Media

You Still Can't Buy a Vibrator in Alabama

Krassner's new book "In Praise of Indecency" attacks the taboos surrounding sex and pornography.

The following are excerpts from In Praise of Indecency by Paul Krassner. Copyright 2009 by Paul Krassner.

In Praise of Indecency

The late Harry Reasoner, who was an ABC News anchor and a Sixty Minutes correspondent, wrote in his 1981 memoir, Before the Colors Fade:

“I’ve only been aware of two figures in the news during my career with whom I would not have shaken hands if called to deal with them professionally. I suppose that what Thomas Jefferson called a decent respect for the opinion of mankind requires me to identify those two. They were Senator Joseph McCarthy and a man named Paul Krassner or something like that who published a magazine called The Realist in the 1960s. I guess everyone knows who McCarthy was. Krassner and his Realist were part of a ‘60s fad -- publications attacking the values of the establishment -- which produced some very good papers and some very bad ones. Krassner not only attacked establishment values; he attacked decency in general, notably with an alleged ‘lost chapter’ from William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President.”

I appreciated Reasoner’s unintentional irony -- I had started as a political satirist in college, poking fun at McCarthyism -- but now I resented being linked with McCarthy. He had senatorial immunity for his libels. I risked lawsuits for what I published. What I really wanted to do was crash a party where Reasoner would be. “Excuse me, Mr. Reasoner,” I would have said, “I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your work on Sixty Minutes.” And then, as a photographer captured us shaking hands, I would add, “I’m glad to meet you. My name is Paul Krassner or something like that.” Instead, in 1984, when my one-person show opened, I decided to call it Attacking Decency in General. It ran for six months, and I received awards from the L.A. Weekly and Drama-Logue. That was my kind of revenge.

Decency is, of course, a sublimely subjective perception. And so arbitrary. In 1964, Lenny Bruce was found guilty of an “indecent performance” at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki granted Bruce a posthumous pardon -- but it was in the context of justifying the invasion of Iraq. “Freedom of speech is one of the great American liberties,” Pataki said, “and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terrorism.”

Earlier that year, when rock-star/activist Bono received an award at the Golden Globes ceremony, he said, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.” The FCC ruled that he had not violated broadcast standards, because his use of the offending word was “unfortunate,” but “isolated and nonsexual.” You see, it was merely an “exclamative” adjective. The FCC did not consider Bono’s utterance to be indecent because, in context, he obviously didn’t use the word “fucking” to “describe sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

But in 2004, Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during the halftime extravaganza at the Super Bowl. I had never seen the media make such a mountain out of an implant. A few years later, a CBS lawyer would argue that the network shouldn’t be fined $550,000 for Janet’s half-second “wardrobe malfunction” because it was fleeting, isolated and unauthorized. Nevertheless, that half-second of Nipplegate provided a perfect excuse to crack down on indecency during an election year. And so the FCC reversed their own decision, contending that Bono’s utterance of “fucking brilliant” was “indecent and profane” after all.

On the radio in 2003, the word “fuck” was censored out of such songs as “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back),” “A Toast to Men (Fuck the Men)” and “She Hates Me,” with a chorus of “She fuckin’ hates me.” Although the lyrics were bleeped in these songs, disc jockeys were forced to be creative when it came to announcing the titles. The FCC had declared “fuck” to be “one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language,” no matter the context. Conservative pundit Dennis Prager characterized the fight over “fuck” as central to civilization’s “battle to preserve itself.”

Then, in 2005, a ray of light. The FCC ruled that isolated use of words describing private body parts -- including “ass,” “penis” and “testicle” -- were not indecent if aired as scripted dialogue. As a self-taught semanticist, Lenny Bruce would’ve been intrigued by the changing attitudes toward the use of previously taboo words. He wouldn’t have been able to perform on TV his classic analysis of Las Vegas, because the heart of it was about the exploitation of “tits and ass.” But at the 2006 Emmy Awards, Helen Mirren and Calista Flockhart both proudly revealed that they were “ass over tits.”

“If a joke is just as funny saying ‘penis’ rather than ‘pecker,’ that’s fine,” said Greg Garcia about his NBC sitcom, My Name Is Earl, “but sometimes it’s funnier to say ‘pecker’ and that’s what you have to do because it’s our job to make people laugh.”

In a report on NPR about Voodoo Doughnuts, a shop in Portland, Oregon, the following was deleted for fear of complaints about indecency and bad taste: “The doughnut store is holding a ‘Cockfest’ contest next week. Contestants, all male, will see who can put the most doughnuts on their unit. Last year’s record was five. No pre-competition training -- that is, Viagra -- allowed.” And fast-food chain Jack in the Box was sued by rival Carl’s Jr. for implying in TV commercials that its Angus beef hamburgers are made with cow anuses.

At the request of defense lawyers, a Nebraska judge ordered a college student who was raped not to use the words “rape,” “victim,” “assailant” or “sexual assault” on the witness stand for fear of prejudicing the jury. Perhaps she could testify, “He stuck his thing in my thing against my will.” Next, can we expect George Carlin to introduce a new routine in his HBO special about “The five words you can’t say in court”?

A prudish school librarian tried to have an award-winning children’s book, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, banned because a ten-year-old orphan, who overhears someone say that he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog on the scrotum, thinks it sounded “like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

In March 2007, on International Women’s Day, a public high school in Westchester, New York suspended three 16-year-old girls for saying the word “vagina” during a reading from The Vagina Monologues. Principal Richard Leprine said the girls were punished for disobeying orders not to say the word, which he referred to on the school’s homepage as “specified material.” Writer Brigitte Schoen suggested calling the play Elastic Muscular Tube Monologues. And an episode of 30 Rock revolved around the use of a euphemism for “cunt.” That show was titled “The C-Word.”

At the 2007 Emmy Awards, when Katherine Heigl heard her name announced, she mouthed the word “shit.” It didn’t take a professional lip-reader to ascertain that. Late-night TV show hosts and sitcom characters use this “lip flap” method to say forbidden words because they want to be bleeped. The live studio audience laughs when they hear the uncensored version, and the home viewers figure out what’s being said as if they’re doing a dirty-crossword puzzle.

(I once published a cartoon in The Realist by an artist who knew the New Yorker wouldn’t touch it. The guest on a TV show was saying, “Frankly, I didn’t give adamn about it!” A family watching at home heard him say, “Frankly, I didn’t give a bleep about it!” Thought balloons showed that the mother was thinking “Fuck?” The father was thinking “Piss?” The grandmother was thinking “Shit?” And the child was thinking “Crap?”)

When Sally Field accepted the best dramatic actress award for her role in Brothers & Sisters, her acceptance speech concluded, “Let’s face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no g-[bleeped starting at this point]oddamned wars in the first place.” Ray Romano -- referring to Patricia Heaton, who had played his wife on Everybody Loves Raymond and now had a new sitcom partner, Kelsey Grammer on Back to You -- said, “Frasier is fucking my wife.” Bleeped, of course.

Not bleeped, but apologized for on-air: Diane Keaton on Good Morning America, fawning over Diane Sawyer’s plump lips, said she’d love to have had lips like that, because then she wouldn’t have had to “work on my fucking personality.” And Jane Fonda on the Today Show, talking about The Vagina Monologues, told Meredith Viera, “I was asked to do a monologue called ‘Cunt.’”

The award for hardcore irreverence without resorting to four-letter words goes to Kathy Griffin. When she received an Emmy for her reality show, My Life on the D-List, she declared, “A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. [Holding up the trophy] This award is my god now. Suck it, Jesus!” Entirely deleted.

In 2006, Isaiah Washington, a black actor on Grey’s Anatomy, referred to fellow cast member T. R. Knight as a “faggot.” Next January, at the Golden Globe Awards, he uttered the same slur while denying that he had used it previously. Faggot has become the second f-word in the evolution of euphemisms. Now, regarding the euphemism for fuck, “somebody said the f-word” is morphing into “somebody dropped the f-bomb.” Of course, a multi-bigoted person could easily say “no s-word, that m-f-n-f ought to try out a g-d-c,” meaning “no shit, that motherfucking nigger faggot ought to try out a goddam cunt.” But one thing you never hear anybody say is “the n-h-h-word.” It’s still okay just to say “nappy-headed ho.”

During the 2007 Muscular Dystrophy telethon on Labor Day, Jerry Lewis was doing a bit about imaginary family members, and he started to say to one of the show’s crew members that his son, “the illiterate faggot,” but stopped before reaching the g-letters, saying “no” instead, and he apologized the next day for his “bad choice of words.” He was not wearing the T-shirt that says “Marriage Is For Fags.” Nor, for that matter, the T-shirt that says “Fuck Yoga.” Or the one that says “Fuck Frank Gehry.” Or the T-shirt with a slogan “Fuck da Eagles” that Fox apologized for showing in prime time.

Camille Paglia dissed Al Gore for his “prissy, lisping, Little Lord Fauntleroy persona” that “borders on epicene.” Ann Coulter called Gore “a total fag” and John Edwards a “faggot,” explaining that the word “has nothing to do with gays -- it’s a schoolyard taunt, meaning ‘wuss’” -- which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, applies to men who are “unmanly.” She said that Bill Clinton’s promiscuity proves his “latent homosexuality,” and she wrote that the odds of Hillary Clinton “coming out of the closet” in 2008 were “about even money.” Hillary denied in The Advocate, a gay magazine, that she was a lesbian. Oh, yes, and John Gibson called Rosie O’Donnell a “fat lesbian vampire bat bully.”

At the Billboard Music Awards show in 2002, Cher responded to her critics with a minimalist “Fuck ‘em.” Next year on that same awards show, the relatively verbose Nicole Richie recounted her Simple Life experience: “Have you ever tried to get cowshit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.” The FCC ruled that Fox TV had violated their standards.

But, in what would turn out to be a pivotal decision, the FCC in 2005 reversed an indecency ruling against CBS’ The Early Show, determining that a Survivor contestant calling another player a “bullshitter” did not constitute indecency because it was used in the context of a news show.

I recalled that in 1984, when I was a guest on the Today Show, they wouldn’t reimburse my airfare or hotel bill, because “We’re a news show, not an entertainment show like Good Morning, America.” This, from Today, a program which once featured Willard Scott delivering the weather in Carmen Miranda drag and justifying it as entertainment. But, had NBC paid my way, it would’ve been “checkbook journalism.” Preceding me was a segment about private corporations running prisons. During my interview, Jane Pauley asked what kind of material I would include if I were publishing The Realist then (a year before I re-launched it). “Oh,” I replied, “I’d probably have a satire about private corporations running prisons.” I later learned that the Today Show had paid the expenses of the guest who was a corporate executive in the prison business. The line between news and entertainment was blurring.

In September 2007, a three-judge panel in a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Fox TV’s challenge against the FCC for indecent and profane language. During the live court hearing, C-Span viewers were treated to such uncensored words and phrases as “motherfucker,” “eat shit” and “fuck the USA.” Judge Peter Hall posed a hypothetical to FCC attorney Eric Miller: “This is being fed out by cable here, and presumably the broadcast media can pick it up. Let’s say they pick up a portion of [Fox lawyer Carter Phillips’] argument, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ are actually broadcast over six o’clock news tonight. Is that going to be the subject of FCC hand-slapping?”

Miller: “I think plainly not.”

Hall: “Because?”

Miller: “For the reasons stated in this very order with respect to The Early Show case. The commission has emphasized that it will exercise great restraint when it comes to news programs.”

Hall: “Let me expand the hypothetical, to where Fox -- wanting to air, so its viewers are reminded of exactly what’s at issue here -- pulls up the clips from the Billboard Music Awards and shows those two instances of Cher and Nicole Richie, as background or in conjunction with reporting on what’s happening in this courtroom here today.”

Miller: “To be indecent, the use of the language has to be patently offensive, which under the commission’s analysis requires that it be presented -- ”

Hall: “So how is a rebroadcast of the clip in the context of news any less offensive than it is in the Billboard Awards?”

Miller: “Because in that context, as the commission explained in The Early Show order, it’s not being presented to pander or titillate or for shock value. It’s being presented to inform viewers what the case is about.”

The court reasoned that, “In recent times, even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced ‘sexual or excretory organs or activities.’” The decision cited examples that had been set by the White House. It was acceptable to broadcast George Bush, captured by a live microphone, saying to Tony Blair while chewing on a mouthful of butter roll, “See, the irony is what they [the UN] need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.”

Similarly, it was acceptable to broadcast Dick Cheney, also caught by a live mike on the Senate floor, saying, in response to Patrick Leahy -- who complained about Halliburton profiteering on the Iraq war without competitive bidding for contracts, and about Bush’s judicial nominees -- ”Go fuck yourself.” This was on the same day that the senate passed legislation, 99-1, described as “the Defense of Decency Act.” The Washington Times reported that Cheney “responded with a barnyard epithet, urging Mr. Leahy to perform an anatomical sexual impossibility.”

Finally, the court reversed the FCC’s reversal in the Bono case, and suddenly he was, once again, not guilty of indecency. It will now be retroactively acceptable to broadcast Bono saying, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.” Otherwise, Governor Pataki would surely have revoked his posthumous pardon of Lenny Bruce.

Women and Porn

Along with everything else, the marketing of porn continues to evolve. In the course of an interview with Susie Bright, editor of The Best American Erotica, I asked, “What aspect of online porn do you like?”

“The democratic nature of it,” she replied, “that you can search and you shall find. That its basis was all free, a free exchange. That it brought such authentic, first person networking and connection with it. Before the commercialization of online porn, there were years and infinite relationships and conversations that had built up. This was before ‘spam’ was something besides a Hawaiian loaf with cloves.”

“And what aspect of online porn do you dislike?”

“The con job of it, like everywhere else. The dominance of big, boring, uncreative monoliths like the rest of mainstream entertainment. Blech.”

But adult films aren’t just for men any more. That’s so 1970s. One survey showed that about 16% of men who have access to the Internet at work acknowledged having seen porn while on the job. Eight percent of women said they had. Another survey indicated that 20% of men and 13% of women watch porn at work.

And what about the women who produce porn? Writer/director Candida Royalle confesses, “I have absolutely no time for my sex life any more -- I’m just working too much -- and I’m engaged.” Certainly those who participated in an AVN panel about porn have a vested interest in it. Shirley Isaacson, co-creater of Impulse TV, used to be with the Spice Network, where subscribers viewing habits were monitored.

“After the kids went to school, the buys came in very heavily,” she recalls. “Around noon they started coming in again. They stopped around four when the kids started coming home from school. So we know that women watch by themselves.”

Carol Queen, president of Good Vibrations, says, “Fifteen years ago you really had to give women a lot of encouragement. Today there is a sub-category of more diverse, sex-positive college-age women who wouldn’t think twice about liking porn. Women would like to know just why these people are fucking. They often love that they’re fucking, but they think that plot devices are fairly stupid, and they would like to see a little discernment in the way that the plot, if there is a plot at all, is set up.”

Susie Bright adds, “Men wouldn’t enjoy movies featuring men with limp dicks. Well, women don’t like dry pussies either. They like to see women obviously getting off. I can’t repeat that enough. What’s funny to me are the producers who make hot stuff that women would like, who don’t have a clue how to reach women about it. The production values [of female-ejaculation videos like Cum Rain Cum Shine and Flower’s Squirt Shower] are terrible, the men are red-faced clowns, but the women’s orgasmic raindown is irresistible. Every woman I know who sees them has to go excuse herself and beat off.”

Susie has reported on her interview with porn director Tristan Taormino, whose Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women won AVN’s “Best Anal Sex Release” award:

“Tristan has a knack for arguing with powerful men in the movie business. Spike Lee asked her to be his sex/dyke consultant for his movie, She Hate Me, a comedy about -- among other things -- predatory lesbians on the Baby-Making March. Spike would tell her things like, ‘I really don’t know any lesbians that well,’ and then she’d look around at everyone who was working in his office and blink -- ’Hello! Are you blind?’

“He was flabbergasted at what she suggested, that vaginal orgasms are not the primary way women orgasm. She fought sooooo hard to get some realistic female sexiness in this movie, and after I saw the film, I was impressed with the battles she won and biting my lip at the ones she lost. Thank god she got a real vibrator in. She lost the strap-on dildo debate, though.

“But from a ‘this-is-worth-noticing’ perspective, the sheer numbers of black, Latin, Asian and bi-racial dykes in this film singlehandedly smashes the cliché that lesbian is for white college girls. There are so many heretofore ‘unseen women’ traipsing in and out of the sperm donor’s apartment (this is the comedy part) that their very presence is inspiring.”

On the AVN panel, Tristan said about porn flicks, “It’s frustrating, because there’s a segment of the industry that is still hanging on to the fact that only a tiny percentage of their customers are women and couples. I want to see people who clearly love sex, I want to see them having a good time. I want to see a lot of amazing real female orgasms. I want to see toys. I want to see vibrators.”

According to historian Rachel Maines in The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, the vibrator was originally developed to perfect and automate a function that doctors had long performed for their female patients -- the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension through external pelvic massage, culminating in orgasm.

“Most of them did it,” said Dr. Maines, “because they felt it was their duty. It wasn’t sexual at all.”

Which brings us to Sherri Williams, a casualty of the war on pleasure. She was acquitted of the heinous crime of selling non-prescription vibrators. She had violated an Alabama statute, which bans the sale of vibrators and other sex toys. The law prohibited “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”

But the not-guilty verdict in her case was overturned by a 2-1 decision. In the Court of Appeals, the state’s attorney general defended the statute, arguing that, “a ban on the sale of sexual devices and related orgasm-stimulating paraphernalia is rationally related to a legitimate interest in discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex.” Rationally related? Moreover, he said, “There is no constitutional right to purchase a product to use in pursuit of having an orgasm.” There isn’t?

Ironically, the FDA has approved a device specifically designed to help women achieve orgasm, marking the first time that the federal government has licensed an aid for women with sexual dysfunction. “The Eros,” which uses the same basic principle as Viagra to promote sexual arousal -- stimulating blood flow to the genital area -- is a battery-operated vacuum attached to a suction cup that fits over the clitoris. The device, available only by prescription, costs $359. However, fingers, tongues and penises are all free. And still legal.

This country was founded by pioneers with a lust for freedom and by puritans with a disdain for pleasure. The problem is that those who are still burdened by that streak of anti-pleasure keep trying to impose unnecessary restrictive laws upon those who are pro-pleasure. What ever happened to “the pursuit of pleasure” mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence?

Ironically, journalist Gita Smith wrote in August 2007, “In Alabama, you can sell guns on any street corner but you can’t sell sex toys. In other words, we are free to blow ourselves up at will. We just can’t blow up a dolly with big red lips and openings in her lifelike vinyl self.

“Alabama is a vibrator-free state. Well, technically you can go across state lines and buy sex toys in Georgia and Tennessee and carry them home. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a gleam of interest in this controversial state law. At the very least, this case seems to be a restraint-of-trade case as much as anything else, since the devices are sold in all the neighboring states. I would like to be a fly on the wall when oral arguments are heard.

Justice Antonin Scalia: You say that the sale of the Twizzler-Twister should be banned?

Alabama Guy: Yes, Your Honor.

Justice Samuel Alito: And the Buzzer-Master?

Alabama Guy: Yes, that too.

Justice Clarence Thomas: What about the Coke can with the fake pubic hair?

Alabama Guy: That one doesn’t vibrate, so that one’s okay.

“There is, and always has been, a strong strain of paternalism among lawmakers down here. And that paternalistic attitude makes them believe that they are the keepers of the Moral Keys. Us wee folk need protecting from sexual pleasures derived from plastic thingies made in China.”

But, on the first Monday of October 2007, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Alabama’s ban on the sale of sex toys. A three-judge panel had upheld the guilty verdict of the appeals court on February 14. Happy Valentine’s Day to the roots of fascism in the private parts of America.

Sherri Williams, who faces a $10,000 fine and one year of hard labor, called the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the law “further evidence of religion in politics.” She plans to sue again, this time on First Amendment free speech grounds.

“My motto,” she says, “has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand. I refuse to give up.”

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