Erotica runs rampant

Ever-stronger sexual content is showing up across the landscape of mainstream media: in network TV, in movies, even in catalogs.

This Sunday, a team of Playboy Playmates will compete in a special episode of NBC's reality TV show "Fear Factor," timed to pull viewers away from the Super Bowl half-time show on Fox.

At Christmas, a 15-year-old California girl received a "fun gift" from another teen: a makeup bag, part of a new teen line from the hard-core pornography publisher Hustler, complete with an embroidered logo and a tag touting the magazine.

In November, ABC TV aired a "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" so explicit the network decided it should blur out areas of the models' bodies.

Pornographic images, erotic paraphernalia, and raunchy sexual talk are reaching a near-saturation point in the daily lives of Americans, through television, movies, magazines, and the Internet, say a growing chorus of expert voices. And the target market is an increasingly younger audience.

The prevalence and commercialization of extreme sexual behaviors and attitudes is hard for youngsters still figuring out male-female relationships, says media expert John Forde, who hosts a PBS television show that examines TV advertising. How can they put a violent sex toy in perspective when they are still worrying about their first kiss? he asks.

"Erotica has gone completely mainstream," says Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based think tank that tracks youth trends.

From the sex toys used by star Jim Carrey in his recent film "Me, Myself & Irene," to clothing catalogs so graphic that Abercrombie & Fitch stores must ask for adult IDs to sell them, the environment for youths has become sexualized in ways that used to be considered extreme, Ms. Buckingham says.

She points to what she calls "porn chic" as the easiest evidence: lewd sexual phrases and imagery on jewelry and clothing; print and TV ad campaigns that suggest rape or group sex; and explicit sexual references to pornography in teen films such as "Scary Movie" and "Not Just Another Teen Movie."

The influx of this imagery has increased dramatically over the past decade, she adds, and includes using younger models. "Now that pornography has become acceptable, anything goes."

Accompanying this is a trend toward more and more explicit sexual environments in film and TV. In a recently released biennial report, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 2 out of every 3 TV shows include sexual content, up from one-half of shows just two years ago. The many examples cited include characters on ABC's cancelled "Two Guys and a Girl" using the Kama Sutra, an ancient Eastern sex manual.

A study released Monday by the Parents Television Council found that the number of "raunchy" sexual references on cable TV shows has more than doubled in the past two years. These occur more than twice as often as on network TV shows.

Several factors have contributed to erotica working its way into mainstream American media, says legal expert Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families:

• The number of state or federal prosecutions for violations of obscenity laws over the past decade, stopped almost completely when the Community Decency Act of 1996 was struck down as unconstitutional.

• The rise of the Internet as an easy way to deliver explicitly sexual material to a wide, undifferentiated market.

• The expansion of the entertainment marketplace from a few networks to a vast world of satellite, cable, video, and pay-per-view options.

It all boils down to money, says Mr. Forde, host of the PBS show "Mental Engineering," which will run its own counter-programming on Super Bowl Sunday.

Immediately following the game, Forde's show will analyze the underlying messages of the Super Bowl ads. The goal of advertisers "is to win, and if they pass the [social] cost of [pornography] on to others, that's of no consequence to them, because they are concerned solely with profit," he says.

"The feminine is commercialized and commodified," he says. "This undermines the spiritual dimension of being a human being."

One network, NBC, has been frank and unapologetic about its need to compete with the more explicit world of cable TV. It recently decided to be the only big broadcast network to air ads for hard liquor. As for the choice to put Playmates in prime time, Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, responds, "It's been a difficult year; we're just having fun."

Over the years, American courts have grappled less than definitively with the issue of pornography versus First Amendment freedoms. Former federal prosecutor Bruce Taylor says the absence of prosecutions has sped the spread of erotica.

"Over time, if you don't prosecute a store or a website, families and kids grow up not seeing any cases, and they think, 'This must be OK, because if it was illegal, the police would be busting them,' " Mr. Taylor says. "That attitude has affected prosecutors, who are afraid to go to jury trial, and the industry is growing less afraid of being busted."

The result, he says, is the increasing availability of hard-core material, including rape, bestiality, child porn, and sado-masochism themes. This acceptance of material that used to be considered extreme affects the entire culture, he says.

In a recent episode of TV's No. 1-rated show, NBC's "Friends," the entire cast becomes obsessed with watching a pornography channel.

"Hollywood has [even] the good guys [in its shows] looking at porn and using sex toys," he says. It's "the movies that are targeting the largest consumers of films, which is teens ... [and] it can't help but affect them.

"This is what I call the heroin effect of porn," says Taylor, who handled more pornography cases during his 20-year tenure than any other federal prosecutor.

"This rape and incest porn that's being consumed, kids being introduced to group sex, none of us know the effect for certain," he says. But he points to an FBI profile of serial murderers and sex offenders conducted over a period of 20 years. Nearly all of them, he says, were addicted to adult and child pornography.

"Pornography is awful for guys: It affects their attitudes toward sex. It makes them sexually insensitive and jerks toward women, at least. At most, when it becomes an addiction, it becomes an element of psychosis."

One voice saying it's possible to resist this slide toward a sexualized environment comes from Robert Halmi, one of television's most prolific producers of family-oriented entertainment ("The Odyssey," "Merlin," "Gulliver's Travels"). "This trend towards explicit sexuality exists because there's a creative void," says the entertainment magnate, whose shows - nearly 200 and counting - air on all the major networks as well as on the new Hallmark Channel on cable.

"It reflects the taste of the executives, Mr. Halmi says, "but it's also pressure from the corporate heads who want networks to perform like stock portfolios, with a 26 percent growth rate."

His movies, which tell classic tales from literature, are "about morals and values," he says. "They have something to say."

But perhaps the culture will reclaim its soul the same way, youth expert Buckingham says: through the marketplace. Once a trend has been around long enough, consumers, especially teens, need something new. She says the spring fashions already show some reaction to the extremes of recent years.

"The new [fashion] shows are full of modest, form-covering peasant blouses and full skirts. Maybe," she says, "people will become bored with erotica and move away on their own."

• See page 17 for a review of the coming TV documentary 'American Porn' on PBS.

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