Sometimes, Discretion is the Best Policy

PETER A. JAY

March 08, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HARVE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Early morning, at least by the clock. Outside it is still night; far off there is the sound of a great horned owl. Inside, the clock radio has switched on, but the two sleepers in the master bedroom aren't yet moving. Even the dog hasn't stirred.

But early-rising Sarah Jay, age 8, is up and ready to roll. Lights come on. The furnace snorts into action as the thermostat is turned. Small feet come padding into the bedroom, and a wiry body in pajamas climbs into bed.

"Dad?"

"Mmpf."

"Dad, did your first wife take birth-control pills?"

Well, that wakes everybody up. For even in this enlightened age, in which all Victorian taboos have presumably been deep-sixed, old prudish instincts linger. They can produce a sudden tingle, like static electricity in a cat's fur. This they do now.

The question, though, should not have come as a surprise. (Parents of other 8-year-olds will have observed that no question should come as a surprise.) Kids ask what's on their minds, and reproduction has been on Sarah's.

Farm children such as Sarah have certain advantages in learning about the reproductive facts of life. They watch the unions of ducks and drakes, cows and bulls, mares and stallions; they see the products of this activity come into the world. Sarah is already 66TC a veteran rabbit raiser and is even now considering bucks to breed this spring to her does. She knows about eggs and sperm.

This kind of knowledge, gained by children though first-hand observation, has always seemed to me an entirely healthy supplement to what they learn from parents or teachers or classmates. Generally, the more kids know, about sex or anything else, the better off they are. Or are they?

Knowledge can be pretty uncomfortable sometimes. As Little Red Riding Hood sings, in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods:" "Isn't it nice to know a lot? And a little bit -- not." And it's certainly a fact that many of us, parents and non-parents alike, find the current emphasis on absolute candor in sexual matters disconcerting.

It may be because some of the lurid stuff we're asked to be candid about is a little short on redeeming social importance, even though it's gravely presented as Science or News. Or it may be because those who publicly traffic in a certain kind of prurience are so sickeningly righteous about it. If they invoke the proper orthodoxy, they obviously believe, it doesn't matter what they say or whom they offend.

Thus the campaign by some priests of popular culture, under the politically-correct banner of AIDS education, to make condoms as friendly and familiar to kindergartners as Cheerios. Thus news accounts, citing the people's right to know nauseating details that in earlier times would have been left to the imagination, increasingly choose candor over discretion.

In the past decade, there has been a tremendous change in the way sexual issues are treated, in the arts and the entertainment industry as well as in the press. This is a process which has been under way for several generations, of course, but in recent years it appears to have accelerated, and turned into a competition to see who can push back the barriers of self-censorship the farthest.

In the late 1970s, when I wrote a column for The Sun about "anatomically correct" dolls, editorial policy did not permit me to name the actual body parts which had been added to the toys. Nor did it allow me, when writing about Baltimore film maker John Waters, to report just what a character in one of Mr. Waters's award-winning epics did with dog feces. An editor told me at the time he didn't want to be responsible for spoiling the readers' breakfasts.

That was a reasonable rule, I thought then. But if such editorial concerns still exist, they're rather less in evidence, here and elsewhere. It wasn't long ago, for example, that readers of this very newspaper were subjected to an illustrated feature-page screed on that long-awaited new consumer product, the female condom. It's an amazing engineering breakthrough, no doubt, but do we really want to read about it at breakfast?

The television networks, once so prim in both their news and entertainment efforts, have become just as graphic -- and wonder why their viewers keep slipping away. What's unclear to me is whether all the proud new candor in the media is a cause of the debasement of sex, the coarsening of language and the extinction of delicacy so manifest in everyday life, or whether it's simply a reflection of these trends. But probably this is a chicken-and-egg question.

Eventually, I suppose, total candor will run its course, as fads do. Once sexual matters are purified of all mystery, they'll become less interesting, and when that happens mystery can be expected to return. We need mystery almost as much as we need knowledge. The trick is to keep the two in balance.

In the family context, one good rule is that honest questions deserve honest responses. Yes, I told Sarah, my first wife did use birth control pills. She seemed satisfied with the answer, and in a little while went out to check on her rabbits.

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