The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies And Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Trying To Take All The Fun Out Of Life by David Shaw

Doubleday, 1996 307 pp

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Yes, folks, the promise is all there in the title, a vicarious Vent for us all, we who are tired of wading through a torrent of preachy-and mixed-messages about nutrition, sex, alcohol, and tobacco. However, reading The Pleasure Police is like having bad sex-sure, you're glad you've had it/read it, but it could have been so much better had a little more time and care been taken.

Shaw is annoyed with "the alarmists of the Left joining forces with the puritans of the Right for the suppression of fun in America." They've stuck their noses into our private business, and having started with sex, they "then moved on to dress, hair length, diet, alcohol, exercise, smoking, joking, flirting, talking, reading and thinking."

In this long essayistic stew, Shaw confronts the fractious debates over nutrition, alcohol, tobacco, sex, and the ongoing American conversation about whether the differences between men and women are biological or cultural. There are plenty of interesting statistics thrown in for flavoring.

Indeed, The Pleasure Police is awash in intriguing statistics. For example, after quoting research that indicates that "smokers cost society the equivalent of seventy-two cents per pack," in various health costs, Shaw notes that "because cigarette smokers die early, society saves the equivalent of thirty-nine cents per pack in Social Security and pension fund payments not made and nursing home and Medicare expenses not incurred." He notes that "society comes out ahead because smokers poison themselves; instead of non-smokers subsidizing the evil habit of smokers, as antismoking activists so often claim, it's the smokers who subsidize nonsmokers."

Or consider the extremely contentious question of whether AIDS poses a threat to the heterosexual population. Shaw notes that "the Center for Disease Control says that only 6 percent of all adult and adolescent AIDS cases have involved heterosexual contact, and two-thirds of those involved people who had sex with someone who already had (or was in a known risk group for) HIV infection. Only 2.2 percent of AIDS cases have involved heterosexuals with no other known risk factor." While not discounting the real threat of AIDS and the egregious lack of government involvement under President Reagan, Shaw provides actual facts, in lieu of a publicity campaign that, while raising more funds, unduly overstates the AIDS risk to heterosexuals.

Had The Pleasure Police limited itself to a sound investigation into the statistical bases for public policy, it would have helped further open debate on these significant issues. However, just when he begins using appropriate facts to support a claim, Shaw veers off into statements about his feelings, his college sexual experiences, or his young son's prodigious intellectual gifts.

At the beginning of the book, Shaw says The Pleasure Police is a "very personal, very subjective book." Fair enough. However, a curious argumentative schizophrenia pervades the book, making it difficult to support whatever reasonable position the author adopts. Amid quoting scientific claims about male and biological differences, for example, Shaw tells us how he makes his son breakfast and takes him to the doctor. It's as if statistically based, scientific fact and personal anecdote should be equally compelling.

Shaw never passes an opportunity for a clever turn of phrase, something the reader will either love or hate. Speaking of nutrition, he says that "almost every year, it seems, there's a new diet guru promising to lead the wandering chews out of the caloric wilderness into the promised gland."

Cleverness aside, the personal tone grates after a while. Perhaps this reviewer's childlessness may have been a factor, but it's tiresome hearing about Shaw's wonderful son, Lucas, his intelligence, his precociousness, and, darn it, his general all-around wonderfulness. This chapter-by-chapter litany of "is my kid smart, or what?" would make an excellent subject for a chance encounter in K-mart, but doesn't carry much argumentative weight.

Despite his helpful research into the factual bases of these delicate subjects, Shaw's opinion seldom veers from Enlightened Liberal. In his discussion of attempts to regulate the sexual content of public media, he tritely offers, "if I were going to advocate censorship-which I'm not-I would censor violence, not sex."

In a book otherwise devoted to the careful marshaling of statistical support, Shaw sometimes makes sweeping, jaw-dropping pronouncements that rival the ideologues he's trying to counter. We read, for example, that "even in the theoretically enlightened 1995, most men are not sensitive, thoughtful or egalitarian either, certainly not where women are concerned." Really.

In The Pleasure Police David Shaw has gathered important information from scientific researchers, sociologists, and cultural historians. However, in deciding to incorporate these facts into a book riddled with unsupported opinion and baseless speculation, Shaw has done little to advance the national debate on subjects central to our health and our political freedom.