Thursday, July 9, 2009



Jeremih’s single “Birthday Sex” should have been just another R&B song about a young man’s assumed romantic prowess. When Def Jam released the single in April, audiences responded with enthusiasm: It went to #1 on the R&B charts and #4 on the pop charts. It fit the “urban love anthem” mold: A man does not buy gifts for his girlfriend on her birthday, so he gives her “birthday sex” as a replacement. And true to the smug, sexually conceited male caricature that so often appears in the R&B canon, Jeremih assures his listener that his sex is better than any material gift.

This is not an uplifting message. In fact, it is laughable. But I am not writing today to mock “Birthday Sex.” I am writing today because mainstream radio stations bleep out the word “sex” when they play the song.

Since when did “sex” become a word “bad” enough to warrant censorship? We all know that the Federal government has power to prevent us from hearing a few “really bad” words during mainstream broadcasts. See, e.g, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978). But those “really bad words” are familiar vulgarities, colorful English phrases that go straight to the unrefined truth about sex and the body. We know we are not allowed to hear the words “fuck,” “shit,” “asshole” and “cock” on everyday broadcasts because those words cut to the linguistic quick about sex, excrement and “private parts.” Popular morality teaches us to revile these things, so law provides society a way to protect our ears from them. For better or worse, these traditionally “bad words” have real rhetorical punch. Their strength lies in their unabashed directness. Their strength lies in their pure Germanic derivation. No doctor or scientist mulled a Latin equivalent for these words. They are brutally honest, English core words. And to some extent, that is one reason why popular morality reviles them: Our society has an uneasy relationship with sex and the body, so it recoils from overly honest expressions about them.

But the traditional reasons for banning “bad words” do not apply to the word “sex.” “Sex,” unlike “fuck” or “shit,” is a Latin-based medical coinage, not a vulgarity. When people honestly talk about sexual conduct, they generally do not use medical terms. They use tried-and-true Germanic vulgarities. They do not say: “May we now engage in sexual activity?” In much the same way, they do not use medical coinages when referring to basic bodily functions. People do not say: “I must defecate now.” Latin does not tell the same story as German. Every English speaker knows that “shit” is a more honest word than “defecate.” Yet it ruffles feathers precisely because it so honestly describes “a coarse bodily function.” “Defecate” distances the listener from the body. That is why it is permissible to broadcast “defecate” during a daytime radio show, but not “shit.” The same reasoning should apply to “sex;” it is a medical coinage that distances the listener from the honest truth about sexual contact between human beings. In this case, however, the usual reasoning does not apply.

Why the inconsistency here? You would think that using the word “sex” instead of its coarse Germanic cousins would satisfy the decency police. After all, it purifies the language from uncomfortable honesty. “Sex” inevitably will offend fewer prudes than “fuck,” even though both words refer to precisely the same activity. But in this case, the censors bleeped out “sex,” too. In a way, I pity Jeremih. He tried his best to write a sensual song without using “traditional vulgarities” because he knew those words would be censored. Yet despite his efforts to use satisfactory words, the censors muffled him anyway.

I can only explain this new hostility toward the word “sex” by positing that popular morality does not like sexual conduct in the abstract. Although doctors created the word “sex” to make it easier to discuss sexual conduct without using uncomfortable Germanic vulgarities, apparently the subterfuge isn’t working anymore. The subject matter is apparently so uncomfortable that even Latin circumlocution can no longer suppress the shame. What can explain this if not a profound discomfort with anything concerning sexual contact between human beings? The word “sex” was supposed to disguise the raw, bodily truth about sexual conduct. It is deliberately uncolorful, undescriptive and unmemorable. But now, it is just as bad as the subject matter it was intended to conceal.

This is not just censorship. It is sloppy, incompetent censorship. A good censor has consistent reasons for suppressing certain words. For thirty years, censors at the F.C.C. consistently applied the “traditional vulgarity” test to determine whether a word “could be heard” on the airwaves. That test protected young ears from “overly honest descriptions” about sex and bodily function while preserving some “decorum” during daytime broadcasts. The test was exquisitely formal and categorical: Either the word was on the “dirty words” list or it was not. But now, the F.C.C. has scrapped the categorical approach. “Sex” was never on a “dirty words” list; it is a euphemism calculated to avoid using a word on that list. Yet now it is just as bad as the words it was intended to circumvent.

This is censorship by moral fiat, not reasoned analysis. I argue that such an approach disparages government’s obligation under the First Amendment to “make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” The Supreme Court has steadily eroded our right to speak as we please under the Constitution. But it has nonetheless always reminded government that it cannot drive certain words from discourse without compelling justifications based in reason. See, e.g, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971). The Court said that driving “traditionally vulgar words” from discourse could be justified because it was important to “protect children” and “unwilling listeners” from coarse language. F.C.C. v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726, 748-750 (1978). But it never said anything about words that are not “traditionally vulgar,” “shocking” or “coarse.” Viewed linguistically, the word “sex” is neither vulgar nor coarse. It is not “shocking,” either. In fact, it is supposed to take the “shock” out of traditionally “vulgar” expressions. Its capacity to give offense lies solely in the subject matter to which it refers, not the honest tone in which it describes the subject matter. By any test ever used to judge “decency” under the First Amendment, “sex” clearly passes. It is therefore shocking that the F.C.C. now decides to rewrite the law to censor a word that violates no legal standard.

If we allow the F.C.C. to drive the word “sex” from discourse, how are we supposed to “properly” talk about sex? What about shows like “Sex in the City” or songs like “Sexual Healing?” Those titles contain the word “sex.” What about a broadcast discussing “sexually transmitted diseases” or “sex therapy?” What about the countless advertisements for products addressing “sexual dysfunction” and “normal sex lives?”

In short, the word “sex” has evolved into an “acceptably neutral” means to express human sexuality without offending the decency police. We rely on it to discuss a profoundly important aspect of our lives. If it suddenly becomes as “bad” as the other “dirty words,” how are we supposed to discuss it? This may sound extreme, but we are on that path. The F.C.C. censored the word “sex” in Jeremih’s song. For all concerns and purposes, government decided that we should not hear the word because it was somehow “bad” or “offensive.” Yet “sex” is not a “bad word.” It was invented in order not to give offense. It is ironic that authorities now seek to suppress a euphemism.

I strongly resent any government attempt to control language. Our Constitution grants American citizens a broad right to speak freely. We should only tolerate restrictions on our language for the most compelling reasons. Moral awkwardness about sex does not even remotely rise to that level. Yet if we do not express our disapproval about censorship when it happens, we tacitly certify government’s power to regulate our language. That is why it is important to oppose censorship whenever it appears. “Birthday Sex” may be stupid, juvenile and absurd. But if we don’t say something to oppose government’s attempt to outlaw a perfectly legitimate word in our language, we empower government to take even more steps to muzzle us. In this case, government has applied its own moral queasiness to suppress a neutral word we all have a right to use. Moral queasiness is no justification for ignoring the First Amendment, no matter how many supersensitive mothers call to complain.

America has deep and fundamental social problems with sex. But those problems should not be allowed to impact our rights under the First Amendment. Censorship should worry us all, no matter where it appears. Our language existed before the Constitution and before the government. It is ours. As long as we do not use it to injure others or foment violence, government has no right to trespass against it. When government targets our language, we all lose expressive possibilities. Without expressive possibilities, we do not truly enjoy our rights as individuals. That is why I detest ungrounded censorship. It is not just an attack on the speaker’s expressive powers. It is an attack on us all.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Loved this post, and agree completely. I find a lot of the censorship that goes on is unnecessary and unwanted, but this takes it to a whole new level. Like you said there are countless examples of the word sex being used in radio and TV programs through the past 40 years, and yet now they choose to censor it.

Just seems to go along with other inconsistencies, such as why certain shows are allowed to use words, but others are not. Just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Kind of goes along with why I am allowed to hear ass, but not asshole. Seems like the same basic area of the body to me!