would be upset):

“Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies,” the employee wrote, “and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS [Foreign Service] life overseas.”

The State Department, to its credit, has repositioned itself and restored Ms. Dinoia's blog. Cooler heads will often prevail over the temporary gusts of sensibilities. But the case illustrates the dilemma: I want to encourage David and Nancy to speak their mind as parents and citizens, on the one hand, without encouraging the inane culture of offense embodied in the State Department's initial response to the word "nipple."

Regrettably, there are no simple answers about sex or speech.

[By the way, the nipple story comes courtesy of Donna, another classmate — this time from high school — a talented writer with her own blog about family life in the Foreign Service, which I have mentioned before.]

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Laura K says

    You know, I arrived at my Women's college absolutely joyus. I was leaving my homophobic, repressed, borderline racist high school for a diverse free thinking place. Then I discovered that 'national coming out day' was celebrated by women chalking "I eat P**&^Y" on the steps of the admissions office. Chalkers wanted to share even more clear details with me and everyone else all over campus, details involving fists and appliances and where they were deployed and with how many operators. Some of the dorms made requests ("hey my mom the judge is here this weekend, could you hold off on telling her how much you like ____(*(&^ and &&*^%—-or maybe chalk about gay rights cases that need attention, or marriage equality or adoption rights or stuff like that?). Anyone who did was treated to egging, vandalism and even more explicit stuff in more permanent medium, in more visible places.
    This is a long comment, and I'm sorry; it's just your post really resonated with me. I've had experiences with censorship personally and I believe in fighting it tooth and nail. And I'll support gay rights and sexual freedoms utnil the day I die.
    And, honestly? I LOVE profanity. Love it, use it, try to invent it every day. And I have a one track mind firmly laid through the gutter.
    But in equal honesty, I think there is a bottom line. And I think that line is too often crossed. And we need a better middle ground.

  2. Carbon Fibber says

    I have a tangential question. If someone (e.g. Bristol Palin, as referred to in one of the links) has another person "help" write (which I take to mean "actually do the writing") their autobiography, is it truly an autobiography, or just a biography that involves an awful lot of source material from the subject?

    To answer the original question, no. Ms. French did the correct thing for her, shield her kids and shuttle them away. I am as libertarian as the next, but I think our society would be much better off with Europe's lax attitude towards tits and ass and a more strict approach to kicking ass.

  3. TomB says

    if anyone sells that to my nine-year-old daughter, I will be contemplating visiting them with a cheese grater, a lemon, and some sea salt.

    That's an odd version of a tequila shot.

    …….oh wait……..

    I was wondering why you thought that was a proper time for cocktails.

    Anyway, one of the few benefits of being a dentist (besides prescription privileges), is a complete arsenal of painful ideas.

  4. says

    > I am frequently appalled by sexual content in culture — not because it is sexual, but because it is relentlessly commercialized sexuality.

    I think that some folks push sexual content in culture because they stand to profit from it, but others push it for all sorts of other reasons.

    In the same way that most modern atheists (self described "Brights") spend 99% of their time attacking Christianity and don't often work up much of a sweat about Hinduism, or gay activists protest Catholics – who actually do a lot of work helping out people with AIDS, etc., I suspect that a large motivation is really striking at anyone with standards that threaten to create guilt.

    If someone is overweight and embarrassed about it, they can lose weight, or they can attack the very idea of fitness. Example: labeling anyone who talks about healthy weight a "sizeist" who engages in "shaming behavior".

    If someone is sexually promiscuous they can change their behavior, or they can attack the idea of chastity. Example: criticizing people for "slut shaming" and trying to "take the word 'slut' back from the bigots".

    If someone is unmasculine they can hit the gym and try to be more confident, or they can attack the very idea of masculinity.

    And so on and so forth.

    The cultural left plays this game time and again, by (a) setting some radical set of preferences as the new norm, (b) attacking anyone who doesn't like the proposed new norm.

    Read that bit you quoted above:

    Heterosexist swine. And what harm comes from your kid knowing that sex exists at a young age.

    The writer shows no sign of profiting from the commercialization of sex. Instead, by using the word "heterosexist" the writer seems to have a sexual bone to pick [ uh…that came out wrong ] with the dominant culture and wages his or her war by, in part, celebrating the new norm of explicit sex everywhere BECAUSE IT SUBVERTS the traditionalist sexual norms that – apparently – he or she disagrees with.

  5. Demosthenes says

    It really sucks when you want to leave a thoughtful, substantive comment…and then find out that someone else has already said what you wanted to say, better than you could have said it.

    So — what TJIC said.

  6. Mitch says

    David complains about people who react instinctively (and thoughtlessly) to 'Christian' responses to sexuality. Is there really any quesiton in his mind why that's the case? When your constituency spends the last 50 or so years totally redefining the practice as a reactionary political movement opposed to (as one of their primary concerns) practices which are largely considered healthy sexuality? To quote Chris Rock: "I'm not saying he deserved it…but I understand."

    Out of curiosity (I apologize if I missed it, I just scrolled through again and didn't see a link) what are the unimpeachable free speech credentials he holds? He writes: "To some folks, literally any action by a conservative Christian must be opposed, and every form of sexuality must be displayed." So does that make him and wife conservative Christians? In which case I'm especially curious about his free speech creds.

  7. says

    And what harm comes from your kid knowing that sex exists at a young age.

    Then that person won't have any trouble with me bringing a hooker over and fucking the hell out of her right in front of their kid.


    Huh. Funny how that works…

  8. Paul Baxter says

    FWIW, there are quite a few stories out there about the State Dept killing off blogs by Foreign Service officers. They are fairly sensitive on a whole host of stuff.

  9. ttl says

    Um Scott, there would seem to be some property rights issues to your hooker suggestion.

  10. says

    The culture sexualizes children at a younger and younger age — for instance, by encouraging girls to dress skanky earlier and earlier — because it makes money for the skankifiers.

    Bravo, hear him. Hear him. I'm pretty far from a "prude" but I find it offensive how our society sexualizes children. Destroying childhood is a very evil thing.

  11. ttl says

    Well he said "a hooker". I assumed he would pay her though. But how does he plan on doing this without entering the person's home? Or would he wait for the kid to walk to school and then jump out of the bushes with his hooker and proceed to "fuck the hell out of her"?

  12. says

    Which would most correctly embody the mentality of the person that thinks we have to put up with sexual imagery in all times and venues?

  13. says

    Scott, I think ttl brings up a really central point here … would you actually trespass to commit your sex show?

    If you would, do be aware that I'd be ashamed of you. tsk tsk

  14. ttl says

    That was my point. Coming across unwanted sexual imagery in adverts or other media is not the same as being forced to watch a sex act. There is no trespass or violation of rights in sexy bookstore displays(though they do annoy me). There is an obvious violation when you force some one else to watch you fuck a hooker.
    Maybe this is not what Scott meant. In any case I'm sympathetic to both sides here, but mainly my feeling is change the channel, shop elsewhere, voice your opinion etc.

    oh and hookers and sex shows are always welcome in my home.

  15. Laura K says

    One question I can't escape here–and I'm not sure what the answer may be. What about the squick factor? I mean, in terms of free sexual expression anybody could go ahead and screw a hooker (for instance) but what if it's an aesthetic nightmare? I don't mean morally gross, I mean, well…what if there's fishbelly skin and excessive hair? Do bystanders get a say in that?

  16. Joe says

    “people ought to feel free to criticize gratuitous, or gratuitously promoted, sexual expression”

    I might criticize Scott for fucking a hooker in front of me – or I might gratuitously enjoy it depending on how good looking the hooker is and Scott’s performance. But if he did it in front of my 7 year old, his teeth would be chicklets.

    So much for a middle ground or for being normal for that matter.

  17. says

    ttl, more seriously, I think Scott's point is that the people who claim that others are prudes and can't handle freedom, are just ignoring that they have boundaries too.

    You gotta check with Scott on that, Laura.

  18. Linus says

    Ttl, I'm confused, what's your point? I mean, the hooker thing is clear, but you say you can see both sides and then advocate "voicing your opinion", which these parents did, and were called Victorian prudes and accused of wanting to be censors. To me, these commenters are the classic example of "everyone who wants to go further than my own position on this topic is a crank and an extremist, everyone who wants to stop short of my position is a Puritan/prude/Pollyanna."

  19. says

    SPQR nailed it.

    I would bring the hooker for the fuckin', because I assume they would be fine with me coming in and doin' the deed in front of their kids.

    I mean, surely they wouldn't say no… I mean, they are so in favor of kids knowing about sex, surely they would invite me in…

  20. Jess says

    Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day in Feb. 2006 and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: “The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden."

    They were officers of the security division of Montgomery County's Homeland Security Department, an unarmed force that patrols about 300 county buildings — but is not responsible for enforcing obscenity laws.

    Later that afternoon, Montgomery County's chief administrative officer issued a statement calling the incident "unfortunate" and "regrettable" — two words that bureaucrats often deploy when things have gone awry. And stated that “Montgomery will train its homeland security officers so they fully understand library policy and its consistency with residents' First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution,"

    Montgomery asks customers to be considerate of others when viewing Web sites. If others are put off, librarians will provide the viewer of the offending material with a "privacy screen."

    So criticism would work in this situation in getting the librarian to provide a privacy screen so others would not be offended. Censorship thankfully didn’t prevail in this case. Although given all the porno scanners now installed in Airports, the DHS should hardly consider themselves to be in the position of enforcing obscenity laws much less understanding US citizens rights.

    So, I have an idea. Make the TSA/DHS toads stand naked in a room in front of a panel of commissioners as they view images from the scanners. If they show signs of arousal, fire them. We would soon have our wish of either no TSA or no porno scanners.

  21. ttl says

    spqr, fair enough, but what are those boundaries and introducing property violations(i may be wrong) doesn't help clarify the boundaries. Perhaps that person would be okay with showing his kid a live sex act? Who am I to care or to presume to know?

    linus, I think one should be free to advertise his product as sexually as he wants or as puritanical as he wants. I also think people are free to criticize, ignore, boycott, say a prayer, do just about anything to voice their opinion about it. As long as there is no force or fraud involved so to speak I'd like to see honest debate on the subject from both sides. That was what I meant if not what I communicated. I think, or not. Too much wine. sorry.

    ""everyone who wants to go further than my own position on this topic is a crank and an extremist, everyone who wants to stop short of my position is a Puritan/prude/Pollyanna.""

    I did not meant to support that position. I support the right to be left alone by the gov't on such matters but endorse private support/criticism of. i'll stop before i confuse myself more:)

  22. gbasden says

    SPQR, I think everyone has their limits. Those that would be ok with you banking a hooker in their living room in front of their child might look askance at you doing the same thing with serious bondage gear.

    The question is where those limits are and where they should be out in society. Personally, I couldn't care less about my 8 year old seeing some nudity, but obviously others are freaked out. I'd rather not decide that the lowest common denominator gets to decide where that line is drawn, though.

  23. C. Ellis says

    This is an important topic, problem is we have two sub-issues at heart:
    1.) The ability to navigate through the left/right histrionics and negotiate a more measured response to the subject of public displays of sexuality, especially sexuality for Madison Avenue profit.
    2.) The line between personal expression and consideration for others (though we are mainly dealing with commercial not personal expression here).

    I think it has been Madison Avenue's agenda to throw out sexualized content upon us because it is so universal, attaches so well to so many products, and allows to attract the largest views by pandering the to the lowest common denominator. It is to such a point now that looking and the cleavage of a Hooters girl on a billboard is borderline passe, but with great consternation does the public view a mother breastfeeding her infant- the actual reason for breasts. At this point, the only real option of what can be done on the commercial front is to vote with your wallet. On the personal level, I think making sure the others around you actually want to to hear your latest escapade with the local courtesan before making any public disclosures. I am cynical as to our capacity to reverse the left/right histrionics.

  24. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I think that one issue concerning the public display of sexual images which needs to be considered is that men are programmed to react to such images on a very basic level. We can't help but be stirred up by them. It adds a level of visceral agitation to situations (like commuting) that are agitated enough as matters stand.

    If I ran the world (which God forbid; I'd do an awful job), I would allow local communities to establish tight restrictions on what could be publicly displayed without a sponsor actually present. Not on what could be sold, bought, received through the mail or the internet. Just what could be displayed in public. And if you wanted to go farther than those restrictions you could legally do so provided you were willing to stand next to the image – like the woman who every year puts up a nativity scene on the steps of congress and stands there making it clear that it is HER message (her freedom of speech in action).

    Strip clubs and porno theaters would get by by charging a tiny cover, making it clear that all patrons were seeing what they were offering deliberately.

    Probably too complicated to do in the real world.

  25. says

    I am pleased that Ms. French is doing the right thing and not calling for legal remedies. "The answer to bad speech is more speech", and all that. Of course, the journalist still tried to find some juicy laws to blather on about.

    Oh, and Jess's post was frighteningly similar to a book I read once:

    That was very true, he thought. There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account. They had played a similar trick with the instinct of parenthood. The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately

  26. Carbon Fibber says

    Continuing from my somewhat more serious point above, is there a similar push to sexualize tweens and young teens in Europe? Do they sell the same Juicy, Pink, Vickie's Secret sexywear there? I really don't know, but suspect that they don't. If they do not, I posit it is because they have a healthier, less repressed viewpoint of sex and sexuality than we.

    By making sexuality a taboo, we make it mysterious and attractive and therefore an easier sell to youth. It's naughty, so they feel as if they are getting away with something. The most sexually forward girl I knew in college was a preacher's daughter. And not a mainstream Presbyterian, a speaking-in-tongues, faith healing, snake-handling, fire and brimstone Pentacostal type. She rebelled against the strict upbringing and experimented in everything, including dabbling in a little lesbianism with her roommate.

  27. Laura K says

    One other question, for those of you with children, because I can only draw from experience teaching etc…Do or would kids even care about the explicit stuff in the bookstore–or elsewhere? Or Scott and his Hooker? I know I would have just thought "eewww. Nekkid hairy grownups. funny noises. BORING. Gonna go find those other books about Narnia now"

  28. perlhaqr says

    It's the difference between thinking that (1) the government ought not prohibit clothiers from selling sweatpants to tween girls with "juicy" written across the ass, but (2) if anyone sells that to my nine-year-old daughter, I will be contemplating visiting them with a cheese grater, a lemon, and some sea salt.

    Does your nine year old have that much disposable income? I mean, isn't this what parents are for?

    "But daddy, I really want the t-shirt that says I'm not wearing any panties!"


    (Yes, I actually saw this shirt on a 12 year old and I realised I was old at that very moment, saying "if I had a daughter and she tried to wear that…" On the other hand, she was with her parents. So clearly this is not a universal feeling on my part.)

    To be clear, this is not intended to impugn your abilities as a parent. More to impugn the abilities of those parents who actually do buy their nine year olds "Juicy" sweatpants.

  29. Dan Weber says

    I have but one request.

    If you tell me that it's my responsibility, not society's, to protect my kids from whatever I think they need protection from, that's okay.

    But don't turn around and label me as repressive or a prude for actually doing so.

  30. Moebius Street says

    I think that much of the blame for the backlash against those who have complaints about such displays comes from incorrect understanding of 1st Amendment rights, and the constant reminder that the 1st Amendment is sacred.

    Don't get me wrong: the 1st Amendment is indeed of extraordinary importance. But it is not a guarantee that any jerk can say anything he wants. It is only a restriction on government interfering.

    The framers of the Constitution didn't want people putting up pornographic billboards on every carriage path. They just didn't trust the government to be the ones making the call.

    Instead, they entrusted the ethics of society to … society at large. If somebody says something that we feel is offensive, it's not censorship to speak out, or even to refuse that person the use of your resources to facilitate his speech.

    That said, I think that trying to find some "normal" that everyone can live with is (a) a fool's errand, and (b) unnecessary. It should be quite clear that we're not going to get a universal norm without either offending some subset, or dumbing things down to the very lowest common denominator.

    I think that we can get away without having to keep nudity/sex/violence off TV, or fining broadcasters for any "wardrobe malfunction". The key is in setting expectations. If broadcasters just advertised what their content policy is (see the "V" chip), then there's no need to protect the "prudish". If viewers have been told that policy allows "PG-level content", then they should be allowed to show that level — but if they exceed it, then they would be in violation of their published promise.

    The same concept might be applied to other public venues, whether they're b&m stores; concerts; bars.

  31. Linus says

    I understand the human tendency to be attracted to the forbidden, and that is certainly somewhat at play, but let's not pretend that sex isn't awesome in its own right. It doesn't need the extra allure of the forbidden fruit to be something that 13 and 14-year-olds whose hormones are raging (like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli) want to do anyway. So the "why can't we be more open about sex, like Europe is" attitude strikes me as blisteringly naive.

  32. says

    gbasden, I'm not the one with the hooker hypothetical. Indeed, I was in Amsterdam last month and didn't touch a single hooker.

  33. Carbon Fibber says

    Dan: Point taken.

    As for being naive, I readily admitted not knowing whether European parents struggle with the same issues. It appears from a distance (and from limited interaction with several European colleagues), however, that they do not. That said, I am suggesting that maybe it isn't such a bad thing to be appalled by violence, not vaginas.

  34. mojo says

    "Normal" is a statistical construct.

    "In probability theory, the normal (or Gaussian) distribution is a continuous probability distribution that has a bell-shaped probability density function, known as the Gaussian function or informally the bell curve."

  35. Jess says

    And Mojo is within 3 standard deviations or approximately a .00135 chance of being normal ;-)

  36. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I think my feelings on this issue amount to; the federal government has no place in telling people what they can print. Local groups shouldn't be able to prevent you from publishing, or from displaying anything you are literally ready to stand by (making it clear that this is YOU exercising your freedom of speech). Beyond that, I would be happy to see some kind of limits on what is displayed publicly, on the issue of sex. But that's probably because I've reached the age where, when confronted with a picture intended to get my glands in an uproar (if I didn't go looking for same), my fundamental reaction is for my brain to tell my glands "Oh, shut up." Usually followed by "She isn't available to you anyway. It's a tease. Haven't you got any better sense?"

  37. Vicky says

    After reading the Tennessean article I really have to wonder where comparisons like "would you do a hooker in front of your kids" come from. How is that even remotely comparable to walking through the "Sexuality" shelf of a book shop and seeing a few provocative book covers? The shelves are labelled – of course this is done so you can easily find what you're looking for, but it also works for avoiding certain aisles.

    I don't really agree with comment Ken cited, but it's not like they all or even most of the comments were like that, and it's also worth mentioning that it was a reaction to another commenter (who said they weren't very sad Borders went bancrupt because their Tampa store used to have a gay/lesbian section next to the children's section), not to Mrs French. But not all the comments are like that; not even the majority of comments is like that. Yes, some people's comments are over the top. Some people are stupid (or at least act stupid), but wouldn't it be better to ignore them and focus on the sensible comments instead?