Tyler Clementi: Another Victim of Sex-Negative Culture

BlogHer Original Post

Eighteen year-old Tyler Clementi was a brilliant violist. Quiet and considerate, he had his life ahead of him until his roommate at Rutgers University used a webcam in their room to broadcast a sexual encounter between Clementi and his partner. A few days after the broadcast, Clementi's car and other personal effects were found near George Washington Bridge. It is presumed he committed suicide.

Tyler Clementi Facebook picture

Image from Tyler Clementi's public Facebook tribute page

According to New Jersey’s privacy laws, it is a serious crime to collect, view, display or transmit images of a sexual nature without an individual's consent. I could very well sit here and examine the legal consequences that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, also 18, and his friend Molly Wei, who assisted him in setting up the webcam and stream in her room, are going to face. But the law will work itself out as this story develops.

What has my interest in this story is the details.

Clementi asked his roommate to have the room between nine and midnight on Sunday, September 19. In response, Ravi set up a webcam to spy on his roommate.

Invasive. But students have only been in their rooms for a month. If I wasn't yet comfortable with my roommate and he or she asked to be left alone in our living space would I take some measure to ensure I could see if he or she did something to my things? Slightly paranoid, but not completely insane. We do this sort of thing with babysitters. Granted, my shoes and books are not children, but when I was a freshman, they might as well have been.

Would I have stopped watching when the purpose of his request became evident? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Human beings are curious and the sexual act is captivating. This doesn't excuse the gross invasion of privacy, but it gives it some perspective.

The line was crossed when Ravi decided to tweet what he was watching. According to NJ.com, he transmitted live images of this encounter that night, then invited users again the following Tuesday when Clementi made another request for privacy. The broadcast failed the second time.

I am deeply troubled by the fact we live in a culture where something as beautiful, as natural as sex can be used to humiliate us. This is the legacy of a sex-negative culture. I don't see an improvement in society as a result of removing sex from public discourse, refusing the self-expression of people in the workplace, and sanitizing as many things as possible to prevent any expression or role model to surface that may constitute a healthy sexuality.

When I moved to the United States, I wasn't yet a teen. I remember watching television with a sort of horrified awe. It wasn't so much that children disrespected their parents without the slightest hesitation -- though that was certainly bizarre to me -- but that adults disrespected one another and never showed any passion. Even in the most family-oriented shows, there was no display of passionate love between parents -- friendship, maybe. But love?

In Peru, I'd watched a show called Casado Con Mi Hermano (“Married With My Brother”) about two brothers, each married to a female version of themselves, who share a home. One couple was very conservative and the other was very passionate and the latter were always running up the stairs to get it on. Both couples were caricatured, but the takeaway was that finding a mate who suited you regardless of your preferences was the key to happiness. There was no judgment or pressure for either couple to be what they weren't. And silly though the comedy may have been, it was clear the two couples were happy. Even the conservative couple kissed on camera!

In the U.S., the closest thing I came to a show that displayed any sort of passion between adults that didn't unfold into a tragedy as a result of its physical manifestation was The Addams Family. I assume this was only allowed because they were creepy weirdos.

I don't think things have improved too much though we do now enjoy shows about people with a wider range of sexual preferences. There is still a lot of sex-negativity even in smedia that appear to take a more open approach to sexuality. I can't think of a single horror movie, for example, where the couple who decide to manifest their attraction doesn't get killed in some horrible manner.

Make no mistake – there is a message here. By disallowing the dialog; by perpetuating images of sex as something foreign, unnatural, lesser, and conducive only to misery; by banning its expression and the satisfaction of its enjoyment, we will continue to see young adults bullied, ostracized, alienated, and damaged when they have the audacity to explore sex.

We are isolating them on this journey when we could -- when we should -- be providing them the role models and the forum to discuss its implications. There is a risk in sex, yes. And that should be discussed. But that shouldn't be the only discussion. There is also a danger in kissing. And in hugging. Awareness is the answer, not attempting to lock it up or saturate the landscape with messages of its horrors to the point discussion and expression become almost criminal.

If we lived in a culture that had proper role models, that embraced dialog, that allowed sexual self-expression, would Tyler Clementi seen no option other than suicide?

There are elements of homophobia here. One can wonder whether Ravi would have broadcast his roomate's encounter had he seen Clementi with a woman instead of a man. Maybe, maybe not. What if Clementi had been a woman, with a man? Slut shaming is nothing foreign to us. The opposite of that is prude-shaming, and it also happens.

What all these things have in common is the culture in which they are experienced. A culture that sees sexuality as something unnatural, dangerous and shameful.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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