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Not In Front of the Children
A Reply to the Critics

by Marjorie Heins
October, 2001

A number of critics have taxed Not in Front of the Children with being insufficiently sensitive to the concerns of parents about sexual explicitness and graphic violence in popular culture. It's true that the book doesn't decry all the gross and offensive entertainment that is available – there is already a vast literature on that subject. My purpose instead was to stimulate informed discussion about exactly what is thought harmful to minors (not simply offensive), and why.

As Not in Front of the Children's historical and "cultural differences" chapters demonstrate, notions of harm to minors from art, literature, and entertainment vary, not only over time but in different parts of the world today. Attitudes about youthful sexuality have relaxed dramatically since the 19th century, when masturbation was thought to produce horrific, sometimes fatal, effects, and libidinous literature was consequently censored to "protect" vulnerable young minds. As the book recounts, masturbation is now understood to be normal and healthy, but youthful sexuality, and sexual curiosity, are still matters of considerable anxiety on the U.S. political scene. Likewise, comic books were censored in the 1950s; and "dirty words" are still not allowed on radio and TV, all in the supposed interests of protecting kids – but really, more likely, because of offense or squeamishness among adults.

Entertainment that seems gross and offensive to many Americans today is tame by the standards of violence in Roman circuses or gory public executions in medieval and even modern times. Violent fantasy, whether in comics, movies, or video games, is a cathartic release for many kids (and adults) whose aggressive impulses might otherwise be acted out in less innocuous ways. This isn't to say that violent entertainment is necessarily cathartic for everyone. The book's chapter on media effects explores this question in depth, and acknowledges that art, literature, and other forms of expression can have bad as well as good effects. It's just that it's impossible to generalize, because different individuals process information in different ways. And trying to generalize results in taking works of the human imagination totally out of context. Macbeth and Mortal Kombat are equally gory.

The critics' own examples demonstrate this point. Leah Platt in The American Prospect (Aug. 27, 2001) is shocked that I question the value of censorship for what she considers really bad speech. Her examples are "live executions" on network television and "gang bangs during prime time." She asks: "Should the government really have no hand in shaping what can be very public spaces on the Internet and on the airwaves?" Well, putting aside the alarming prospect of allowing George W. Bush and company to shape what speech takes place on the Internet and airwaves, Platt's examples are interesting. The U.S. is the only nation in the industrialized world that still practices capital punishment. Are youngsters to be kept ignorant of this reality? The idea of public executions is revolting, but perhaps that revulsion would stimulate increased opposition to the practice. Platt's suggestion has the brilliance of a Swiftian modest proposal, though I don't think she intended it that way.

As for "gang bangs," they are common enough in pornography, and regardless of whether minors are banned from accessing it, kids are surely, by age 12 or 13, aware of its existence and its massive popularity among adults. Porn raises the most difficult question – at least emotionally – in our conflicted popular culture. Like Michael Massing in The New York Times (Aug. 25, 2001) and Marjorie Williams in Slate.com (June 4, 2001), Platt assumes that minors should not be permitted to see pornography, but without exploring why it is thought harmful (as opposed to offensive or inappropriate), or explaining where to draw the line: Playboy? Graphic safe-sex information? Explicit stories on Riotgrrl.com? Raunchy teen advice columns on oral sex and other skills?

The fact is, impolitic as it may be to say so, sexuality experts generally agree there's no evidence of harm to minors from reading or viewing pornography. The disconnect here is palpable between what experts in the field know and what political leaders, pundits, and many parents consider acceptable. The very notion that sexually explicit material may not be harmful to kids – many of whom, admittedly, are too young to understand it – seems radical, and probably accounts for much of the attack on Not in Front of the Children. But sometimes conventional wisdom needs to be challenged, particularly when it has led to the stampede of broad, vague censorship laws that we've seen over the last decade, and when it drowns out any serious discourse about what could be truly effective responses to concerns about the grossness of popular culture: media literacy and comprehensive sexuality education.

Like Platt, Michael Massing in his New York Times review seems appalled that I question the necessity for censorship laws targeting kids. He wonders whether I have ever seen New York City's famous cable TV show, "Midnight Blue," and implies that viewing it would surely be harmful to a 6 year-old. He adds that I seem "insulated" from the real world of "shock jocks and sleazy talk shows." Yes, I've seen "Midnight Blue," and it is tasteless – as are Howard Stern and other shock jocks. Most of this entertainment is inappropriate for children; but where is the evidence that a 6 year-old viewer would be deeply harmed – as opposed to grossed out or uncomprehending? And given the difficulty of defining what is so inappropriate for kids that its purveyors should face criminal sanctions, shouldn't the burden of proving the need for censorship fall on those who favor it?

The fact is, there is so much sleaze in popular culture that the volume of it, and the practical impossibility of shielding children and adolescents from any significant part of it, reinforces my point that censorship laws serve mostly symbolic purposes, and distract us from the real business of educating youth to become critical thinkers and intelligent consumers of culture.

Questioning assumptions about psychological harm is emphatically not the same thing as arguing that pornography is good for kids, or that they should be spending a lot of time viewing or reading it. Contrary to the introduction I received on at least one radio show, I'm not in favor of subjecting kids to "Midnight Blue," Penthouse, or Deep Throat. I'm just suggesting that the harm that's assumed is culturally driven, not scientifically proved; that young kids are generally not interested in this stuff and tend to self-censor if they happen upon it; and that older ones who are interested are not likely to be taught good sexual values by the creation of taboos which only reinforce their awareness of adult hypocrisy.

Platt, Massing, and many others who write on this subject miss the point when they assume that there is a necessary conflict between free expression and the welfare of kids. One purpose of Not in Front of the Children is to question this assumption. As the book suggests in a fair degree of detail, at the end of the day we know very little about what is psychologically harmful in art, information, and entertainment; the programs that produce fright or imitation are often not what we would expect. (One series of experiments found that viewing Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers led to increased aggressiveness among young children.) Censorship – including rating systems – inevitably founders on the impossibility of agreeing upon and defining what is harmful as opposed to offensive.

The intention of Not in Front of the Children is not to provide all the answers, but to provide a resource – information, historical context, legal understanding, and food for thought about the real sources and likely dangers of censorship that is presumed necessary to "protect" kids. It is only with this kind of information and context that we can get past symbolic censorship schemes that don't work, and focus on the deeper issues raised by sex and violence in popular culture, and in human life.

 


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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