What Do Elmo and David Petraeus Have In Common? They’re Both Targets of a Sex Panic

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The guy who has been the voice and puppeteer for Elmo, Kevin Clash, resigned yesterday from Sesame Workshop on account of recent accusations that he had sex with under age boys.  Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t – we don’t know yet.  But Sesame Workshop wanted him out as we head into the holiday shopping nightmare extravaganza.

The New York Times contacted me today for a comment in connection with Clash’s resignation and the lawsuit that was filed today by Cecil Singleton, a man who is now 24 years old claiming that Clash had sex with him when we was 15 years old, demanding $5 million in damages.

Here’s what I told the Times:

While I can’t speculate as to the merits of this new lawsuit, that will be left to the judicial process, I am concerned about Kevin Clash’s resignation today.  I assume that he stepped down in response to pressure from Sesame Workshop that felt that it could no longer tolerate the association of it’s corporate brand with notions of homosexuality, sexuality, or illegal sexuality.  I mention all three because I wonder if the “scandal” that threatened Clash’s employment would have been any less troubling for Sesame Workshop if the terms circulating onTwitter had been  “Elmo” and “sex,” or “Elmo” and “gay,” instead of “Elmo” and “under-age-sex”.

Just as I thought it shocking that David Petraeus was driven from public service on account of “marital infidelity” rather than the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the U.S. government in the Petraeus-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the expansion of the CIA’s Predator campaign in Yemen, or his role behind a recent push to expand the agency’s drone flee, (see my recent piece on this issue), so too I worry that Clash is the most recent victim of what we call in my world a “sex panic.”

At precisely the moment when gay people’s right to marry seems to be reaching a positive tipping point, sexuality is being driven back into the closet as something shameful and incompatible with honor (in the case of Petraeus) or decency (as in the case of Clash).  Clash has not been convicted of a crime, but merely accused of one in a completely unsubstantiated, vague complaint.  As you note below, this smacks of a shake down.  But what is telling is Sesame Workshop’s quick overreation, not waiting for any credible evidence of wrongdoing to be presented before making it clear to Clash that the voice of Elmo cannot be associated with sex, legal or otherwise.

To my mind, of equal concern is the other aspect of this issue that stems from a moral sense that sexuality of any kind poses a threat to childhood (in the form of Elmo and other Sesame Workshop characters).  Recall the panic when it was implied years ago that Bert and Ernie were gay, or that the Teletubbies were as well.  Any implication that children or child-like characters had a sexuality was to be immediately disavowed.  It does children a disservice to construe sexuality as something that can only hurt them and from which they must be protected, rather than acknowledging that children are sexual beings whether we like it or not, as sexuality is a natural part of human and child development.  In the name of protecting them from adult predators, so many children, particularly gay children, learn almost nothing about healthy sexuality and are left to figure it out on their own – a predicament that often exposes them to additional risks they could have avoided had they received adequate and age-appropriate sexual education as children.

Here’s what they published:

Elmo Puppeteer Resigns After Fresh Allegation

By ELIZABETH JENSEN and BRIAN STELTER

5:11 p.m. | Updated Kevin Clash, the longtime voice and puppeteer behind “Sesame Street’s” Elmo character, resigned on Tuesday after a new allegation was made that he had underage sexual relationships.

Announcing the decision with what he called a “very heavy heart,” Mr. Clash said in a statement, “Personal matters have diverted attention away from the important work ‘Sesame Street’ is doing and I cannot allow it to go on any longer. I am deeply sorry to be leaving and am looking forward to resolving these personal matters privately.”

His statement came at around the same time that a lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York accusing him of “sexual activity” with a 15-year-old. The accuser, Cecil Singleton, is now 24. The suit said that Mr. Singleton “did not become aware that he had suffered adverse psychological and emotional effects from Kevin Clash’s sexual acts and conduct until 2012.” It sought $5 million in damages.

Mr. Clash had no comment on the lawsuit. He was first accused last week of sexual improprieties by a man who later recanted and said they had an “adult consensual relationship.” That man has remained anonymous and has not filed a suit.

While Mr. Clash’s departure on Tuesday put some distance between the sex allegations and the iconic children’s character, the claims may affect the “Sesame Street” brand in ways that remain to be seen.

Hasbro, the main toy licensee for “Sesame Street” products, said in a statement Tuesday, “We are confident that Elmo will remain an integral part of ‘Sesame Street’ and that ‘Sesame Street’ toys will continue to delight children for years to come.” Macy’s, in a statement, said the episode would have no bearing on “Sesame Street’s” presence in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade later in the week.

Jim Silver, editor in chief of Time to Play, a Web site that follows the toy and licensing business, estimated Hasbro’s wholesale sales of “Sesame Street” branded toys to be about $75 million annually. Elmo-related products account for 50 to 75 percent of that figure, he said, depending on the year.

Before Mr. Clash resigned, Mr. Silver said he was estimating that Elmo-related toy sales would be down perhaps 10 percent because of the stories about Mr. Clash’s personal life. But with the resignation, he said, the total impact will probably be less than that. This fall, Hasbro’s Playskool brand introduced “Playskool Sesame Street LOL Elmo,” a new version of 1996’s “Tickle Me Elmo,” with a suggested $40 retail price tag.

“People are making the separation that this is about Kevin Clash, this is not about Elmo,” he said. “The more people make the separation, the less effect on sales.”

Mr. Clash took a leave of absence last week to defend himself when the first accuser received attention from the gossip Web site TMZ. Production of “Sesame Street” will be unaffected by his absence, in part because Mr. Clash had been helping to identify other puppeteers who could play Elmo.

Still, his name has been synonymous with Elmo for more than 20 years, and especially so since his star turn in a documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” last year. The complaints this month contributed to what Sesame Workshop, the producer of “Sesame Street,” on Tuesday called a distraction.

“None of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization,” the organization said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from ‘Sesame Street.’”

The statement concluded, “This is a sad day for ‘Sesame Street.’ ” The organization declined interview requests.

After the resignation announcement, there were unanswered questions about whether Mr. Clash was forced out by the organization (whose publicists announced his departure an hour before his own personal publicist did).

Katherine Franke, a professor of law and the director of the center for gender and sexuality law at Columbia University, said she worried that Mr. Clash was “the most recent victim of what we call in my world a ‘sex panic.’ ” She named a second recent example, David Petraeus, who admitted having an extramarital affair and resigned as the C.I.A. director earlier this month.

“At precisely the moment when gay people’s right to marry seems to be reaching a positive tipping point, sexuality is being driven back into the closet as something shameful and incompatible with honor (in the case of Petraeus) or decency (as in the case of Clash),” Ms. Franke said in an e-mail message. Mr. Clash, she added, “has not been convicted of a crime, but merely accused of one in a completely unsubstantiated, vague complaint.”

I’m already getting really ugly hate mail.  Used to be that when I wrote about gay rights the hate mail swamped my Inbox.  Now it happens when I write about sex.  Many of the critics say I’m defending the likes of Jerry Sandusky (Ann Althouse reposted my Elmo quote on her blog and that’s been the spirit of many of the hostile comments).  Seems it’s too hard for many readers to see a difference between a defense of sex and a defense of sexual exploitation.

Sex is getting such a bad rap these days.  Just as feminists have found it challenging to Theorize Yes to sex, seems the larger public has as well.  Sure, there is dangerous, exploitative, predatory, violent sex.  But not all of it is.  When someone is accused of having (or liking) non-normative sex, let’s wait a moment before we conclude that the moment calls for pitchforks and stockades.  Sex, and life, are so much more complicated.

Katherine Franke, Columbia Law School

Cross-posted from the Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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