While the government-sanctioned use of torture on suspected enemy combatants is debated in Congress, people in Chico are accusing us of lacking morality because we published a well-written story by Devanie Angel about local women home-marketing sex toys as if they were Tupperware. The story, “Dildos 101,” sparked angry letters and calls, caused advertisers to pull their ads from our pages and others to demand that we remove our racks from their places of business. All because we had the audacity to tell a story that touches on women’s sexuality. One caller, a 61-year-old woman and Pat Buchanan supporter, told me stories like ours spread sexually transmitted diseases and lead to teenage pregnancies and wide-spread abortion. I told her I didn’t follow her logic. “Why are you so defensive?” she screamed. An angry man from Oroville left a voice-mail message telling me to call back and explain to his 9-year-old daughter what a dildo was. I didn’t call back because I didn’t think that it was my place to do such a thing. The request just sounded creepy. Others said their children didn’t understand. Then where’s the problem, we wondered. “But you’re supposed to be the alternative paper,” one woman said. “Well, I don’t think you’re not going to see a story about dildos in the daily paper,” I suggested.

Toys R Us told us to remove our paper-dispensing rack. Apparently they neither carry nor approve of sex toys. Feather River Tribal Health in Oroville demanded the same thing. Lifetouch Photography gave us the boot. Wittmeier Auto Center pulled our racks and its advertising. Funny thing there is the racks had disappeared from their place of business a few days before the dildo story even hit the streets. We suspect they were mad because the week before I suggested in this column that the only reason they have such a big flag pole is because a city ordinance won’t let them have a big free-standing sign to advertise their business. Of course, it’s easier to pull your ads when the economy is in the dumps and you can’t move any new cars off your lot because consumers are afraid to make major purchases in these troubled economic times. Still, we hate to lose advertising. We rely on it. Advertising is our sole source of income. We want to see our paper filled with ads. The only reason we write stories or run columns like this one is to keep the ads from banging together on the pages. (That’s an old joke around here; at least to some of us.) I truly hope the economy heats up and people start buying new cars again and Wittmeier comes back into our paper. With this latest controversy, we can only wonder, can a front-page investigative piece from the Enterprise-Record be far behind?

The lesson here is that we underestimated Chico’s prudish nature. And it’s not just Chico, it’s the whole darn country. Remember how Janet Jackson’s exposed boob at a Super Bowl halftime show sent a shiver through the nation? Why was Bill Clinton impeached? Sure, he lied to a grand jury. But why was he before the grand jury in the first place? Because he had “sexual relations with that woman.” And for that, by god, we wanted to throw the guy out of office. I guess a president can trick the country into going to war, but he’d better not lie about having sex with an intern. We’ve got our priorities.

But if we are as repulsed by sex as we claim to be, why do advertisers use it to get our attention in order to sell us products? And why is sex so rampant on network TV if we are so squeamish about it? That’s simple. The subject makes us so nervous we giggle like junior high kids when a penis joke is made on a nightly sitcom. And we come back the next week to watch more of the low-brow affair. We are uptight and immature and the TV executives know this and cash in on it. I think sex is OK when we’re honest about it or even when we adults do view it with child-like curiosity. Where we go wrong is when we use it to exploit women and children, which is what a lot of pornography does. And yet pornography is one of the biggest money-making industries in America. A story about sex toys being sold like Tupperware exploits no one. It simply explores a peculiar (and interesting) cultural phenomenon. And it gets a lot of us really excited.