Since the first of the month it has been a crime in the Commonwealth of Virginia to display sexually explicit material "for commercial purposes in a manner whereby juveniles may examine and peruse" it. This new law is an amendment to a 10-year-old statute barring the sale or loan of such material to juveniles, but it is considerably more than a mere extension or clarification of the older law; it intrudes the state's policing authority into areas where it has no business, and it opens up a can of wholly indigestible worms for sellers of books, films, magazines, recordings and similar material.
Like most laws directed at the problem of obscenity and pornography, this one is a case of good intentions and bad execution. It is probably safe to say that we could agree, as a society, that we do not want sexually explicit material displayed to those who do not care to see it or who are immature enough to be adversely influenced by it. We run into all kinds of difficulties, though, when we attempt to determine what constitutes "display" and what is "sexually explicit."
Taken literally, as apparently the Virginia law does, "display" means to put material on view in a way that makes it accessible to anyone who cares to examine it. In a bookstore this means that a book or magazine is on display if it is on the shelves and can be leafed through by a prospective purchaser; in a video store, it presumably means that a tape is on display if the material on its slipcase can be looked at and read. Yet whether either instance amounts to "display" of "sexually explicit" material seems most unlikely.
According to one bookseller who spoke with The Washington Post, "I believe it means we will not be able to display or shelve any book or periodical which contains a narrative description or picture of sexual conduct or nudity. We would have to remove or butcher at least three areas of specialization: parenting and psychology, fiction and mysteries." Though her choice of categories is a trifle peculiar -- mysteries? -- her interpretation of the law probably is correct; much of what is published these days in many categories contains descriptions of sexual activities, and presumably cannot be displayed under the Virginia statute.
Off the shelves, then, go Sidney Sheldon and John Irving, Erica Jong and John Updike, Shere Hite and Gay Talese, Janet Dailey and Rosemary Rogers. So what if millions of Americans have bought and read the work of these writers, if their books can be found in the bookcases of perfectly respectable households, if the community at large seems to have accepted them as legitimate? None of that apparently matters in Virginia, since their books do contain "sexually explicit" passages. Into the back room they go, or into a special R-rated section of the store you can only enter if you're 18 or older.
Could there be a more exquisite piece of nonsense than that? Not likely. It's not as though the "dirty words" are exactly jumping out at innocent juveniles. In order to find the "dirty passages" in books by the aforementioned authors, little Jane or Johnny would really have to make a major effort; even in the most salacious of their books the stuff is not on every page, and it's most unlikely that many children would have the patience -- or, for that matter, the desire -- to track it down. Even if they did it would not be significantly more "explicit" than what the kids can see on soap operas every afternoon or in advertisements everywhere. And for that matter, if the kids can't eyeball the juicy stuff in Harold Robbins at the bookstore they can always find it at the public library, which goes blissfully untouched by this latest venture into legislative Comstockery.
So too does the question of what is "sexually explicit." Like it or not, what the Supreme Court has called "community standards" has relaxed a great deal in most communities over the past several decades. In the 1950s a movie such as "The Sure Thing," which is about a college freshman's yearning to sleep with a nubile California beach beauty and which contains plenty of vivid language and sexual innuendo, would have been considered far too explicit not merely for juveniles but also for adults; remember the furor at the time over "The Moon Is Blue"? Well, in 1985 not merely is "The Sure Thing" regarded as acceptable, it is quite specifically filmed with younger moviegoers in mind and is pitched to the "youth market."
What's true in movies is perhaps even more so in books, which reach a smaller and more tolerant audience. In the 1950s citizens and prosecutors fretted over "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "Fanny Hill"; three decades later those novels are widely, if mistakenly, thought to be "classics." Updike's "Couples" shocked readers in the 1960s, but no one blinked at "Rabbit Is Rich" in the 1980s. What this says about our culture is for each to decide, but there can be no question that what not long ago was held to be offensively "explicit" is now accepted with little or no dispute.
It is also accepted, though with reservations, for younger readers and viewers. The mother-hen instincts of the Virginia General Assembly may be laudable, but they fly directly in the face of contemporary reality. Not merely are children exposed to "sexually explicit" material at an early age, it is difficult for them to escape it and some misguided adults even think it is good for them. Perfectly respectable magazines that come into their residences contain advertisements that in the '50s would have seemed risque' in the pages of Playboy or Gent; the commercials they watch on television are blatantly intended to arouse sexual desires, and the sitcoms contain enough snappy sexual repartee to embarrass Moms Mabley.
This may or may not be "good" -- I certainly don't think it is -- but it is a fact of contemporary life that the Virginia legislators naively, or perhaps willfully, overlook. The innocent youngsters they seek to protect lost their innocence a long time ago. The only thing the legislators have accomplished is the passage of a law that is arbitrary, meddlesome and to all intents and purposes unenforceable. It does not provide a scintilla of real protection for anyone, juvenile or adult, but it does subject the state's booksellers and other merchants to the possibility of petty harassment. Its passage allows the honorables of the legislature to tell their constituents that they have taken up arms against "obscenity" and "pornography," but they probably know better than anyone else that the whole business is a cynical sham.