But then Paul Reubens did it in an adult movie theater, and suddenly the punchline was so irresistible that now everyone played with the topic like teenagers who'd just discovered what their genitals were for. Love him or hate him, Gilbert Gottfried's routine at the 1991 Emmy Awards ("If masturbation is a crime... by age twelve I was Al Capone") pretty much ended the era of shame. Masturbation was normal. Masturbation was natural. People masturbate and it's no big deal. The incident ended Pee Wee Herman's time in the spotlight and effectively derailed Reubens' career, but we stopped pretending we don't all do what everyone does in the privacy of an adult movie theater.
And it wasn't like no one knew what a blow job was before the '90s either, even if you only saw it in "cutting edge" movies before then like "Midnight Cowboy" or "Blue Velvet." Maybe it was precisely because oral sex was only depicted at the fringe of mainstream media that made it seem like this was a relatively edgy thing to do.
But all of a sudden sitting (pun) President Clinton got a blow job, and the story was national news. One reporter wasn't even certain he could use the words "oral sex" on the air in paraphrasing testimony he was reporting on when the story broke ("...a, uh, kind of sex," he said). Before long, it was no big deal. As it should be. It only took overshadowing a pretty decent president's accomplishments to get us all on the same page.
And of course everyone knew there were gay people before there was AIDS. We had epithets for that as well and used them to chide friends at best and label anyone we didn't like. Of course, we didn't know any gay people other than the caricatures we saw on tv in sitcoms and stand-up comics' impressions. And we really didn't know what the hell they did, just that it was "weird" and "unnatural." But now here was a national health threat, and the gay community was its epicenter. It wasn't intuitively obvious to the general public how this disease was spread, and this led to frank discussions of physically how the virus was transmitted, what people were doing in order to get it from one person to the next. Anal sex made it into the national discourse.
Furthermore, AIDS indiscriminately outed people. It set aside the whispers and jokes about Freddy Mercury and Liberace, and it also told the world that even a Rock Hudson could be gay, sorry, ladies. It put faces to a previously almost invisible community and made us all integrated openly rather than only in secret. Honestly, for all the misery and death AIDS caused, without it America would have continued to put homosexuality out of its collective mind until a big enough story made it such that we couldn't and were forced to realize and acknowledge a fuller range of human sexuality and humanity.
The key to public discourse, it seems to me, is that a taboo subject has to be integrally embedded in an inescapable narrative that we can't help but talk about. We are collectively drawn into an area we would never be caught in otherwise. In "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell points out that for ideas to spread effectively, messages have to be "sticky" (seriously, no pun intended in relation to any of the above examples). That is, they have to connect with us in ways that we can't shake them, the way Pee Wee Herman punchlines still haven't completely gone away or discussions of condoms now center on "safe sex" rather than merely in connection with their role as contraceptives.
Society may be ready to have certain conversations about still other topics that remain taboo, but we won't all come to the table together to do so until that unforeseeable scandal that brings us there. I pity whoever's expense it's at when the next front page story breaks, but the water cooler talk that follows is more than gossip; it's progress.
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