Smut: A Sex Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough Is Enough
by Gil Reavill
A review by Hope Glassberg
Gil Reavill is a concerned father and sex industry insider who's had it up to
here with sex in the media, he declares on the opening page of his holier-than-thou
anti-porn tract, Smut. Reavill honed his sex industry creds as a ghostwriter
for porn-magazine magnate Al Goldstein and contributor to publications like Penthouse
and Maxim. Having established his background, Reavill sets out to prove
that the American media's obsession with sex has gotten so out of hand that "even
the provocateurs are being provoked." Unfortunately, Reavill is not very precise
in defining provocation -- he lumps everything from Janet Jackson's briefly exposed
breast to Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs to hard-core pornography under the
same rubric. Still, his underlying argument -- that pornography conventions are
trickling into the mainstream via music videos, billboards, books, websites, and
television -- is uncontroversial, as well as unoriginal, anti-porn fare.
Indeed Smut would just be a boilerplate conservative rant about sex and porn and declining cultural values, but for one intriguing twist: Reavill, in addition to being a concerned father and ostensible sex industry insider, is also card-carrying member of the ACLU with libertarian-leaning beliefs. He thinks the media should be shaped by mass tastes, not government regulation; and he doesn't condemn the existence of porn but merely argues that offensive material should be shuffled away from plain view, into late-night television and kinky shops. His central claim is that average people -- the people who do not watch late-night television or visit kinky shops but who do see billboards and mainstream websites and regular television programming -- are appalled by all this public sexiness.
His evidence? A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in the summer of 2004
that he says "found that 60 percent of parents feel uncomfortable ('concerned,'
'very disturbed') about the levels of exposure their children get to sex in
the media." In fact, the study
shows that 60 percent of parents are "very concerned" about their children's
exposure to "too much sexual content" on television, not in the media
generally. More disturbing than this mistake is the fact that Reavill provides
no other polling data to back up his claim. Given the fact that his argument
is based entirely on the conceit that less sex is what the public wants,
this would seem to be a rather startling omission. And the truth is, not all
polling data necessarily backs up Reavill's point. According to a Time
only 38 percent of Americans are "personally offended" by "explicit sexual content,
such as nudity" on TV. Moreover, less than a third of Americans were offended
by the Janet Jackson incident or the controversial Desperate Housewives
skit on Monday Night Football last year. And so on. Perhaps the situation
is more complicated than Reavill would have readers believe.
But let's, for a moment, grant Reavill his assertion that the public wants
less sex. How, then, does he explain the commercial success of all things sex
related? After all, he can't (and doesn't) ignore how well Jenna Jameson's How
to Make Love Like a Porn Star and "smutty" video games like Grand Theft
Auto have sold. To get around this problem, Reavill falls back on an old
standby: the media conspiracy theory. He says that American audiences unwittingly
consume smut because the "chattering class" (journalists, lawyers, anyone who
asserts public opinion) impose their wanton morals on the rest of the world
through sexualized banter on Will and Grace and the like. This argument,
of course, ignores the fact that the media is heavily influenced by the almighty
advertising dollar -- more so, most would agree, than by the allegedly salacious
leanings of some ill-defined "chattering class." If prudery sold, and it does
in some venues, like the WB program Seventh Heaven, then that is what
television stations would present in primetime.
Reavill is not entirely out of line in feeling uncomfortable about all the sexualized material thrust into the face of his impressionable young daughter. And some of the "suggestions" he proposes for concerned parents are reasonable and easy to do: Install v-chips and anti-spam filters; prevent kids from buying overly sexual clothes. In other words, be a vigilant parent. But these prescriptions do nothing to explain away the central problem with Reavill's argument: All evidence suggests that people's tastes are not what he imagines -- or rather wants -- them to be. Could it be that in this case the market really is the best guide to mainstream tastes? And if that's the case, then what's an anti-smut libertarian to do?
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