For the better part of four months every year, Nielsen Media Research gathers data to measure audience size of TV networks and local stations. The numbers are important because audience share determines advertising share.
To build ratings, the networks and local stations have historically scheduled their most sensational programming during these "sweeps weeks." Local TV news departments – here and everywhere else in the United States – used to run the same story about so-called public sex year after year.
Carrying hidden cameras into adult bookstores, outdoor cruising areas and public restrooms, they recorded the shocking sight of men having furtive sex with one another. Nothing builds ratings like showing gay porn to straight people.
This ratings ploy seemed to die down in recent years, but WSB-TV recently brought it back with a report about sex at the Belvedere Theater in DeKalb County. The story is well-documented by reporter Ryan Lee in the May 16 issue of Southern Voice, the city's gay weekly newspaper. You can find WSB reporter Jody Fleischer's video report, made after "months of investigation" (but not aired until sweeps week), on the station's website.
There is much about this story that is disgusting – and the least of it pertains to the behavior of the six, mainly elderly men who were arrested for public indecency by the DeKalb vice squad. You can start with Fleischer's basically stepping in to do the vice squad's job by conducting surveillance inside the theater with hidden cameras. She's like the middle-school snitch who hangs out with the smokers in the bathroom and then runs to tattle to the principal.
WSB's investigation, supposedly undertaken to "help" neighbors who have complained about the theater for 20 years, is a good example, too, of the way the media routinely foment the moral hysteria that has rendered the trivial consequential and the consequential trivial in America. Never mind that stories like Fleischer's have ruined lives, even caused suicides. What's important is that sex sells when thoughtful reporting won't.
My favorite statement in Fleischer's report was made by (the unfortunately named) Lt. Gary Dickerson, head of DeKalb's vice squad: "What adults do at home behind closed doors is their business, but when you bring it out into public then it becomes everybody's business."
How exactly did the six men Dickerson arrested bring their sex play "out into public"? They were inside a movie theater whose two screening rooms continually play porn. Thus they were out of view of the neighbors except during the time they were walking through the theater parking lot.
Further: Only gay men looking for quick sex go to the theater, so it's not as if there were anyone in the theater who was surprised or outraged by the behavior of the six arrested men.
I think it's a pretty safe bet that if the theater offered a picture-window view to the neighbors or was patronized by members of the local garden club, men would not have sex in the theater.
The incident, in short, demonstrates the ambiguous meaning of the word "public." Indeed, it's clear that men go to the Belvedere for the precise reason that it affords them privacy.
The insanity of this situation is the same wherever it occurs. The men are privately engaging in consensual sex. Then a reporter or vice squad member shows up with a hidden camera. In effect, by spying, they violate the men's privacy to punish them for failing to have sex ... privately. The only thing that makes such sex public is the presence of the police camera.
People, including gay men, have all kinds of moral reactions to sex of this type. They argue that in a more open society, no gay man should need to pursue furtive sex outside the home. But, typically, men who patronize places such as the Belvedere are married. Other customers see themselves as part of a sexual culture that treats sex as recreation. It's rare to see anyone support a right to establish zones like the Belvedere for recreational sex play anymore, but such spaces have been around for centuries.
Many gay people argue, too, that such behavior makes the entire gay community look "bad." That makes as much sense as saying the exhibition of breasts during Mardi Gras in New Orleans makes all straight people look bad. A community that supposedly reveres diversity looks absurd when it joins the state's effort to control consensual sexual expression.
One thing is certain. If the Belvedere is permanently closed, another such venue will appear quickly. Men will resume their play out of public view until another reporter shows up to moralize on camera.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.