The Supreme Court has been busy this week thinking about dirty language and pictures. In two cases, they affirmed efforts to censor jacksonspeech about matters sexual or profane. One case involved an FCC fine levied on CBS for Janet Jackson’s now well-known “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in which a part of her body was exposed on live national TV. The other case dealt with the FCC’s “fleeting expletive” policy that threatened fines against television broadcasters should they air accidental “fleeting” expletives. The controversy arose in March 2003 when U2 lead singer Bono uttered the “f-word” during a broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards.

These two cases raise interesting issues for those of us interested in gender and sexuality law. What should count as “indecent” or “profane” for the purposes of risking FCC censorship and fines? Why is Janet Jackson’s anatomy any different from the anatomy of african-womannative women frequently broadcast on public television shows? Worse, we were watching the first season of “The Wire” on Netflix last weekend and in one early episode the detectives showed over and over and over a photograph of a naked African American woman who had been shot in the chest. After the fourth or fifth time, we screamed at the TV – “stop showing that photograph!!” It was necrophiliatic voyeurism – but didn’t overstep the FCC’s rules because it was on HBO.

But I raise these issues now, not to offer a trenchant analysis of the concepts of indecency and the First Amendment, but for another purpose having to do with what it means to write about them on a blog. Anyone who knows me and my writing will notice that I am not one to avoid the fully spelled out versions of the “F- or S- words”, or to refer to the upper part of a woman’s body as her “chest” or “anatomy” as I have above.

Google and other search engines have made me censor myself – or at least have made me aware of some of my readers whom I didn’t intend to reach. When I write on this blog, as I have in the past, using terms that refer specifically to women’s body parts, to sexual harassment, to rape, to sex trafficking, even to particular sex acts that come up in cases or in real life, I get lots of hits from people searching the internet for those terms. They aren’t looking for our thoughtful analysis of gender and sexuality law emanating from Columbia Law School. No, they just want to get off.

For instance, on December 4th I wrote about a case that had just been argued in the Supreme Court having to do with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination by recipients of federal funds.

The facts had to do with the sexual harassment of a girl by other children on the school bus – and I described the facts in the blog post. My “usage statistics,” as we call them in the blogosphere, went WAY up – tons of people found their way to the blog to read about this important new case in the Supreme Court. Well, not quite. Actually, what I got were lots of pervs who put search terms in google and other search engines and ended up at my blog. Call me naive, but I was shocked. By the time the Court issued its opinion a month later, I wrote a very sanitized post – directing readers to the opinion, rather than recharacterizing its facts and drawing a skeevy unintended audience who were more interested in girls and school buses than Title IX.

Writing for a blog is an interesting, and at times strange, experience – I know more about my blog readers than I possibly could when I publish in a law review or scholarly journal. But I find myself now quite self-conscious about what words I use in the posts, and censor myself in ways I wouldn’t in a law review (though I had a terrible fight with an editor at the Columbia Law Review several years back about my refusal to capitalize the word “god,” and have had other tussles with law review editors about other words they thought profane – but which I won’t repeat here because I have my perv-filter up!). There are “bots” that scan every blog post and post hundreds of comments that are really just ads for pornography (there is a filter that keeps out most of them, but now having used the “p-word” I’m in trouble), and then I get no small number of searches that end up at my blog that are really trying to figure out the sexual orientation of my colleagues like this: “Is so and so gay?”

But this is the quandry – as someone who is sex-positive, writes about “Theorizing Yes,” and queer theory more generally, I have found I have installed a little censor who sits on my shoulder when I write, imagining the creeps who will end up at the blog if I use this term or that phrase. So I choose sometimes rather convoluted ways of saying things to confound the search engines. Hopefully I don’t sacrifice content – but there is a degree to which one’s blog posts risk becoming the props of pervs. In my earlier published writing I’ve intended to meld titillation with scholarly inquiry, such as my first academic article which was a review of Madonna’s book Sex. But that’s not my aim in this forum.

But then, in the immediate aftermath of Eve Sedgwick’s passing, it is particularly problematic to insist on such a distinction – between that which is intended for enjoyment or consumption by the body vs. that by the mind. There is, to be sure, an erotics of scholarship that cannot be denied. And, just as I want to control what “is” erotic and what “isn’t,” I want to control the kind of pleasure my readers get from reading these posts.

This is the same fool’s errand that the Supreme Court has been on in its recent cases parsing the indecent (Janet Jackson’s exposed breast at the Super Bowl) from the sacred (the Ten Commandments displayed on public property), and the profane (Bono’s language at the Golden Globes) from the holy (campaign contributions as deomocratic speech).


  1. If it makes you feel any better, I think these Google creeps are just the kind of geniuses who click on every search result they get.

    There is so much really explicit material available, I can’t imagine anyone wading through a discussion of constitutional law (even a very lucid, trenchant one) to find a sentence or two describing a sexuality-related event. Especially since the story is bound to be covered more salaciously by the AP or CNN.

    But maybe this is just something we have to expect. Just like when I’m walking down the street, my appearance can be “used” by others in ways that I dislike. I can try to make them keep their opinions to themselves, but I can’t control how they feel about me.

    In a way the Google stats are like knowing everyone’s most pervy thoughts about everyone else on a crowded subway car. As the kids say, TMI!

    As (I think) you said, trying to control the decency level of the public sphere is a fool’s errand but almost irresistible.

    I enjoy the blog and I’m grateful that people like you are doing this important work, and writing about it in a way that laypeople can understand.

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