For most people, the word “censorship” probably brings to mind what’s sardonically referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” Yet censorship is prevalent in the U.S. as well; the only difference is that instead of being political, American censorship is usually sexual. We could make all sorts of arguments for why this type of censorship isn’t a bad thing, or is even a necessary thing, but it would be dismissive of us not to recognize its inherently Victorian treatment of sexuality — a mindset that results in palpable consequences for our society as a whole.
These past few months in particular have presented us with a couple of great examples of the strange phenomenon of sexual censorship in America. In late September, pop singer Katy Perry was filmed for the children’s show Sesame Street, only to have the segment banned by parents who were outraged over her cleavage. But along with some others, I was simply tickled (like Elmo) by this whole ordeal. Maybe it’s just that I’m liberal, but I wouldn’t have been half as offended by Perry’s appearance — a lime green strapless dress and a goofy bride-like headpiece — as I would have by that of the average teenager at the mall.
Then came October, which not only marked the well-known and well-received breast cancer awareness month, but another flabbergasting example of sexual censorship. Twitter (which is also rumored to censor trending topics) used asterisks in place of the word “breast,” even though the word was being used in a purely informational, non-sexual way. I assume Twitter censors all references to certain body parts simply to avoid offending more bashful readers with tweets that are suggestive or outright vulgar, but I still question even the necessity of that — I doubt the sterile, anatomically correct word “breast” has ever been used sexily. Ever.
Just from observing the trend, I can only imagine what November will bring.
I’m not going to say that all sexual censorship is wrong, that we should all prance about in the nude every day and celebrate our sexuality constantly. If a PG-13 or R-rated movie is being aired on daytime television, some of the racier scenes will need to be edited, and nude scenes may be censored. This is ostensibly so that children, who might be watching without parental supervision for whatever reason, don’t receive a less-than-standard lesson in sexual education.
But in other cases, the censorship seems entirely arbitrary. In 2007, PBS aired a documentary entitled “China from the Inside,” which showed scenes of a woman dying from cancer. Incredibly, her breasts were censored. Presumably, I’d imagine that, when it comes to kids watching a recording of a cancer victim in her final stages, seeing breasts would be the least of my concerns as a parent.
The problem manifests itself outside of media censorship as well. Women everywhere have worked to ensure that public breastfeeding remains a legal right, yet many of us would still feel uncomfortable witnessing this act, regardless of how natural, normal or necessary it truly is. This societal inability to recognize that breasts, like all other anatomical parts, can also serve a functional purpose, speaks to a failure in cultivating a healthy, positive approach to sexuality.
Rather than accepting or embracing, our approach to sexuality is borderline fearful of it. Our inability to contextualize — this across-the-board censorship of breasts, regardless of whether they appear in a sex scene or in a health documentary — indicates that we approach all nudity as erotic and wrong. We all (including children) know that women have breasts, but by insisting that they be kept — wait for it — under wraps, we’re creating a sense of taboo that’s unnecessary and potentially detrimental.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes sexual and reproductive health and education, the U.S. faces a teenage pregnancy rate that’s eight times that of the Netherlands. Most of us only know the Netherlands as host country to the hedonistic paradise of Amsterdam, but perhaps there’s something to be said for their infamous secularity.
A 2000 article by BBC News details that children in the Netherlands are presented with an open-minded approach to sexuality, with sexual education beginning for children as young as six years old. Perhaps as a result, the Netherlands experiences the lowest rate of teen pregnancy, in sharp contrast with Britain, which experiences the highest out of the European countries. As one Dutch interviewee suggested, that shares a correlation with the British’s “prudish” version of sex education.
Perhaps this is all simply a reiteration of what we already knew: that forbidden fruit is just all the more tempting.
Sexuality should not be vilified as something abominable or disgusting, nor should it be something that incites feelings of shame. Instead, as it is a natural part of our lives, it should be recognized as such and approached with a healthy attitude, if not an embracing one. Discussion and openness should be encouraged on this front.
So, I never thought I’d ever say this, but here’s to you, Katy Perry.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.