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Reticence: Going, Going, Gone?

The second week of March brought two superficially unrelated news stories that, when more closely examined, both turned out to illuminate the ongoing fall of self-restraint and taste, and the ongoing rise of self-indulgence and vulgarity.

First came the death of Joe DiMaggio, whose grace on and off the field was exceptional and inspirational. Many great athletes forget, or never understand, their obligation to the public. They develop a bloated sense of entitlement based on talent alone. DiMaggio knew how superb a player he was, but no matter how well he hit, ran, and threw, he was always cognizant of his responsibilities to his fans. They in turn recognized his personal character, which is why his popularity never waned.

DiMaggio could have exploited his relationship with the twentieth-century sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, but he never did. They were one of the first media supercouples, but the intense curiosity about them notwithstanding, he jealously guarded his privacy.

Compare that to today's personification of sports celebrity, Dennis Rodman, for whom nothing, but nothing, is private. In fact, it's just the opposite. Rodman augments his celebrity status with cross-dressing antics, constant and always unnecessary foul language in interviews, dirty behavior on the court, even filthier behavior off of it.

The descent from DiMaggio to Rodman - and from Monroe to Carmen Electra, for that matter - says a lot about our times, none of it flattering. So does the reaction to DiMaggio's passing; if our society hadn't already been woefully short of gentlemen, we wouldn't have felt it quite as sharply.

On March 11, three days after DiMaggio died, the New York Times carried an article about the Museum of Sex in Manhattan, which opens later this month. As much as DiMaggio stood for privacy, Mosex, as it's being called, declares that nothing, not even the most intimate of behaviors, is private. The museum's co-director, Alison Maddex, is promising a "Smithsonian of sex...basically an R-rated museum, like an R-rated film." (The Times added that "live performances, about which [Maddex] was not specific, might make the occasional museum event triple-X.")

A further indication of the museum's outlandish approach to its topic is the contention from one of its architects, Gregg Pasquarelli, that "sexuality is an ambiguous, fluid series of relationships." (Ah, that explains why Sandra Bernhard is on the Mosex advisory board.) Maddex, by the way, is the life partner of professor/pundit Camille Paglia.

Maddex claims that the museum won't, in the Times' words, "exclusively present a history of the sex industry," though the "exclusively" hints that porn will be well represented. It would be hard to do it any other way, since the more emotionally profound the sexual expression, the less it belongs on display, at a museum or anywhere else. "Boogie Nights" celebrated the porn industry in movie theaters. Why not in a museum?

America in 1999 can't seem to get enough of sexual sewage. We're sooo sick of Monica! So sick that only 70 million Americans tuned in to this slutty performer's interview with Barbara Walters. In February, Advertising Age noted that "with...entertainment fare pushing the limits of bad taste, increasingly rude, nasty or just plain boorish behavior is showing up in advertising campaigns as well, and no one save Miss Manners seems too upset about it."

The magazine says that in one ad, "an old man struggling to get a jar down from a shelf is casually ignored by an able-bodied young guy who's sitting just a few feet away...engrossed in his Fox Sports web site." The crucial event in another spot, for a paging service, is a young woman getting into a car and loudly passing gas. And anyone who watched the Super Bowl saw plenty of gross advertisements, which one critic described as "replete with bathroom humor...tasteless...juvenile and puerile...dominated by sophomoric slapstick, toilet talk and gratuitous sex and violence."

Finally, there's the contrast between the Hank Williamses. The first Hank, of course, was a marvelous country singer/songwriter, a contemporary of DiMaggio. Hank I's personal life was famously messed up, but he went to great lengths to attempt dignity in his public persona. Now along comes his grandson, Hank III, himself an aspiring singer, telling Rolling Stone about a videotape of his fornication with a lady friend. "All I can say is, if it comes out, it'll put Pamela and Tommy Lee to shame," Hank blabbed. "Their video was a bunch of 'awww,' 'oooh,' but it wasn't f--in'. My video is real f--in', man. Dildos and everything."

Perhaps this masterwork will premiere at the Museum of Sex, just a few miles down the road from Yankee Stadium, where dignity used to reign not so long ago.