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Sex and the Media: Five Lessons from 2014

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Tom Hoopes - published on 12/29/14

When the cultures of entertainment and sexual relativism collide...

Americans are increasingly obsessed with entertainment and sex, so it is no wonder the two collided this year. Consider these moments of truth — or moments of confusion— in the media this year.

1. Bill Cosby and Woody Allen.

For some of us it was among the saddest developments in entertainment news, but it was a necessary thing: Bill Cosby’s alleged history of rape was made public and thoroughly denounced. It’s hard to imagine watching the Cosby Show or listening to his comedy routines in the same way again. As of December 3, 27 women had accused him of sexually assaulting and/or raping them.

Early in the year, in February, another comedian was in the news as old sex abuse allegations resurfaced: director Woody Allen, accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter.

Some good could come from the new willingness to report nonclergy sex abuse: The much worse epidemics of abuse in the public schools and Hollywood may begin to be reported and decried as thoroughly as the Church scandals have been.

2. Rolling Stone, Lena Dunham, and rape culture.

If the Cosby and Allen stories were revelations of sex abuse, two other developments helped confuse and obscure the issue.

Rolling Stone went to press with an embarrassingly misreported story that accused a fraternity at the University of Virginia of engaging in organized gang-rape as a hazing exercise. At the same time, a book by HBO’s Girls graphically describes events which some call an admission of sibling abuse, and which others call merely a “sexual narrative.”

The Rolling Stone debacle unwittingly reinforced dangerous clichés about “the girl who cried rape.” The Lena Dunham memoir and her enraged defense of it did a disservice to children suffering sibling abuse. Both stories highlighted the confusion that our culture’s lack of sexual morality has caused, and how our insistence on sexual relativism clashes with our expectation of sexual safety.

3. The Personalization of Journalism.

All of those sexual stories — Bill Cosby, UVA and Dunham — could also said to be the result of the personalization of journalism.

The news isn’t just local anymore; it’s personal. If the 20th century was about media becoming increasingly nationalized, the 21st century is about our  media becoming increasingly individualized. The Global Web Index shows that Pinterest and Tumblr users grew by 110% and 120%. There were 1.35 billion active Facebook users. Youtube had the highest visitation rate with 6 billion hours of Youtube watched each month. More than 9 out of 10 16-64 year-olds have visited Youtube, Facebook, Twitter or Google+ in the past month — 1 in 5 visited all four.

Think of how this affected the news: Bill Cosby’s story “blew up” because one little-known comedian posted his anti-Cosby routine on YouTube. Dunham’s story shows how self-revelatory storytelling can backfire, in a drama that played out on Twitter. Rolling Stone’s story suffers from the same phenomenon — a personal narrative given credibility simply because it exists.

Social Media is a double-edged sword: When everybody has a global platform, the truth can get out — and our errors can get out of control.

4. The Rise of Conscious Uncoupling.

Many of us learned a new phrase this year, when actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin announced not their separation, but their “conscious uncoupling.”  In her announcement of the event, Paltrow shared a definition of “conscious uncoupling,” reports CNN:

A “conscious uncoupling is the ability to understand that every irritation and argument [within a marriage] was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing … From this perspective, there are no bad guys, just two people.”

No-blame, no-pain, no-problem divorce is the ultimate end of “no-fault” divorce and is nothing new. But whatever its psychological and emotional benefits for the couple involved, this new way of describing the end of a marriage further defines adultery out of existence and runs the risk of downplaying the devastating effects divorce has on children.

5. Crass comedy vs. the terrorists.

The story of Sony nearly caving to the terrorists over the movie The Interview is probably the biggest “entertainment story” of the year. It is not about sex directly; rather, it is about a modern crass comedy laced with sexual innuendo, in this case at the expense of a hostile world leader.

The incident is rife with lessons of where the media is nowadays:

  • The Hacking Lesson. The principled stand the media took against phone-hacking in the UK and image-hacking in the United States fell apart. It turns out the media aren’t really against hacking after all; at least not when terrorists hand them juicy Hollywood gossip, which they eagerly share.
  • The Cultural Imperialism Lesson. While we Americans tell increasingly crass jokes for kicks, we sometimes forget that our entertainment products are also pouring into other cultures worldwide, and many people don’t like it. The best of them are merely disgusted by us. The worst get violent.

The ultimate lesson

In the background of these media moments about sex is the tension between our culture’s desire to say sex is harmless fun, and our recognition that we have to protect people because sex is very certainly not harmless fun.

The ultimate lesson: You can have sexual relativism or you can have sexual boundaries. You can’t have both.

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