Greeting Cards Gone Wild

The photo shows a couple lying in bed, seductively entwined. The words accompanying it detail a sexual fantasy.

It's not a page out of a steamy magazine. It's the front of a greeting card, prominently displayed close to wholesome birthday cards for friends and family.

Don't be surprised these days, when you're searching for that perfect Easter, Mother's Day or birthday card, if you run across a little soft porn on the shelves.

Greeting cards have come a long way since they came on the scene some 150 years ago. Loving sentiments abound, but the more sexually explicit variety has increased dramatically in the last few decades.

"If you'd shown these to my grandmother 40 years ago, she would have been in shock," says Chris Gacek, senior fellow with the conservative Family Research Council.

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Cards showing bare behinds, barely covered breasts, lewd sentiments and off-color humor are pushing the envelope of decency. They're meant for adults only, but anyone can buy them.

SLIDESHOW: Check out the steamy greeting cards 

What's more, anyone can see them -- including children.

In one Manhattan pharmacy, a card that shows a man's very hairy, bare behind sits right above a card with a rubber ducky on the front and another with a cartoon character. All the cards are at a toddler's eye level.

Today, regulating bodies monitor just about every area of public consumption. There are decency standards for television, radio and cable. Movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has parental warnings on CDs. And many states and municipalities regulate the public display of adult magazines.

But the greeting card industry has no controls.

Jack Withiam, of the Executive Committee of the Greeting Card Association, says any kind of government controls over the written word are a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. "Let the marketplace play itself out," he says.

"And if people are not buying a certain card, I assure you retailers are not going to carry it. And I would think that if they have objections about cards, that they may be offensive to them, they may start separating them in their retailer stores. But I don't think you can regulate or legislate that kind of decision."

Hallmark agrees. As the greeting card giant celebrates its 100th anniversary, its spokeswoman, Linda O’Dell, says "cards have always reflected what's going on in the culture."

In the 1940's and '50s, Mother's Day cards were filled with images of mom cooking in the kitchen or ironing in the den. A Father's Day card showed dad golfing or tinkering with the car.

But gender roles have changed, and greeting cards have followed suit. The trend toward raunchy, humor-filled cards shows how society's moral standards have changed as well.

Gacek blames a culture dominated by sexual images. "All this stuff sort of pervades through the culture, whether it's billboards or greeting cards, book covers.... It has an effect and they all sort of rise or sink together."

Greeting cards, in effect, have operated below the radar, because the bigger issue for an organization like the Family Research Council has been fighting pornography and obscenity. For the federal government to prosecute even adult obscenity, Gacek says, "it has to involve child pornography, or some kind of incredibly deviant behavior."

He says if that's the threshold for what's deemed illegal or inappropriate, then the book and greeting card publishing industry have a lot of wiggle room.

But the off-color, make you blush, potty mouth cards are only a small part of the $7.5 billion greeting card business. And O'Dell explains that it's about reaching and touching someone special, in a special way. Not everyone's going to get the joke.

"When you have cards that are relevant to a wide range of people," she says, "you're going to find people that it offends. Our intention is to have a wide variety in the spirit of kindness."

But Gacek still would like it if they weren't out in the open, where everyone can see them.

"The industry might segregate those cards," he said, "put them in a wrapper or something, so you know something about them or avoid them, and that I think would be fair. They should at least do that."