The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently proposed relaxing its indecency regulations. The new focus would be on "deliberate and repeated expletives" while overlooking fleeting instances of profanity…and "treating isolated, non-sexual nudity differently from more gratuitous cases." Reflecting upon this, a recent commentary in the International Business Times chides a previous effort by the FCC (2006) to enhance regulations of "minor lapses of decency," which provided for increased enforcement of the laws already on the books regulating network television broadcasts.
Arguing in favor of relaxing the standards, the author contends that "many will no doubt see [therein] a long-awaited show of common sense." Mind you, no one is arguing that the FCC had actually effectively enforced the 2006 regulations: "more than one million indecency complaints" remain unprocessed and are now being dismissed. However, not everyone agrees with the newer standards. Some parents' groups are arguing for their own "show of common sense" - common-sense restrictions designed to protect families, particularly children , from indecency on the airwaves. Do such restrictions have any value?
Opponents of the decency rules ask "What's the big deal?" They note that the FCC regulates less than 20% of what is on television - given the prevalence of cable and internet offerings which are free from regulation - and that is true. Yet, the relaxation of these rules would introduce, in essence, soft pornography - material that would have commanded an "R" rating in theatres a mere decade ago - into the heretofore-protected viewing hours when families gather together in their living rooms to enjoy some "good, clean and fun" television comedies or dramas. It is valid to ask what losing this protected time would portend for our culture.
First, from a legal and market perspective, there is little to support relaxing the regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court recently examined the FCC's indecency rules and declined to strike them down, with Chief Justice Roberts telling broadcasters that they were now on notice that the standard in place could be enforced . From the market's perspective, with 80% of available content free from regulation, it is difficult to argue that these regulations somehow stifle alternative points of view.
Given the absence of any genuine artistic or entertainment value which would be gained from an increase in vulgarity and nudity during shows traditionally seen during family viewing times, the efforts to relax these regulations can only be understood as yet another effort by those who are bent on shifting values away from the goodness of life, family, and traditional values towards a misconception of freedom as removing any barriers or boundaries in place in a civilized society.
Secondly, from a psychological perspective, the danger to viewers and to the culture can perhaps be best understood by considering the social science research demonstrating the negative impact of pornography use. It is important to understand that the use of pornography is progressive. That is, for a person who develops an habitual pattern of accessing or using pornography, the amount and explicitness of the material needed to obtain the same emotional or physical reaction increases. This is similar to the way in which a person can develop a tolerance for alcohol or drugs and need more or different stimulants to continually achieve the same result.
Similarly, while some may argue that exposure to "isolated (non-sexual) nudity" is harmless, I would suggest that, particularly for the young, vulnerable, and impressionable, this kind of exposure is toxic.
Research data are clear that prolonged or intensive use or focus on pornographic material has significant consequences for a person's emotional, interpersonal, and psychological functioning. Emotionally, those who are significant consumers of pornography experience increased levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxieties at a rate 2-5 times the national average. Interpersonally, there is a tendency towards increased isolation, conflict in significant relationships and divorce, and problems in relating on a personal and intimate manner with others. Psychologically, a person can experience decreased levels of attention and concentration, and generally more difficulty functioning, often resulting in decreased job performance and increased job loss.
In addition to the obvious personal costs that will be incurred, the impact of these changes on the broader culture must also be considered. Given the increased psychological baggage with which the next generation would be saddled, what could possibly be expected but more broken families and children with less security and stability.
Much has been made of the sexualizing of western culture following the so-called 'sexual revolution', and the carnage of 'sexual freedom' in terms of relationship dissolution and the devaluing of life through contraception and abortion. The FCC's regulations, although not reaching all communication venues, send not only an important cultural message respecting our base national standards, but also provide a safe harbor for parents and families - with absolutely no cost to those who disagree with the standards themselves. This, however, is undoubtedly the very reason they are under attack.
Amidst the debates regarding what 'crosses the line' between expression and obscenity, every civilized society needs some measure of consistency in standards, and it is essential that the designated agencies and courts take seriously their role in putting forth common sense protections for the youth in our culture, and support for the parents whose obligation it is to foster their development.