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The New Republic Online
Thursday, April 21st, 2005


Smut: A Sex Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough Is Enough

by Gil Reavill

Sex Change

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 magazine poll, 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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