Thursday, May 05, 2005

So much for that cheerleader fetish...

The fetishization of cheerleaders, most still minors, is indeed a troubling sub-category (or sub-sub-category) of American sexuality. But it doesn't take much -- don't make me Google it! -- to discover that it's a fairly significant one. And that should concern anyone who cares about the well-being of our children, teens, and young adults, not to mention, more generally, about the state of society and its treatment of sex.

But this makes no sense: Yesterday, the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow the state to prohibit "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading, whatever that means. The bill, which passed 65 to 56, was introduced by a Democrat and ordained minister, Al Edwards, but it lacks a sponsor in the Senate and already it has been watered down -- specifically, "a provision that would have allowed a cut in state financing to schools that permit racy routines was removed," according to The New York Times.

It may very well be that schools need to clamp down on the "overtly sexually suggestive" routines that are now so common among cheerleading teams. All I can say anecdotally is that the cheerleading team at my high school, West Morris Mendham (Mendham, N.J.), was hardly "suggestive" in any way -- then again, our nickname was "Minutemen," hardly sexual in any way. But there are a number of problems with this:

First, there is the obvious hypocrisy. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, pornography in the United States constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry. Frank Rich once put the number somewhere between US$10-14 billion, but even the more conservative estimate in Forbes of US$2.6-3.9 billion (for more on this debate, see here) indicates that the industry is huge and that, basically, America loves its smut, whatever the thin veneer of self-righteous puritanical moralism that masks what is really going on. Now, the relationship between cheerleading and pornography may be rather odious, and perhaps indirect, but I bring up the latter for a reason. It shows that sex is alive in well in America, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that cheerleaders have been so grossly sexualized, given how grossly sexualized the rest of the culture has become (for example, how about the fact that many teenaged girls dress like prostitutes?). Perhaps that's precisely an argument to de-sexualize cheerleading, but isn't it somewhat backwards to limit sexualization when such sexualization is precisely what the "customers" -- i.e., highly sexualized Americans who love watching cheerleaders do their thing -- want?

Second, aren't there better ways to deal with sexuality among teens and young adults? If you consider sexuality beyond sex-for-procreation in marriage to be immoral, then there isn't much to be said. All you're doing is denying human nature. But if you're worried about teen pregnancy and STDs, or just about high rates of sexual activity among teens and young adults, then there are more effective measures than cleansing cheerleading of its more overt sexuality. How about promoting real sex education, not just abstinence? How about promoting birth control? How about promoting discussion over censorship? How about recognizing that sexuality is a cornerstone of human nature and that to suppress it is actually to channel it into far more worrisome outlets? Efforts to clamp down on sexuality, especially when such sexuality is merely "suggestive" and in no way illegal, are, in my view, simply counter-productive. We should be promoting a healthier sense of sexuality among teens and young adults, not pretending that they're not at all sexual.

Third, what exactly is "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading? It may be like that famous non-definition of pornography -- I know it when I see it -- but isn't such a subjective determination better left to school boards and individual schools themselves -- that is, to local communities? The Texas bill is vague, which means that enforcement will be uneven, but, more importantly, it smacks of the same government over-reach that is now so common across the United States. I realize that public schools aren't the private sphere, and that regulating cheerleading isn't the same as, say, restricting access to adult-oriented entertainment on the part of consenting adults, but the State of Texas interfering with the affairs of local communities and their schools is very much like Republican efforts during the Schiavo case to use the federal government (Congress, the federal judiciary) to meddle in what was a state (Florida) matter.

Bill Clinton once said that the era of big government is over. He was wrong. It's back, in this case with a moral vengeance.

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