[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:12 GMT
No sex please, we're American

By Justin Webb
BBC correspondent, Washington

After Janet Jackson recently exposed her right breast at the Super Bowl, ABC have decided to broadcast the Oscars with a five-second delay...just in case.

In a country that prides itself on its pursuit of personal freedom, why the big panic?

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
Janet Jackson's display sparked 200,000 complaints

There are very few occasions on which I want to strangle American friends, but near the top of the list is when I hear them say: "Oh my gosh!"

What they mean is: "Oh my God!"

But in polite American society, even this mild blasphemy is unacceptable.

So people hedge their bets, mind their language, and blur the edges. The result is that life in the American suburbs is lived, linguistically at least, in soft focus "la la land".

People warble rather than talk and inoffensiveness is raised to the status of a major virtue.

Another world

I have a friend from New Zealand - a normal chap and the father of three very nicely spoken children - who admitted to me the other day that he craves indecent language so badly that he goes to the video store and takes out British films.

Beyonce's half-time performance at NBA All-Star basketball game
Beyonce's dance was shown on television with a 10-second delay

Sexy Beast, set among British gangsters in the Costa del Crime, is his favourite, because some of the sentences comprise only swearwords.

Most Americans in "la la land" would find even the title of that film problematic. "Oh my gosh!"

The word sex, used in the context of fun, or in a slightly racy manner, is not normally to be heard here.

And it is not just the word. The whole world of sexual behaviour is closed to American polite society.

Eroticism is anathema here - in advertising, in art, in thought.

Even nakedness far removed from eroticism throws Americans into a muck sweat.

In the sports club I go to, there is a stern sign telling me that children aged three and over have to go into the locker room occupied by members of their own sex.

Ninety million people saw one of her breasts

What is going on here?

Would four-year-old Martha be corrupted by seeing the businessmen of northwest Washington naked or would they be corrupted by seeing her?

This is not a necessary precaution to prevent abuse. This is something more peculiar which infests the whole nation: an atavistic sexual trepidation, imported by the puritans, like potato blight on the boat from the old world.


Imagine then, the upset and the outrage, the gaping open-mouthed horror, when on the biggest audience programme of the year, the annual Super Bowl football match - the Janet Jackson incident occurred.

Ninety million people saw one of her breasts.

For many of them it seems, the experience was one of the most shocking of their lives.

"Oh my gosh", they collectively intoned.

Within days there were hearings on Capitol Hill and earnest discussions on the talk shows of how to save America from indecency.

NBC dropped a scene showing the breast of an elderly woman from an episode of medical drama ER

I saw a breakfast television presenter tell a solemn-looking weather person that her nine-year-old son had been watching. Imagine.

What will she tell him? What will he think?

Well I hope he has a good memory, that young chap, because the powers that be are cracking down on breasts and on talk of breasts.

Within days of the Janet Jackson incident, a partial view of an elderly woman's top half on a medical drama programme was hastily cut.

The decision to invest time and effort delaying the broadcast of the Oscars is only one move in a countrywide effort.

This is now a national priority, almost as urgent as preventing homosexuals from getting married.

Across the Atlantic

Of course, as relaxed Europeans would tell the Americans if only they would listen, the effort to desexualise all of public life, results not only in very dull television, but in an underbelly of seediness - which is the only place left for it to go.

Profanity and sex are kept in boxes at the back of the closet

It is a fact, of course, that fruity language and explicit sexual behaviour are available on tap virtually anywhere in America, if you know where to look.

On our cable television, if you get sick of the delayed Oscars you could buy an instant subscription to several pornographic film channels.

But that is the point. Because profanity and sex are kept in boxes at the back of the closet, they are no longer fun or attractive; just sordid and tawdry, existing only under the counter or in the backstreets.

The other day my wife gave birth to our third child.

It was a wonderful experience though on my way to the hospital I did wonder whether it would work out OK.

Did American doctors and nurses know where babies come from? If they found out would they faint?

In the event I need not have worried. The medical staff were gloriously un-American and my daughter was born without anyone being too shocked.

But little Clara is an American citizen, so we await her first words with longing and with dread. For there is a chance they will be "Mommy, Daddy, Oh My Gosh!"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 February, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Oscar head angry at TV show delay
11 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
Janet Jackson legal case dropped
11 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
Janet's breast makes net history
05 Feb 04  |  Technology
Inquiry into Janet Jackson flash
03 Feb 04  |  Entertainment
America's deep Christian faith
14 Mar 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
How religion defines America
25 Feb 04  |  wtwtgod
Puritan's journal comes to life
29 Aug 03  |  Entertainment


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific