Suppose journalists got wind of a new product that would revolutionize people's sex lives but at an alarming potential cost in cancer, stroke, depression and sterility. Would they promote the breakthrough, or skeptically investigate first?
The case isn't hypothetical, of course. The media faced it with the emergence in the late 1950s of the birth control pill, which they quickly embraced and popularized.
Thus, writes Rodger Streitmatter in "Sex Sells!", the pill became "far and away..the most influential factor in moving American society full tilt into the Sexual Revolution."
That sex sells and the pill promotes sex are obvious points. Less obvious, though, and of more interest to Streitmatter, is that the pill had such a powerful partner. The media "have not merely reflected the remarkable changes in sexual attitudes and sexual practices," he writes, "but they have helped propel those changes."
"Sex Sells!" traces the media's role in moving American culture from the prim propriety of the Ozzie and Harriet '50s to today's pandemic priapism. Much of its attention goes to the entertainment media and such trailblazers as Playboy, Cosmo, salacious movies, raunchy music and cyberporn. But mainstream journalism was no mere bystander.
The two largest case studies offered here involve news coverage of the pill and of the Clinton/Lewinsky episode. Both proved turning points in an accelerating preoccupation with all things sexual.
As Streitmatter tells it, the pill arrived as a "little-known medication" prescribed for "certain rare menstrual disorders."
"Then the media heard about it. When the nation's leading magazines and newspapers began promoting the tablet as a form of contraception, women started requesting that their doctors, in a phrase they picked up from the media, 'put me on the pill.'"
Such conventional publications as Time, Fortune, Good Housekeeping, Ebony and even Reader's Digest began "using their pages to promote the birth control pill." Newsweek even took on Catholic Church objections, in a cover story that concluded, "The pill should be considered morally acceptable."
While a few publications, notably The New Republic, Saturday Evening Post and U.S. News & World Report, raised serious safety and ethical questions, they were swept aside by a media tide "that portrayed the pill as a medical and social advancement of the highest order."
Sexuality lurked for a while as a background issue in the news, although Streitmatter demonstrates that it was increasingly sliding into such quasi-news arenas as talk television. Then came a semen stain on a blue dress.
Front pages and newscasts billboarded President Clinton's activities with intern Monica Lewinsky with graphic language and descriptions. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report, released September 12, 1998, mentioned oral sex 92 times, genitalia 39, phone sex 29 and detailed 10 occasions of sexual activity between Clinton and Lewinsky. (See "Starr Turn," November 1998.) News coverage was liberalized, probably forever.
In describing this 50-year arc from "repression to obsession," Streitmatter, an American University professor and former reporter, stays commendably balanced. He fairly cites both its costs and benefits.
Costs include glorifying casual sex and infidelity, connecting sex with violence, perpetuating stereotypes of men and women, downplaying the consequences of promiscuity and sending risky sexual messages to younger and younger audiences.
Benefits include promoting safe sex, educating society about AIDS and sex-related diseases, fostering women's sexual independence and healthy consideration of gay and lesbian sexuality, and moving sex from taboo secrecy to frank and open conversations.
To deal with all these effects, Streitmatter believes, requires greater "sexual literacy." The most positive response to media obsession with sex, he writes, "is to help young people learn how to identify and to understand the libidinous messages" they receive.
This seems like a good suggestion, although the book is light on specifics. More disappointing, "Sex Sells!" concerns itself more with describing media actions than analyzing them. Here would have been a grand opportunity to consider in depth whether the media, especially journalists, have a "sexual social responsibility" that parallels their long-accepted duty to monitor government and politics. One of the great things about journalism is that there aren't many rules. But there should be principles, best practices and thoughtful planning about sex coverage, as well as everything else. For whatever reasons, our obsession with sex hasn't yet gotten that far.