PRINT October 1989


Sex Panics

WHAT IS TO BE DONE? This summer’s escalating attacks on the autonomy of the National Endowment for the Arts have sent artists, arts administrators, and arts advocates reeling. The scramble is on to mount an effective line of defense. But the methods of attack have made defense uncommonly difficult—they are one part apparently rational circumspection about the use of taxpayers’ dollars to support “offensive” art, and one part irrational panic and hate-filled attacks on “deviant” sexuality.

The arts community has responded directly to the “rational” part, but has generally avoided the underlying, and far more destructive, panic and hate. Arts supporters have been on familiar ground when confronted with arguments about the need to restrict funding for unpopular art. Everyone knows what to say: art isn’t supposed to be tamely popular, it should provoke, question, enlighten; the public purse is best served by the peer review process, which places evaluation of art where it belongs, in the hands of artists, not crudely partisan politicians. But nearly everyone goes strangely mute when faced with completely unhinged hysterics over images of interracial homoeroticism, sadomasochism, and nude children.

This muteness is expected; it is enforced by the logic of a sex panic. Sex panics, witchhunts, and red scares are staples of American history. While often promoted by relatively powerless but vocal minorities hostile to cultural difference, they have been enthusiastically taken up by powerful groups in an effort to impose a rigid orthodoxy on the majority. In this context, “moral reforms” and the like have been the public-relations mask for what is in fact an abnegation of any responsibility to confront and address very real problems, i.e., poverty, militarism, sexism, racism. Often in these PR campaigns, words assume the reverse of their common meaning: liberation becomes chaos, desire becomes deviance, and dissent becomes the work of the devil.

In the grip of a sex panic, if you are accused of sexual “deviance,” your defensive strategies are limited to either confession and repentance or denials of personal “guilt,” both of which only reinforce the legitimacy of the attack (“I am not now, nor have I ever been . . . ”). If you refuse to deny or apologize, you are isolated and calumnies are heaped upon you. No one will defend your actions, only your right to due process and a good lawyer.

In the case of Congress and the NEA, sex-panic attacks on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had the predictable effect. The Corcoran canceled its scheduled exhibition of his photographs (denial), arts supporters in the House accepted a symbolic NEA funding cut as “punishment” for its support for the Mapplethorpe exhibition (apology), and members of the Senate voted overwhelmingly to restrict funding for sexualized imagery (the sex panic grows unchallenged). Volumes have been spoken about the value of the peer review process, about the importance of the abstract right to artistic freedom. But very few arts supporters have been willing to say much to defend sexual images per se, and this muteness about bodies and sexuality implicitly concedes that the particular images at issue are indefensible.

Initially, the art world was collectively flabbergasted at attacks on the NEA. After all, most Americans at least give lip service to the idea that the arts should be free from government restrictions. But this cultural consensus is relatively recent and, as we all have now been reminded, relatively fragile, especially with regard to sexual content.

From the 19th to the mid 20th century, conflicts over the regulation of sexual behavior and sexual representations intensified in legislatures and courtrooms. Social- and sexual-purity crusaders managed to pass layer after layer of repressive legislation penalizing prostitution, homosexuality, and pornography, and severely restricting child and adolescent sexuality. (For instance, juvenile detention homes established during the early 20th century were used to incarcerate teenage girls almost exclusively for sexual activity.) They were opposed with increasing effectiveness over time by civil libertarians and other advocates of cultural openness and sexual freedom. In the post–World War II period, a partial truce was achieved in the continuing conflicts through a slowly developed, contradictory, and hypocritical compromise consensus. In the arena of sexual behavior, antiprostitution and sodomy laws would remain on the books, but they would be only selectively enforced. (For example, prostitutes are usually arrested, not johns; and conservative politicians have been known to fuel their reelection campaigns by periodic sweeps of prostitute hangouts and gay bars, which are normally left alone, moral crusades aimed at clearing the streets of “undesirables.” In Indianapolis, for instance, during an election year in the early ’80s, police used hidden video cameras to monitor gay public spaces and made arrests based on the “evidence” collected.) In the arena of sexual representation, “obscenity” laws would be enforced, but works of “serious” artistic or literary merit would be exempted.

This precarious consensus has been periodically disrupted by both repressive panics (the persecution of gay people in the military and the government, the passage of “sexual psychopath” laws in the 1950s) and moves toward greater openness (the repeal of some sodomy laws, the formation of prostitutes’ rights groups in the ’60s and ’70s). But the consensus remained substantially intact right up to the 1980s, when conflict broke out all over the place. Early-’80s right-wing hysteria over pornography was fanned, ironically, by a feminist antipornography crusade (which transmuted the necessary critique of sexism in pornography into a campaign for the legal suppression of sexual imagery). But their activities energized civil libertarian and feminist oppositions, which managed to defuse the repressive agenda of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in the mid ’80s. Antigay hysteria fanned by fear of AIDS resulted in an indefensible indifference to human suffering during the latter part of the decade, but also fueled a revitalized activism among gay people and advocates of humane health care.

The result of all the renewed conflict is that the postwar compromise consensus is closer than ever before to a complete breakdown. And so the moral conservavotives have felt free to do what the art world thought they wouldn’t dare. They hove directed their anti-porn, antigay fervor at the “high,” the “respectable" arts—the stuff shown in museums rather than adult bookstores. They don’t have the power successfully to advocate the outright banning of artwork or the prosecution of artists, but they have hit upon a strategy used with some success by antiabortion activists: the defunding of materials they object to, and the intimidation of arts institutions into self-censorship to protect their bottom lines. Their tactic is to inaugurate o sex panic, and arts advocates are learning quickly how the logic plays itself out. The restrictions don’t even have to pass into law to have the desired effect—the Corcoran cancellation was a preemptive measure.

Of course, it is not purely accidental that the conservatives hit upon Robert Mapplethorpe as a primary target for a sex panic. Mapplethorpe’s work exposes the contradiction and hypocrisy at the heart of the postwar consensus. His images cross the designated boundaries, appropriating images from the stigmatized zone of “pornography” and carting them across the lines into the free zone of “art.” Mapplethorpe’s strategy was radically to disrupt the belief that images of some bodies and practices are lit only for squalid, hidden, or persecuted surroundings. Mapplethorpe is certainly not the only artist to have created sexually explicit imagery, or appropriated “pornographic” conventions. But he has moved much farther than most others into the mainstream institutions of culture, partly because his images are of such high formal quality and conventional presentation, and partly because he was a well-connected white male. He got far enough into the mainstream to cause conservatives to fear that he was posthumously succeeding in a strategy of legitimation of the practices he represented. Or, as Walter Annenberg put it in the New York Times, “[He] went too far, trying to justify his own inclinations.” He went far enough, anyway, to elicit the sort of hysterical attacks that had been confined, earlier in the decade, to less artistically respectable representations. Judith Reisman, a former feminist but now right-wing anti-porn campaigner associated with the American Family Association, put it all rather starkly in the Washington Times. She describes Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude and partially nude children, not engaged in any sexual activity (for example, Honey, 1976), as “child pornography” and “photographic assault and rape.” She claims that his representation of his own rectum with bullwhip inserted “encourages” the “sadistic acts, which, on the evidence, facilitate AIDS.”

Reisman’s charges neatly illustrate the favored tactics of 1980s anti-porn attacks. Consensual sadomasochism is equated with violence, anal eroticism is damned as the cause of AIDS, and any depiction of the bodies of children is blasted as child abuse. Public outrage at real violence, real suffering, and widespread abuse is diverted away from substantive analysis and action into a censorship campaign.

The charge of child pornography has been the most successful of all these tactics. The widely respected sex-education book Show Me was suppressed under child pornography laws by the early ’80s. In 1988, Virginia artist Alice Sims was arrested, and her children removed to a foster home—police considered her personal snapshots of her naked daughter, studies for a series of drawings called “Water Babies,” to be evidence of child abuse. And when Broadway actress Colleen Dewhurst testified in opposition to censorship before the Meese Commission on Pornography, she was asked if she or her theater organization therefore supported child pornography.

Attacks like these cannot be fended off by reasoned appeals to the First Amendment or the NEA’s peer review process. Moral conservatives will push their opportunity to erode the postwar consensus on the regulation of sexuality in a rightward direction, extending content restrictions on images from the adult bookstores into the museums. If they can frighten arts supporters into silence about sex, they will be encouraged to continue. To secure creative freedom against the onslaught, arts activists must seize the opportunity to push back in the other direction. The time has come to argue forcefully for the complete deregulation of consensual sexuality and its representations. Nothing less will move us forward.

Lisa Duggan is a writer and historian living in New York.