Tuned In

Elmo, Petraeus, Sex, and What Is Our Damn Business

Whether it involves kids' entertainment or entirely adult matters, it can be hard to distinguish between genuine outrages and stories that just titillate us or creep us out.

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Central Intelligence Agency Director, David Petraeus, participates in a House Select Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee joint hearing, on Sept. 13, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The case of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash is, as sex scandals sometimes are, poised on the cusp of legally actionable and none of our damn business. (See also Petraeus, David, et al.) Clash, 52, acknowledges having had a relationship with a young man, now 24, while he was over the age of consent. His accuser says it began when he was 16.

[Update: Tuesday afternoon, Clash’s accuser recanted his charge, saying that the two had “an adult consensual relationship.” I’m leaving the rest of the post below as is, both for the record and because its points on the history of children’s performers and sexuality still stand.]

Clash has taken a leave of absence from Sesame Street while responding to the allegation. If his lover was under the age of consent, that’s a matter for the law. If he was over—whatever you personally think of middle-aged guys dating young men (or women)—it’s between them. That’s where things stand now, as Sesame Workshop has thus far stood by its performer, who has been voicing Elmo for 28 years. (It did reportedly reprimand Clash for personal use of his work e-mail.) And, until someone is proven guilty, that’s where it should stay.

But will it? Much as I’d like to think people are able to separate a performer’s personal life from the work, there’s a long history of people not wanting to accept the idea of children’s entertainers having sex lives, especially ones that are in any way controversial. As with schoolteachers, some parents need their kids’ entertainers, not just publicly but privately, to exist in a neuter world of entirely theoretical sexuality.

Pee-Wee Herman’s ostracism after being arrested in a porn theater in 1991 was one of the biggest travesties in entertainment, but not surprising. Paul Reubens built the magnificent Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as a surreal world of nonconformity and rule-breaking; to have it linked to an actual real-world transgression never harmed any child who watched the show but—the greater public-relations sin—it made things uncomfortable for some of their parents. In 2006, PBS Sprout fired a children’s host for having appeared in a risque spoof video before she ever worked for the network. Before that, PBS had to backtrack on a Postcards from Buster episode involving a character with “two mommies.” (Public TV is even nervous about adult-show hosts in public sex scandals; earlier this year, Fred Willard was ousted as host of Market Warriors after a porn-theater bust, apparently to protect the delicate sensibilities of people who watch antiques-auction reality shows.)

Again, Clash’s case right now is a disputed legal one, which might prove very serious—or entirely personal and legal. And I’m glad Sesame Workshop hasn’t prematurely moved to dump him. But even supposing Clash is exonerated, or simply not proven guilty, history is not very encouraging. History tells us that in cases like this, someone will raise a stink about “protecting the kids,” though the fuss will really be about protecting adults and their idealized notions of childhood. If Clash has committed a crime, he should go. If he hasn’t, does his voice coming out a polyester puppet threaten any child, or just some parents’ peace of mind?

(There’s also the ever popular, related complaint, “But how do I explain this to my kids?” First, I wonder how many four year olds are going to ask. But second, speaking as a parent, I hold with Louis CK in his routine on gay marriage: “I don’t know. It’s your s—– kid. You f—ing tell them. Why is that anyone else’s problem?”)

But even when it comes to entirely adult matters, it can be hard to distinguish between genuine outrages and stories that just titillate us or creep us out. Just look at the increasingly byzantine and bizarre sex scandal involving Gen. Petraeus, a couple other women, a couple other men, a shirtless photo and a whole lot of e-mails. This, obviously, is a whole other sort of scandal, with possible implications for national security and the use (or abuse) of the surveillance state. It also will likely make a much, much better made-for-TV movie someday.

But in either case at some point you have to ask, what are the legitimate reasons to care about this scandal and what’s just gawking? When is someone being pilloried for “larger reasons” and when is it just about the tawdriness? Sex makes things complicated—whether it’s in Washington or in Elmo’s World.