Introduction: Madame de Sade's House of Total Disclosure
I was watching the six o'clock news with my younger daughter when an item came on about a woman's arrest for running a "common bawdy house"(that quaint legal term) in one of Toronto's northern suburbs. The place was no ordinary house of ill repute, however: It specialized in bondage and sadomasochism, and was known as "Madame de Sade's House of Pain". The news item showed footage of Madame's "dungeon", replete with whips, chains, rubber suits, paraphernalia to feed every fetish -- and there was my ten-year-old, sitting on the couch taking it all in. (Not for nothing has television been called "the total disclosure medium.") Apparently Madame de Sade's defense was that her service shouldn't be considered prostitution, because what she was offering was a form of therapy rather than sex. "So it will be up to the courts to decide," the reporter intoned, "whether wrapping a chain around a penis constitutes sex."
In our house the kitchen, dining and living areas are all one (not-so-big) room, so watching TV is generally a group activity. We kibitz about the news together, howl at The Simpsons together and jeer at blatantly manipulative commercials together. But on this particular evening I -- for one of the few times in my life -- was rendered utterly speechless. I had absolutely no idea where to begin to explain what this new items was all about, no inkling of how to go about making it into what media educators call a "teachable moment".
To my great relief, I didn't have to say anything. It was abundantly clear that this was one of those occasions when she didn't want me to say anything, that this information fell squarely in the category of icky stuff that she didn't really want to know about yet, and that when the time came, she'd much rather find out about it in the neutral zone of grade five puberty class than from me, her mom. (Though I very doubt they'll be teaching them about wrapping penises in chains in puberty class anytime soon.) And as it turned out, my discomfort was just a taste of what was to come later that year: Millions of parents squirming in embarrassment as their kids got a short course in the mechanics of oral sex on the nightly news during the Clinton sex scandal. Television, as Neil Postman observes in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, "does not segregate its audience......it communicates the same information to everyone, simultaneously, regardless of age, sex, level of education."(1)
Or, to put it another way: our kids are all growing up in Madame de Sade's House of Total Disclosure.
It wasn't always so, of course. Once upon a time, kids grew up in well-defined stages, and it was the job of grown-ups to implement a commonly-agreed-upon schedule of maturity, to shield children from certain adult matters until they were "ready" to learn about them. Of course, kids themselves usually had other plans.
I'm ten years old, paging through our household dictionary. Something I do a lot of these days. What was that word that older girl whispered on the playground today when Sister Nazarius' back was turned? Something like "fuck-er"? I search and search but all I can find is "fokker", which is the name of some kind of World War II German fighter plane. Could that be it? As insults go, it seems pretty tame.....
What about that other word? I keep hearing other kids say it, and I pretend I know what they're talking about. No matter how many times I look, all I can find is one word: "hoar" meaning "grey" or "frosty". That can't be it. How else can you spell a word that sounds like "hore"?
I do know this much: Both those words have something to do with that THING that grown-ups know about, that THING they're keeping from me....
I'm gonna find out what those words mean if it kills me....
When I think about the enormous shift that's taken place around sex and language in the decades since my childhood, I feel like some old codger marvelling at how things change in a lifetime: "Back when I was young we combed through the dictionary looking for dirty words, and most of 'em weren't even there. You kids nowadays can find out everything you need to know from an Eminem video or an episode of Friends!" No doubt about it: childhood ain't what it used to be. The traditional schedule of maturity has been tossed out the window.
Honey, we lost the kids. They've grown up without having a chance to be kids.
But unlike the bumbling scientist in the popular Disney comedy who finally figures out how to restore his kids to normal after he accidentally shrinks them down to microscopic size, it doesn't look like we have a hope in hell of giving our kids a "real" childhood. Not anymore. Not a good old-fashioned one. Over the past few decades, the lament that kids in our culture are growing up too fast has been raised by a mounting chorus of voices.
Copyright Kathleen McDonnell 2003
Last updated July 6, 2003.