On my way home for Christmas, I found myself nestled in one of the awkward, plastic bucket seats at gate A13 of the SeaTac Airport, watching people as I waited to board my plane. Around me milled a typical assortment of holiday airport patrons— a hodge-podge of people young and old, representing a wide array of background, belief, and lifestyle. The atmosphere was frantic with communal anticipation and excitement about looming family gatherings.
Cozied in the heart of this bustling travel frenzy sat a man with a magazine. Reading a magazine is a normal activity for someone waiting to board an airplane, but something stood out about this situation. On the cover of his magazine was a naked woman, exposed and provocatively displayed.
This man appeared shameless, but not in a prideful way, and seemingly unaware of the social statement he was making. I was not sure what to think. Seeing this man and his magazine sharing a private and conceivably intimate moment, ensconced in a space as public and security-ridden as an international airport, raised all kinds of questions about the overlap between private and public spheres, culture and sexuality, and my own assumptions about what people are and are not comfortable with in regard to sexual culture. How does sexuality traverse the boundaries between public and private? What are appropriate public representations of sexuality, and how do individual liberties intersect with public policy, regulations, and laws?
“Porn is private and public at the same time, and it’s so tied in with culture,” said Kat Bula, a Fairhaven student who is incorporating a study of sexual culture into her concentration. “By creating a body of work, (the porn industry) is creating this fantasy world that has specific rules… and those rules could be anything. But most porn looks the same— there are stock characters and scenes.”
In Bula’s opinion, the porn industry has constructed a public space in which sex and sexuality have common, recognizable rules and patterns, albeit unrealistic, and often suggestive of violence and the subjugation of women. “On the other hand,” noted Bula, “porn is private. It is kept from children. It ends up being a space with freedom to discuss things [about sexuality] we can’t discuss and explore in public.”
In a phone conversation with a sergeant from the Bellingham Police Department, I learned that although it is illegal to promote or display pornographic images in public, so long as one is not actively attempting to force another person to join in their activity, looking at porn in public is completely legal. I had previously assumed that an individual’s sexual tendencies, desires, and behaviors were by and large confined to the privacy of their own lives, and not typically shared with the general public. Clearly the lines between private and public, acceptable and taboo, are more blurred than I once thought.
One is entitled to privacy and freedom of sexual expression in one’s own home, but when one’s personal conduct could be offensive and unnerving to other people occupying a public space, what is acceptable and just? What is an individual’s right to privacy in a public place? How do individual freedoms and liberties relate to public good? It is the classic American conundrum: how to uphold the constitutional rights of individual citizens, in the context of a society exploding with conflicting ethics and belief systems.
“A lot of people consider porn as a form of violence against women, and violence against children,” said Bula. “People have so many different responses to pornography; it’s inflammatory.” But as an industry making approximately 12 billion dollars per year in the United States alone, it is no secret that porn flourishes in prolific fashion.
Sexually explicit images are as old as images themselves. The question is not so much the validity of pornography as the appropriateness of bringing it into the public sphere. “Porn could be used to start a social dialogue,” said Bula. As thoughts about pornography extend directly to topics like sex, violence, morality, gender, and artistic merit, it could be an excellent launching pad for engaging important and challenging questions. “But,” she added, “sitting in an airport reading a porn magazine is not starting a dialogue.”
If this man was intending to make a social statement, would perceptions or acceptance of his actions change? What does this situation say about sexuality and privacy? What should be kept private, and what should be made public? How does publicizing something change the nature of that thing? What does privacy mean in the information age?
The current administration’s intention to maintain Homeland Security has led to actions with obvious disregard for personal privacy, as demonstrated by the recent admission of the Bush-approved warrantless wire taps, for people as presumably innocent of criminal action as Mother Teresa. In the name of public safety, individual privacy has become something of an endangered species. Is reading a porn magazine in public any wonder or shock, given that in reality, one’s personal activities in the “private” realm could very well be monitored, judged, and persecuted, with no just cause? As political actions and information technologies subtly erase the lines between public access to personal information, and privacy of individual lives, must the lines of what is socially acceptable and socially outcast be equally redrawn?