News for February 2010

Sex Toys and Firearms:
Perversity in American Culture

America is a country of great contrasts. The country that invented the popular ‘Lingerie Bowl‘ – an annual pay-per-view football game during the Super Bowl, featuring only scantily clad females. Home of phenomena like ‘Bikini Baristas‘ who work at ‘Sexpresso’ stands for those who like their coffee with their kicks. We export a hyper-sexualized MTV culture around the globe in one of the most powerful forms of cultural colonialism to date. Yet right back at home, we struggle to keep our sex laws in even the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first.

It would seem that progress is slow. It took the Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v Texas in 2003 to finally strike down the sodomy laws that remained on the books in many U.S. states. You’ll be pleased to know that as of 2005 pre-marital sex is finally legal in Virginia.

But not all states are ready to accept the new precedent of sexual privacy set by the Lawrence v Texas ruling. As recently as last November (2009), Alabama upheld it’s criminal ban on sex toys. This was the latest decision in an eleven year legal battle brought to court by Sherri Williams, owner of a sex toy store called Love Stuff in Hoover, Alabama.

The judges ruled that the Constitution does not include a right to sexual privacy when it comes to purchasing sexually stimulating devices. One might ask what kind of morality judges gun ownership as a God-given right but masturbation aids as a threat to society.

Alabama is one of the easiest places in the U.S. to buy a gun. There are no state laws requiring licensing, registration, child safety locks, a mandatory waiting period or a limit on the number of weapons that can be purchased at any one time. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Alabama has the 4th highest homicide rates in the country.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Alabama’s law in 2007, saying that the state could regulate commerce that it considered ‘harmful to the public’. I suppose that means dildos are officially more dangerous than firearms in the eyes of the law – and maybe even harder to acquire?

Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act prohibits, among other things, the commercial distribution of ‘any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value.’

Some sex laws in America are simply antiquated and un-enforced, but not in this case. This law was put on the books in 1998 (yes you read that correctly), making it illegal to buy or sell sex toys for anything other than ‘medical purposes’. Your first offense can get you a year in jail and a $10k fine; your second offense can earn you up to ten years in prison. There are similar laws on the books in Georgia and Mississippi.

As others have noted, a few select vegetables should probably be banned as well, not to mention massaging shower heads. Maybe just amputate women’s fingers altogether as we really shouldn’t risk someone somewhere giving themselves pleasure (especially without the aid of a man!)

Taking her cue from Charlton Heston’s famous speech to the National Rifle Association, Sherri Williams isn’t giving up: ‘My motto has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand.’ she said. Love Stuff will continue to sell sex toys; however, customers must sign a form stating that they are buying the toys for one of the permitted reasons.

In the meantime men, have no fear. Viagra is of course still legal in Alabama. Ah, the sweet smell of patriarchal hypocrisy.

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Posted: February 23rd, 2010
Categories: Sexuality
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The Hazy Politics of Drug Policy:
Where Science Gets Left Behind

Last night I had the pleasure of attending UK ex-chief drug advisor David Nutt’s lecture here in London at the Hub Islington, one of a dozen such Hub communities that bring together people working for social change across the globe.

David Nutt was fired for standing up for scientific evidence that showed, for example, that ecstasy, cannabis, and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol. Or that more people die falling off horses every year than taking ecstasy (see his article on Equasy vs Ecstasy.) But it didn’t take long for Professor Nutt to get back on his feet: he’s just started the new Independent Council on Drug Harms with some of the top scientists in the field, which will rival the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The most crucial data that the government doesn’t want to deal with appears in the graph below, from the 2007 Lancet article ‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse’:

Drug Harm Ranking

The paper, co-authored by Prof Blakemore and Prof David Nutt, et al. , ‘presents a scale of harms based on three scales – physical harm, dependence and social harm – which were independently assessed by two groups of experts from the fields of chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, psychiatry and other medical specialties.’

There was a surprisingly poor correlation between drugs’ class according to the Misuse of Drugs Act and their actual harm scores. Alcohol, ketamine, tobacco, and solvents (all unclassified at the time of assessment) were ranked as more harmful than LSD and ecstasy (class A drugs).

It’s obvious that something’s wrong here.

Professor Nutt talked about politicians feeling the pressure to be tough on drugs – but it turns out that at the time cannabis was reclassified as a Class B drug, two thirds of the public wanted cannabis to remain Class C or less. Maybe one of the answers is that we the public need to be more vocal in our desire for drug policy reform.

During the lecture at times I believe many of us didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, like when we read MP Vernon Coaker’s statement that “We look for evidence to support our policy decisions.” Surely it should be the other way around?

Last but not least is media bias. Scottish graduate Alasdair J M Forsyth wrote his PhD having looked at every single newspaper report of drug deaths in Scotland from 1990 to 1999 and then compared them with the coroners’ data. Check out the results below:

Out of the 2,255 drug deaths that decade, only certain drugs tended to attract media attention. 1 out of 265 involving paracetamol, 1 out of 72 involving morphine, 1 out of 48 involving diazepam – the media were clearly not interested in these drugs. They were more interested in cocaine (8:1), amphetamines (3:1) and heroin (5:1). But unbelievably, out of the 28 deaths from ecstasy in ten years, 26 were reported, meaning a near 1:1 ratio. An astounding bias.

Professor Nutt also pointed out that cannabis is not on this chart because cannabis doesn’t kill – you cannot die of a cannabis overdose. Of course alcohol is also missing off that list. Alcohol alone will have killed between 2000-3000 people in Scotland in that same decade – the same as all the other drugs combined. Makes you wonder why it is we consider alcohol in a separate category from the drugs we classify due to their potential harm.

One final example of how even some scientific reporting about drugs is biased. A study that made front page headlines claiming that ‘ecstasy fries your brain’ was later quietly retracted when the researchers realized they had given their subjects methamphetamine instead of ecstasy. Oops!

It’s enough to fry your brain without the drugs.

Sources:

‘Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse’
D Nutt, LA King, W Saulsbury, C Blakemore
Lancet 2007: 369, 1047-1053

‘Distorted? a quantitative exploration of drug fatality reports in the popular press’
A Forsyth
International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 12, Issue 5, Pages 435-453

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Posted: February 18th, 2010
Categories: Drugs, Politics
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