In this column I often take a skeptical look at liberal scare-mongering about global warming and cancer threats from pesticides, Teflon frying pans, plastic bottles, cell phones, etc. The liberal scaremongers' solution is always: more government.
But conservatives scare people, too.
When I was growing up, most everyone agreed that it would be a terrible thing if young people were exposed to sex. It must be kept out of sight.
When an obviously pregnant Lucille Ball appeared on "I Love Lucy," it was a controversial television breakthrough. Yet the word "pregnant" was never uttered. Simply saying the word was taboo.
When I was 11, the innocent movie "Pillow Talk" was attacked because Rock Hudson and Doris Day argue about "bedroom problems". Reviews said, it "comes close to the forbidden border."
Today, parents would be relieved to find their kids watching "Pillow Talk." The PG movie "Hairspray" features a flasher and jokes about teen pregnancy. Sex is a regular storyline on "family" TV shows.
This is terrible for kids, says Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council.
"They are being exposed to sex and to talk about sex before they're even old enough to even think about having sex," he told me in my recent "20/20" special "Sex in America".
"Young people who watch a lot of sexual content on television have distorted attitudes about sexuality. That it must be that everybody's who's not married is going around having sex all the time and having kinky sex in all kinds of strange situations."
Complaints from groups like Sprigg's inspire politicians to make noises about "protecting" America by banning such sex from the public square, even if it means legislating some of our liberty away. Sen. Joe Lieberman promised action to stay "the rising tide of sex, violence and vulgarity," which he says "has coarsened our culture."
Our culture has become coarser. Young people swear loudly in public, have vulgar tattoos and wear jeans that keep getting lower. Advertising shoves sex in our faces.
In fact, today, sex is more pervasive than my parents ever imagined it could be.
Sprigg says it's a reason for problems like "the rise of sexually transmitted diseases [and] the increase in out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births."
But where is that increase in out-of-wedlock births, etc.? We were surprised to find that although STDs are up and the '60s sexual revolution brought an increase in teen pregnancy, over the past 10 to 15 years, the rape rate, the divorce rate and the percentage of teens having premarital sex have steadily declined.
I told Sprigg the good news.
"I'm not sure I accept the premise that negative effects aren't happening," he said.
Sometimes Sprigg's group reaches far to make a point. It issued a press release lamenting bad news from the Centers for Disease Control about an increase in out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancies.
But that increase was a one-year aberration from the 10-year trend. I told Sprigg his release was deceitful.
His answer was telling: "It has been going down, and the rate[s] of out-of-wedlock births and of teen births have been going down. But until they go down to zero, we have to keep trying to promote these positive values in our culture."
I assume many people reading this agree with Sprigg. After my TV special, I got hateful e-mail: "Stossel you are disgusting. ... " "[Your TV show] added fuel to the fire for the demise of our society."
But let's be realistic, says family therapist Dr. Marty Klein, author of "America's War on Sex". Sex isn't going away, and it's not poisoning our culture.
"The truth is, children think about sex whether we want them to or not. There are groups of people out there who are devoted to scaring the heck out of Americans. ... I think it makes some people feel good because they say, aha, there's the enemy, and if only we could do something about that, everything would be better."
The truth is, "doing something" means more government. And more government doesn't make life better. If government leaves us alone, we will survive crude sex in the public square.
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