Misplaced curiosity

Thursday, July 1st, 2004

Sex club bombshell! Behind the yuck-k-k was the guffaw — another self-righteous politician is caught, sort of, with his pants down. And the press carves another notch on the haft of its mighty pen.

The Chicago Tribune, my local newspaper and in fact my employer, bless its heart, got the ball rolling when it sued for the unsealing of Illinois Republican senatorial candidate Jack Ryan’s divorce records and found enough lurid details therein to proclaim a scandal.

Indeed, a bombshell. That was the key word in the banner headline the paper ran over the story informing the citizens of Illinois that Ryan had asked his then-wife on several occasions to go with him to a “sex club,” whatever that is, and, well, have sex. She said no.

Yeah, one of the places had whips and cages hanging from the ceiling, and on one occasion the sex would have been in the presence of strangers — but still, this is a bombshell? There was no abuse, no violence, just an alleged kinky suggestion and some garden variety male jerkiness.

My dismay at this unfolding story, which climaxed a few days ago in Ryan’s ouster from the ticket (for “embarrassing the Republican party”), begins with the newspaper’s war terminology, considering how many literal bombshells it and the rest of the mainstream media have ignored or downplayed in the last few years.

They couldn’t bring themselves to investigate the bald-faced lies of the Bush administration that led us into war, report the details of such atrocities as the killing of 45 wedding guests a month and a half ago in Makr al-Deeb, or dig seriously into the ghastly health consequences of widespread use of depleted-uranium ammo, but when it comes to sex, the Puritans of the press are there for us, unsealing records and dishing dirt.

And in the uptight “family” milieu of the mainstream media, where four-letter words are still taboo, sex that makes the news (Janet Jackson’s breast, Bill Clinton’s definition of “is”) quickly combusts into scandal.

No matter pretty much every adult on the planet has sex occasionally, or thinks prurient thoughts, or lusts, covets and watches porn, when we learn that someone else has done it, we’re shocked, shocked, and can’t wield our pointer fingers fast enough.

And now, of course — oh, this is a surprise — the predator dogs are growling. They want to open John Kerry’s sealed divorce records. Presuming he has nothing criminal to hide, he’d probably be smart if he unsealed them himself and addressed the nation with candor about their contents.

I say this uneasily, knowing it’s preposterous and unfair — having to submit to a media strip search if you want to run for high office — but recent history has shown the disastrous consequences of stonewalling and brittle denial. A pol who gets it over with quickly and fearlessly will earn more respect than censure and perhaps help free the nation from the grip of its crippling sexual denial.

Consider the explosive growth of the porn industry. It’s now a $10 billion-a-year business, according to ABCNews.com, bigger than all the major sports combined and no longer at the margins of American life. Big players in porn distribution include General Motors, AOL Time Warner, Marriott and AT&T. Americans rent 750 million porn videos a year and can surf among 100,000 porn sites on the Internet. Lucky us!

Yet, like the Catholic Church, we cling to our façade of mass rectitude, leaving ourselves vulnerable to embarrassment and shame for doing what everyone else does. Remember when Jocelyn Elders lost her job for daring to recommend that schools “teach” masturbation?

President Clinton, who would have benefited greatly by learning to practice discreet auto-stimulation during his career in politics, caved to the masturbation-makes-you-blind crowd and canned his surgeon general.

Violence is a moral issue; sex is not, unless, of course, it’s violent or exploitative. The problem is, a nation in denial and unable to acknowledge healthy, loving sexuality in a public way is at the mercy of its cravings and doomed to sex in the shadows.

Now the media are in there with us, looking for scandal, shining their beacon of misplaced curiosity.