Television turns up the volume on the shock factor


August 08, 1991|By Michael Olesker

I am running for my life on a machine called a Stairmaster. I am assaulted by visions of a man in a woman's outfit and a woman in no outfit at all. Something is out of kilter here.

Who let all of these strange people into the room while my life is at stake? The man in the woman's outfit, I do not wish to see under any circumstances. The woman in no outfit at all would be pleasant to meet but in a different setting. Doesn't she know I'm already out of breath?

The Stairmaster is taking all of my energy. It is a killer machine, a hideous, sadistic contraption designed to increase cardiovascular capacity and trim a little excess weight. It is located in a hospital exercise room where I go several times a week to hold onto some last vestige of svelteness (my own, that is.)

But the people who run the workout room think we need to be entertained while we work out. Therefore, they have placed televisions about the room so that we will not be forced to ponder our mortality while in the process of cardiovascularizing ourselves.

Invariably, the televisions are tuned to network shows that are pornography masquerading as journalism, on which we see persons such as men in women's outfits and women who are outfit-less. Between taped reports, an anchor person looks on disapprovingly. But if the anchor person is so disapproving, why are these people being shown to us at all?

Maybe the TV people know something I do not. Maybe they know I am moved by these people. What moves me about them is the frightening realization that I am not moved by them at all, even in their provocative states.

Shouldn't I be shocked? Shouldn't I be excited? Shouldn't I be living in Anne Arundel County, where they still get worked up about people dressed inappropriately or not at all?

Two nights ago, the Anne Arundel County Council approved a moratorium on leering. They said no more peep-show establishments could be licensed in the northern part of the county, where residents have long complained about the increasing number of peep shows and adult book stores.

Immediately we remember Liberty Road, in northwest Baltimore County, and a place called Body Talk. Neighborhood people went bananas when Body Talk opened, with its girls in scanty attire doing dances they never learned at Arthur Murray.

Get that stuff out of here, residents said. Freedom of expression, Body Talk's owners said. Express yourself someplace else, residents said.

And the residents were exactly right. The people on Liberty Road and the ones around Glen Burnie's porno shops, aren't prudes. They understand sexuality and erotica. They even understand some people use sex to make a living.

What they also understand -- and the professional purveyors of erotica do not -- is that sex is a private thing. You do it in your own bedroom, and not someone else's, and you do not display it at random without strange things beginning to happen: People get numb to it, and in order to bring them back to excitement, you have to up the ante.

Naturally, this brings us back to the Stairmaster and the people ++ on the television set. They're everywhere now, aren't they? I'm trying toget healthy, and they're trying to seduce me. It used to be, you'd see these exhibitionists in the pages of certain magazines or in movies, maybe, but it was your choice if and when you wanted to see them.

What's happened today is simple: They've removed the choice from our lives. It's there, whether we want it or not. When I get off the Stairmaster, I go home and plop down on the living room couch.

I have just enough energy to hit the remote control on the television. I flip channels and see girls in bikinis selling beer. I see MTV videos with vague sado-masochistic overtones. I think of the man in women's garb. A camera zoomed in to show welts across his skin. This is called journalism. It used to be called something you kept to yourself.

The line between public and private is getting blurred every day. We stifle yawns at stuff we used to consider outrageous. If they're showing this stuff in health clubs now, what are they telling us? If the machines don't kick your heart into gear, we've got something on video here that ought to do the trick?

Or has the line blurred so badly now that we only pay lip service to the difference between public and private?

I understand the impulse of those who wish a limitation on peep shows in Anne Arundel County. I take sides with those on Liberty Road who wish to keep public nudity out of their neighborhoods.

But it seems to me something happened while they were keeping track of the peep shows and the nude dance clubs. Somebody went behind their backs and sneaked into their television sets. They're right there in their bedrooms and their living rooms now. They're in the hospitals and the workout centers.

Is it shocking? Not at all. We see these exhibitionists on our screens, and we go about our business. And that's the shocking part of it.

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