NOTIONS: Sex makes us more squeamish than violence

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Two decades ago, while creating an A I D S – p r eve n t i o n campaign for Connecticut’s state health department, I became a “sexpert.”

No, I didn’t become an expert on sex itself (at least no more than your average married fellow). Nor did I conduct formal sex research (I leave that to the Kinsey Institute).

Instead, I became an expert on how we Americans, Puritan descendents that many of us are, resist communicating about sex, and what our discomfort costs us in unwanted pregnancy, disease and death.

Besides my paying gig, my interest in sex communication was heightened by a federal government AIDS brochure mailed to every household in America. Not wanting to offend anyone, the piece went through scores of drafts and ended up saying nothing meaningful or memorable to anyone.

After I became a sexpert, I was asked to lecture at some local universities. Once word spread about my AV materials, my lecture became pretty popular.

To contrast America’s sexual squeamishness with attitudes in other Western nations, I showed two segments of film.

First, I screened a scene from the movie “Summer of ’42.” It’s a scene in which a pubescent lad named Hermie walks into a drugstore seeking condoms.

The condoms are behind the counter, so Hermie piddles and diddles, asking the pharmacist first for ice cream, then for sprinkles and finally for rubbers.

The wise-but-jaded pharmacist asks, “What kind?”

Hermie, not knowing how to reply, says “Oh, the usual.”

The druggist scoffs.

Then I showed a segment from a Scandinavian public television broadcast.

This sex-education film followed a beautiful blond woman as she arrived home one afternoon, got intimate with her man, then slipped a condom on him. Because this was a how-to film, it showed everything up close and personal.

Once the condom was in place, the two of them, in full nude view, made love. Throughout the film, a narrator talked about the importance of condoms in preventing disease and unwanted pregnancy.

After I’d shown these clips to my sometimes-red-faced audiences, I presented statistics on HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and teen-pregnancy rates in various countries.

In the United States, where sex education is often taboo, we ranked right up there with many Third World nations. In Scandinavia, where sex education is more prevalent and candid, disease and teen pregnancy rates were a fraction of our own.

I recalled this lesson a few weeks ago when I went to dinner with my teen-age sons and a friend. During a discussion of current events, our conversation turned to the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

After complaints from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and others, the enormously popular game had just lost its “Mature 17-plus” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). It had not only been slapped with an “Adults Only” label, but also was being yanked from store shelves by major retailers.

What got our collective, dinner-table goat wasn’t the stricter rating, however, (in our view, it deserved it), but the cause of that rating.

Before this month’s revelations about sexually explicit “San Andreas” content, the ESRB had concluded that it would be fine for my 17-year-olds to purchase and play a Grand Theft Auto series that features carjackings, beatings and murders of prostitutes, gang violence, drug use, nudity, foul language and more. (I had concluded otherwise).

But then, a hidden section of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” was discovered. By downloading a “modification,” gamers could play a game within the game-one in which the player controls a male character having different kinds of sex with various female characters, all measured by power and pleasure meters.

Political hell broke loose, sending signals that graphic violence is acceptable while graphic sex is not.

This “Grand Theft Auto” conversation led our friend to ask whether my sons had had sex education in high school. Their reply: Not really.

Instead, they said, they’d had an abstinence class in middle school. They said even that required parental permission. They said the course was long on “Thou Shalt Not” and short on “How Things Work.” They said it had a silly name (TLC for “True Life Choices”) and rules (“Don’t cross the underwear line”) that sounded juvenile to an MTV, bump-and-grind generation. They said many of their classmates snickered.

By watching TV, seeing movies, reading magazines and, yes, playing video games, my 17-year-old sons have witnessed thousands of shootings, stabbings, muggings, beatings, assaults and other acts of violence. They’ve also seen and heard sexy women, sexy men, sexy couples and sexual innuendo through every medium on the planet.

But because they’ve grown up in America, my sons know far more about bullets entering bodies, triggering agony and ending existence than they do about penises entering vaginas, bringing joy and conceiving life.

When it comes to sex and violence, wouldn’t we be better off with more understanding of the former and less glorification of the latter?

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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