Sex as Media Content

Study Preview Despite the risk of offending some people’s sensitivities, the media have long trafficked in sexual content. Undeniably, there is a market. The media have fought in the U.S. courts for their right to carry and distribute sexually explicit content and to consenting adults who wish to access it.

Learning Objectives By the end of this module you will be able to:

  1. 7.5.1 Outline current issues in the adult entertainment industry
  2. 7.5.2 Differentiate obscenity and pornography
  3. 7.5.3 Describe current juvenile obscenity laws

7.5.1 Adult Entertainment 1. Objective: Outline current issues in the adult entertainment industry

For generations, sexually oriented content has been created, acquired, and distributed by the U.S.’ mass media. The demand for it has been evident from the moment the courts overruled government restrictions and the popularity of banned books like James Joyce’s 1930 classic Ulysses soared. The fact that firm data on sexual content’s profitability are hard to find is partly because definitions of sexual content are so subjective. While Ulysses wouldn’t be categorized as a sex book by most accounts, its release prompted a federal import ban.

More recently, Fifty Shades of Grey, billed an “erotic romance,” was e-published in 2011 and acquired by Vintage publishers in 2012.

It sold over 125 million copies worldwide with unprecedented sales in the United Kingdom. Two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, were published in 2012.

There is much debate about the total revenues for adult entertainment. Some estimates put the total sales for adult fare at $8 billion to $10 billion annually for the U.S. sex industry. A major part of this is media content. In 2001 a Forbes article cited critic Frank Rich, who put porn industry revenue at $10 billion, but other sources have been skeptical. A recent NBC article conceded that adult entertainment had some rough years; finally, the author maintained that it has begun to stabilize.

About 8,000 adult movie titles a year are released. Pay-per-view adult movies on satellite and cable television generate almost $600 million in revenue a year. Today the major purveyors of adult content include Time Warner’s HBO and Cine max, which pipe late-night adult content to multiple-system cable operators like Time Warner. Meanwhile, satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network offer porn to their subscribers, and big-name hotel chains pipe adult movies on demand into rooms.

Aside from conservative groups and other laymen who decry obscenity and picket vendors of adult content, there are scholars who have researched and expressed concerns about its social and psychological impact. One area of concern for scholars and lay observers alike is pornography, which is, according to law, is distinguished from obscenity. Although adult pornography is not illegal feminists and others see it as degrading to women, encouraging their exploitation and abuse.

There are also concerns about adult entertainment’s exploitation of and effect on vulnerable minors. When this entertainment involves child pornography, it is strictly illegal and a criminal activity. For a further discussion of obscenity and pornography from a legal perspective, see below.

In some cases, parental controls may be effective in monitoring children’s exposure to adult content, but they are not foolproof and additional vigilance is warranted.

7.5.2 Decency Requirements 1. Objective: Differentiate obscenity and pornography

Most media companies have found comfort in the definition of sexually acceptable content that has evolved in free expression cases in the U.S. courts. Today the courts make a distinction between obscenity, which is not allowed, and pornography, which the courts find to be protected by the First Amendment guarantee, not only of free expression, but also of adult access to other people’s expressions.

How are obscenity and pornography different? Since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Miller v. California, the courts have followed the Miller Standard. In effect, sexual content is protected from government bans unless the material fails all of these tests:

Would a typical person applying local standards see the material as appealing mainly for its sexually arousing effect?

Is the material devoid of serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?

Is the sexual activity depicted offensively, in a way that violates a state law that explicitly defines offensiveness?

The Miller Standard protects a vast range of sexual content. Only material for which the answer is “yes” to all three Miller questions can be censored by government agencies.

The Miller Standard notwithstanding, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined CBS $550,000 for the Janet Jackson breast flash during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The producer, CBS’s Viacom cousin MTV, called the incident a “wardrobe malfunction.” About 89 million people were tuned in. Some complained.

More recently, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

In February 2015, a film adaptation was released. Although the film franchise was not critically acclaimed, it did not appear to have had a negative impact on its sales. In 2015, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian was published.

The rationale for the rating—“[contains] strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and language”—was unclear against the typical standards. What struck Hollywood was the phrase “unusual behavior.” Critics thought the phrase was a lighter way to suggest the more adult themes that were very explicit in the book. In considering Hollywood’s Miller standard, some claim that Fifty Shades of Grey has no place among the “greats” based on its lack of merits. However, Ethan Noble, chairman of MP Consulting, implied that given the content of the book, it was most likely a challenge to get the movie to a rating that would reach the fans in a similar magnitude as the novel had.

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