Bill Poser at Language Log wrote about a recent FCC ruling that determined that buttocks count as “sexual or excretory organs.” The debate was whether seven seconds of female buttocks during the introduction to NYPD Blue constituted indecency on the grounds that exposure of sexual or secretory organs, even without any connotation of their sexual or excretory functions, counts as indency (ABC brief; FCC response). He concludes that the FCC’s response “consists in large part of the claim that in the rule the phrase ‘sexual or excretory organs’ should be interpreted as meaning what they want it to mean.”
The FCC report goes on at length to show that buttocks count as sexual or excretory organs mainly on the grounds that the appearance of buttocks in previous broadcasts has been successfully deemed indecent a number of times. They fail to establish how the restrictions they place on the exposure of certain body parts and certain activities have any relation to the actual content of the phrase “sexual or excretory organs.”
The phrase can be interpreted a number of ways. Sexual organs are obviously the vagina (by proximity, the vulva) and the penis/testicles. Of course, the anus could be considered a sexual organ too if we are taking “sexual” to mean sexual in function instead of sexual in practice – if we go the “sexual in practice” route then we would have to include many or all other parts of the body as well. Excretory organs, on the other hand, are widely understood to be the skin, kidneys, intestines, liver, and lungs, but assuming we are only concerned with the exposure of external organs and not with internal ones (which are indecent in their own way), that only adds the anus to the list, at best; at worst, it also adds the skin. If we are to interpret excretory instead as “secretory,” in order to cover the breasts, we would also have to add the nose, eyes and mouth. Then there’s also the problem of male breasts being secretory as well (it’s true!), and that still doesn’t make it clear whether buttocks count as part of the secretory/excretory function of the ass, or if they’re just in the vicinity of the anus much like upper thighs and lower abdomen are in the vicinity of the sexual organs.
The point of all this is that the “technical” sounding terms the FCC uses to define indecency are horribly ambiguous, and if they were instead to use something like “naughty bits” or “sexy parts,” as some of the Language Log commenters point out, the indecency rule would actually be much less ambiguous. Presumably the only thing stopping them is the fact that these alternatives sound much less official and professional.