The Breast That Changed the World
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

February 24, 2004

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In my living room in New Zealand, half-way through last week's episode of the banal, overhyped The Osbournes, it dawned on me what was so weird: you could hear every word. Watch the same show in the US and you need to lip-read your way round the almost continuous beeping-out of bad words.

The same day I read yet another attack on Janet Jackson. Across America her supposedly sexually explicit breast baring has unleashed a torrent of moral effluvia. Book-ended with the "outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury" Super Bowl viewers were said to have suffered was the so-called scandal being fanned round John Kerry, the Democratic presidential hopeful with the allegedly sleazy past.

It seems America just can't get enough of moral outrage. It's as if a new spirit of moral conservatism is sweeping the country that goes far beyond a few outraged citizens complaining away the rights of others to listen to the Osbournes swear and curse.

Take the furore over the morning-after pill, for instance. In America you need a prescription to get the medication that is 95 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy and is available over the counter in most Western countries, including New Zealand.

Opponents of the drug, including some members of Congress, objected to last week's application to end selling restrictions, arguing such freedoms would encourage promiscuity and risky sex among younger people.

Meanwhile abortion is also under attack. The US Justice Department is demanding that at least six hospitals turn over hundreds of patient medical records on certain abortion procedures. Aside from the remarkable intrusion into doctor-patient confidentiality, the request reignites the fears expressed at the time of the passing of the emotively misnamed "partial birth abortion law". At the time, opponents of the law argued that banning the procedure, used in fewer than 1 per cent of abortions and exclusively because of medical complications, would be exploited by lawmakers to broaden restrictions on abortion, with the ultimate goal of dismantling a woman's right to chose.

The conservative religious influence in the United States is gradually extending to all spheres of sexual life. Even condoms are under scrutiny. In Maryland, it is illegal to sell condoms from vending machines (except in bars), while all vending machine sales are banned in Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Idaho and Wisconsin.

On the marriage front, with gay couples rushing to legalize their unions before laws change, it is expected that President Bush will soon formally announce support for a constitutional amendment to deny marriage rights to same-sex and unmarried couples. While ACLU reports the pro-marriage amendment supported by the White House is much broader than advertised, with hidden clauses that will not only ban civil unions but completely deny all government benefits to unmarried couples, gay or straight.

Backing all these fundamental alterations to the fabric of American society is a change in the way scientific information surrounding sexual activity is presented.

Valuable information in areas related to condoms, HIV and abortion is being deleted from Government websites. Last year a group of 22 scientific societies publicly stated that, despite claims by the Department of Health and Human Services that the sites were simply being updated, the revised information did not reflect up-to-date scientific findings. Their letter detailed practices they describe as dangerous, such as the removal of information on the proper use of condoms and the efficacy of various types of condoms.

More recently in Florida the Department of Health has gone further, endorsing and distributing "A Christian Response to Aids".

Rather than focusing on preventive measures to help to stem the spread of HIV/Aids, the booklet consists primarily of Bible verses and Jesus Christ healing the sick and poses the rhetorical question: "Why should I learn about Aids?" And the official, state-sponsored answer? "Because Jesus calls on us to respond with love to everyone, especially those who are suffering."

Perhaps the true heart of the Bush Administration can be summed up by the comments of Senator Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, last year, when he compared homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery.

Too much freedom - allowing gays and lesbians to live openly and without fear of arrest, for example - is, he said, "antithetical to strong, healthy families". He could just as easily have said all sex outside of marriage is antithetical to the holy grail of the family.

So if you think Janet Jackson's breast reveal was no big deal, think again. Not about the breast itself or her silly, self-serving performance, but about the wider implications of the nationwide outrage and the Government's clearly successful efforts to shape that outrage to meet its own conservative "abstinence only" agenda.

But the fallout goes further. MTV executives said last week the stunt was forcing the television industry to change its live programming procedures. The Academy Awards, to be televised later this month will have a new, five-second delay built into its screening. Certainly enough time to remove any show of flesh. But also enough time to censor those unscripted, pesky, political outbursts too.

Perhaps in the future historians will look back on Janet Jackson's breast as the moment America shed its pretensions of openness, of equality for women, of being the land of the free and revealed itself for what it is becoming under the Bush regime: narrow, moralistic, censorial, prurient and increasingly sex hating.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Other Articles by Barbara Sumner Burstyn


* On Not Being Anti-American
* The New Underclass
Celestial Land Grabs and the Demise of Science
* When is a Democracy Not a Democracy?

* True Heroes Will Help Beggars Through Another Day
* The Sum Total of My Body Parts
* I Blame God
* Fresh Food Fear
* Starve the Beast
* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

* A GM Question or Two

* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work







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