Politics puts sex on our minds Porn: It took Judge Starr to show us that, in some contexts, dirty talk is perfectly acceptable.

September 28, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Judge Kenneth W. Starr was way ahead of us on this. He had to know that, given the right context and the right publisher, the country could handle 445 pages of l'affaire Lewinsky, plus the supporting documents, Communications One and Two, et cetera, et alia.

He knew our sensibilities. Sure, we used to believe in Mayfield, home of Ward and June Cleaver, a town where fidelity reigned, married couples slept in separate beds and no one talked about what went on behind closed doors. That was years ago.

We're older now. We've spent the night on Melrose Place. Debbie has done Dallas. Pee-wee Herman has been ushered off the public stage, and everyone knows why.

Starr knew we could take Washington's tale of love and woe, as long as it was delivered under the imprimatur of the Congress of the United States.

"In this case we're allowed to talk about sex because it's in the public interest," says Rufus Griscom, editor of Nerve, an Internet magazine that has been hailed for its intelligent approach to erotica. "There are a few kinds of Trojan horses that can be used to introduce sex into the public discourse. Science is one of them. The other is politics."

Everywhere you turn, the Starr Report is taking its toll, dragging conversations into uncharted territory. Talk about cigars, phone sex and oral pleasure is heard in even the most staid homes. We're in a period of flux as to how we view sexuality, says Griscom, and the report amplifies that ambivalence and confusion. Its lasting effect is anyone's guess. Will people grow bolder and more comfortable talking about sex? Or, having come this far, entering a professed national state of shock, will we retreat?

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, thinks any backlash will come from people reclaiming their privacy. He has responded to the report by offering Starr a job and writing a letter congratulating him "for having opened the doors of libraries and schools to pornographic literature."

"This guy has done more to make porography mainstream in two weeks than I have in a quarter century," says Flynt, who has waged his share of battles for free speech. "I just couldn't resist the temptation of making an offer. I think he'd be more happy here than at Pepperdine."

Flynt and others note that if the now-defunct Communications Decency Act were still around, Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel could be charged with making indecent material available to children. The Supreme Court overturned the act last year, leaving Internet filters the only thing the OIC has to worry about.

Legally, the report is not pornography. It's a legal document.

But legal definitions aren't the problem here. Words and deeds, that's the problem. How do we talk about the hurried grope sessions, the late-night phone calls?

Some of us take the high road, downplaying the report's sexual content and focusing on the larger issues of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Others respond like teen-age boys who have stumbled upon dad's collection of Playboy. There's plenty of snickering and joking masking insecurities and anxieties.

"Humor, as Freud said, is a way to deal with anxiety, and as a nation we're anxious about sex," says Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist. "And this is a way of dealing with sex."

There's a little bit of Mayfield left in America.

"We still have this communal fantasy of polite society that no one does this sort of thing," says Griscom, who sees the report as "pornography packaged as politics." "We haven't admitted to ourselves that this is reality."

We're living in the age of 1-900-WET-GIRL and ISO ads looking for love. Used to be we preferred the disarming, almost grandmotherly Dr. Ruth Westheimer as our sex therapist. Nowadays we feel comfortable cozying up to Cindy Crawford and telling her our bedroom secrets.

"In a sense, we've grown up as a society," says Butterworth. "In the old days, we had to have a matronly short woman."

Those old days were not so long ago -- 10, 15 years, tops. Go back to Gary Hart and Donna Rice on the yacht Monkey Business. There was plenty of talk and speculation in 1984, but no detail. Now we're drowning in detail.

"Part of the reason that we are where we are with this is that any kind of sense of decorum around sexual topics has been eroded," says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. "The increase in sexual references in prime-time situation comedies has gone up dramatically in the last 10 years. It has almost become a staple."

And, let's not forget the evening news. Each year a new word or phrase pushes its way into the lexicon. Remember "Deep Throat"? A few years ago Lorena Bobbit pulled out a knife and "bobbitizing" was born. What would Miss Manners make of Amy Fisher and her erstwhile boyfriend Joey "I never touched her" Buttafuoco; Hugh Grant and Divine Brown; Dick Morris; Marv Albert? There's no end.

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