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Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media.

THIS BOOK BY SIMON WATNEY, A SENIOR LECTURER IN THE SCHOOL OF COMmunications at the Polytechnic of Central London, is mainly an examination of British culture, but much can be generalized to North American culture as well. The book's title is apt, since Watney shows how our private and personal desires are shaped through the influence of the media. For example, the publicity surrounding AIDS has inevitably linked it to sexual promiscuity or deviance and, thus, the prohibitions on how to avoid it often become moral prescriptions on "correct" sex.

To analyze the construction of a social panic is to confront all the prejudices of a society. Even to entertain the idea that diseases are socially constructed involves deconstructing their taken-for-granted factuality. Watney goes underneath the fact of AIDS to disclose how the media and government base their approach to the problem on a not-so-subtle homophobia and an agenda of sexual uniformity and conformity. Policing Desire is an analysis of how the media has handled the AIDS issue, with a grounded analysis of government educational campaigns, media reports, and television information shows. The book is short, well reasoned, and in places innovative.

The early warning that AIDS was caused by sexual deviance has fortunately largely been left behind. Yet media publicity about AIDS still contains inaccuracies. We still hear of the "AIDS virus," "AIDS carriers "AIDS tests," "AIDS victims," and the "general population," even though there are no such things. Instead, there are people who have contracted the HIV virus, a condition detectable through tests for that virus, which does not necessarily develop into the AIDS syndrome, and people living with AIDS, where the syndrome is manifested. There is not a general population that is at risk from dangerous people, but rather people who are at risk from unsafe practices, including -- but not limited to -- sexual practices. There is still the idea that safe people are at risk from certain types of people, rather than from risky practices involving bodily fluids. We must be suspicious of a media that appears to have taken an interest in AIDS only as "normal" people, such as children and heterosexual women, have become infected. Meanwhile, the plight of those who have spent years living with, or dying from, the disease remains virtually invisible, except for high-profile cases.

Watney's discussion of pornography is quite brief, despite the promise of the subtitle. At one point, he states that the topic's parameters have already been fixed in public discourse and, thus, it is difficult to analyze or defend. He provocatively links the anti-pornography crusades of the Right and the Left into the same discourse of sexual oppression, a discourse that militates against the enjoyment of the "multiple erotic possibilities" of our bodies. While the Right opposes pornography for conservative religious reasons and the Left is against it because of its sexism and misogyny, Watney faults both for submerging the discussion of eroticism in the debate over censorship.

Watney extensively discusses both sexual oppression in our culture and the role of the media in focusing this normative sexual agenda on the narrow topic of AIDS. By analyzing the social problem of AIDS in terms of its legislative and ideological dimensions, the way in which institutional discourse shapes the character of the world is revealed. Social policy, then, is guided by neither epidemiological nor consensual concerns, but rather by narrow, normative interests that become framed as universal ones.

Watney examines the rhetoric of AIDS, grounding it in the iconography of the body in the media. The representation of the body regulates what can correctly and properly be done with those bodies. So familiar do these representations become to us that they become the framework within which we evaluate and define threats to the social order and they become the standard for normality and deviance. The heterosexualization of the media thus portrays gays as deviant, diversity as perversity, and, by extension, disease as contagion. The scandal of AIDS then confirms the exclusion of groups mistakenly identified as its cause and reconfirms the normality of those in the "general population."

Modern sexuality is policed by laws, customs, and perhaps most ubiquitously, by media representations. Media stories and pictures are part of the process of subjugating the body. These iconographic ligatures not only threaten those who are systematically excluded, but also contribute to the general misinformation that controls and threatens everyone.

Policing Desire is a quick read, but the theory is deceptively easy. The analysis is based on a deconstruction of media accounts, showing how they are heterosexualized and ideological. The practical injunctions flowing from Watney's argument would be clearer had he included more information on his analytic and methodological assumptions, but as a political text, it gives us yet another tool to resist those who would attempt to impose dominant meanings on such an important issue. Academically, this book is important as an exercise in contemporary social theory, deconstructing gender relations, or the epidemiology of health. More prosaically, it is important to anyone interested in how the media in modern society frame and construct social issues and aid in the reconstruction of power.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCormick, Chris
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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