Monthly column from author/activist
Comes Naturally #108
Bad Day at the Media
It all started innocently enough.
I got a call from a guy named Stephen Johnson. He was writing a story about sex and developmental disability, a topic that had interested me for some time. He had done a web search and come across a couple of articles I had written on the subject. One was a report I had done on a conference run by an organization called The Committee on Sexuality, an excellent group that has been trying to bring attention to the issue of the sexual rights of developmentally disabled people for over 25 years. The other was an interview I had done with Dave Hingsburger -- the wise, funny, generous-hearted Canadian who is one of the leading spokespersons on this issue, both in Canada and in the U.S.
Johnson was trying to get some background. He wanted to interview me over the phone, even after I explained that I was no expert on the subject, that I didn't have any first-hand experience working with developmentally disabled people, that I was merely a journalist who had taken a couple of small steps toward talking about an important, ignored issue.
Johnson was having trouble finding anyone who wanted to talk to him at all. The hitch was that he was writing his piece for none other than Hustler magazine. As soon as he mentioned Hustler's name, he explained, people backed away in a hurry.
I was sympathetic to his plight. For the last eight years I have been a columnist and contributing writer for Spectator, "California's Original Adult Newsmagazine." Spectator is a San Francisco Bay Area tabloid that regularly publishes interesting, thoughtful, dare I say intelligent, articles about sex -- the kind of articles that should be all over the place but aren't because "respectable" papers won't publish much of anything that deals with sex from a radical or controversial point of view.
Despite its editorial content, however, Spectator looks very much like any of the other sex rags that dot the national landscape, magazines whose demeanors are determined by their dozens of pages of ads for phone sex, strip joints, and lap dancing clubs -- the more lurid, the better, if the marketing strategies of these sex entrepreneurs are to be believed.
Unfortunately, these magazines tend to be about as sexist, misogynistic, racist, adolescent, homophobic, guilt-driven, and just plain brainless as you can get -- and most people aren't paying enough attention to distinguish between Spectator and its look-alike cousins. So, when I'm researching a column, I've often gotten exactly the arched-eyebrow response that Johnson was bemoaning to me, even if Spectator does not command the same name recognition as Hustler.
Hustler connection aside, Johnson sounded like a serious, well-intentioned young reporter. He responded enthusiastically when I spoke about the sexuality of developmentally disabled people as an issue of sexual civil rights -- that developmentally disabled people had as much right to have their sexual needs and desires treated respectfully as anyone else. He agreed with me that the widespread institutional neglect and outright suppression of the sexuality of developmentally disabled people reflected our culture's tendency to relate to sex as a danger rather than as an opportunity for joy. And he took particular note of my interest in the sexual perspectives of developmentally disabled people as lessons about our essential sexual natures, about the primal nature of our sexuality before it becomes acculturated to the seriously distorted expectations of our sex-phobic society.
I felt good talking to Johnson. I felt heard, understood and respected. I told him that I thought that these issues needed to be discussed, even in as unlikely and potentially distasteful a forum as Hustler. He, of course, agreed. He told me that Hustler had done other articles about sex and disability. The issue, he said, was of particular relevance to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt because Flynt has been in a wheelchair ever since his near assassination by a right-wing sniper in 1977.
I told Johnson he could quote me by name. I turned him on to The Committee on Sexuality and encouraged him to find out more about their work. I pushed him to get in touch with Dave Hingsburger, a man who had real experience and insight on the issue, in contrast to my fumblings from the distance of an outside observer. I cautioned him that I had no idea how either The Committee or Hingsburger would feel about Hustler. I wished him well.
Six months later, I had a chance to chat briefly with Dave Hingsburger before he gave a keynote address to the annual symposium of The Committee on Sexuality. He was his usual, wonderful, boisterous, nervous, life-affirming self. He asked me if I had seen the article in Hustler, which he had just picked up the night before. I hadn't.
"What's it like? I asked, a little nervously.
"Well," he said, "I haven't had a chance to read it through, but the title is 'Sex, Retard Style: Slobbery, Stupid, and Horny as Hell.' That should give you some idea of what to expect."
I was completely floored. I knew how crucial the issue of language is in the developmental disability community where people are struggling to come out from under derogatory, dismissive, insulting terms like "retard." Even gentler terms, like retarded, or mentally retarded, are shunned in favor of more neutral phrase, "developmentally disabled."
Hingsburger smiled painfully and shrugged. "I'm not sorry I gave them the interview," he said. "I believe very strongly that we have a responsibility to talk about the issue in whatever forum is available to us. We aren't responsible for how an article turns out. We're only responsible for making sure that the issue is addressed with some accuracy. Still, I have to say that I'm appalled at the language."
As soon as I could, I tracked down a copy of Hustler. I grimaced my way through what turned out to be a truly bizarre piece of writing. The article raised all the right issues about the sexual rights of developmentally disabled people. It even raised them reasonably well, quoting a number of sources from coast to coast, and providing some legal and statutory history and perspective.
The language the article used to refer to disabled people, however, was nothing short of vile. It was Hustler, in-your-face offensiveness at its very worst. Respectful references to "developmentally disabled people" alternated with a veritable thesaurus of insults for the developmentally disabled -- feebleminded, retard, imbecile, dimwit, cretin, simpleton, not-so-smart, unintelligent, low-IQ, mental midget, dumb-as-a-plank.
The combination of thoughtful perspective with language obviously designed to be as offensive as possible made me feel like I was in a room full of fun-house mirrors. If you substituted decent language for about 15 insulting terms, you would have a fine piece on the sexual rights of the developmentally disabled. Yet those terms stood out as glaringly as day-glo stains on a Monet.
Aside from everything else, Johnson had both misquoted and misrepresented me. He identified me accurately as a sex columnist, but also said that I was a therapist and sex educator, neither of which I am. What upset me most was that he changed my reference to the "primal" sexuality of some disabled people to one about "primitive" sexuality, twisting what I see as a respectful interest in unsocialized sexual behavior into an attitude of insulting condescension.
I called Johnson to find out what had happened. He explained that after he turned his piece in, his editors had essentially Hustlerized it. While not about to apologize or trash his editors, Johnson was clearly embarrassed. I felt both angry and sorry for him. This, it turned out, was his first piece as a Hustler staff writer. It was his baptism by fire, and also mine.
What was to be done about this? I called my friend Susie Bright, a controversial sex writer who is no stranger to criticism and misrepresentation. I asked her what she would do in a situation like this. She was sympathetic to my upset, but thought I was taking the whole thing much too seriously.
"No one," she said, "reads the articles in Hustler. In fact, the only reason there are articles at all is that it allows the magazine to be distributed in states that require a certain amount of text for a magazine not to be considered obscene.
"I used to write for Hustler," she reminded me. "In all my travels, I have never had a single person come up to me and say, 'I saw that article you wrote in Hustler.' Not one. I've had people remind me of the most obscure piece I wrote for the most obscure academic or feminist journal, but never, ever, Hustler."
"Should I write a letter to the editor?" I asked.
"Hustler doesn't even have letters to the editor," she answered (incorrectly, as it turns out). "Just forget about it. It's like a tree falling in the woods when no one's around. No one will ever hear or see it."
Dave Hingsburger agreed. "I choose my battles carefully," he wrote me, "and I don't think anything will be achieved by writing to them. If you want me to sign on to a letter you write, send it to me and I'll join you. But otherwise I think I'm probably just going to let it pass."
I mulled it over. I let some time go by so I could calm down, and also so I could see if anyone screamed at me about being part of that horrible piece in Hustler. No one did. I decided that instead of beating my head against Hustler's wall, I would write this column. And so I have.
What is the lesson? Beware of well-intentioned reporters with sensationalizing editors. Remember that the mass media are rarely the purveyors of complex or subtle thoughts. Meanwhile, do what you have to do to get the word out about things that people don't want to think about, publish, or distribute. Change the world. Watch your back. Remember that no one has perfectly clean hands.
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Since Susie Bright shows up in this month's column, I want to take a minute to tell you about the newsletter she sends out -- free and confidential -- to anyone who wants to receive it online. I almost never promote products or publications, but Susie's sexual perspective is important and unique, and I feel strongly that if you enjoy my writing, you'll also love to have her musings show up in your mailbox once a month.
If you don't already know her, Susie Bright is one of the most insightful, amusing, provocative, and outrageously sensible sexual commentators out there, trying to bring some sexual sanity to this absurdly antisexual world of ours. Her newsletter talks about what's going on in her life, her books, her talks and classes, and whatever issues she happens to be worked up about at the moment. It's interesting, personal, delightfully accessible, and guaranteed to give you some new ways of thinking about sexual matters.
|If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's David Steinberg Archives and Spectator.net. David's book Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, Love, and of our Wonderful Bodies is available directly from the Libido shop. The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- is available from him by mail order (P.O. Box 2992, Santa Cruz, CA 95063). Descriptions and ordering information are posted at www.sexuality.org/l/davids/ei.html.|