As a child in school, I was fascinated by the fact that only a few generations back, it was considered normal for a person to own slaves, for women to be denied the vote, for gay sex to be a crime worthy of imprisonment. At the outset, it is almost inconceivable that good people could have bought into a belief system that condoned such things. The vast majority of people living back then must have been so normalized to this oppression that they couldn’t see past their social norms to the greater injustice of it all. In fact, some of most ‘enlightened’ thinkers and leaders would still have been blinded to their own racism, sexism, and bigotry – all the while seeing their society as the new pinnacle of progress.
Carrying on from that idea, it seems only logical that a few hundred years in the future, people will view our society in a completely different light as well. They will most likely see themselves as more advanced than us, just as we see ourselves now. What aspects of our culture are so ‘normal’ to us that we fail to recognize their unfairness or backwardness? What laws are on the books, what beliefs are commonly held, that form our society’s blind spots?
It was from this point of view that I entered into my study of sociology. Taboos have always fascinated me, and sex and drugs are certainly two of our society’s most common ones. But regardless of a society’s acceptance or nonacceptance of certain taboos, once the government becomes involved in legislating them we are looking at a human rights issue.
One could chart the progress of human rights as modern society came to recognize, one group at a time, that regardless of gender or race all humans are born with certain inalienable rights. Since then we’ve examined more closely issues of personal liberty. The sexual revolution, the invention of birth control, abortion rights, and the retraction of anti-sodomy laws all progressed the idea of the individual’s right to his or her own choices, as long as they do not interfere with the well-being of another.
Looking back to drug policy and the sex industry, both issues concern the rights of consenting adults to make these very choices.
The ‘War on Drugs’ and the laws that come with it are very recent inventions. A hundred years ago there was little or no regulation of any substances. As it stands now, the government allows you to alter your consciousness through the intake of any number of prescription drugs or substances like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine – but not through others like marijuana, magic mushrooms, coca leaves, or peyote cactus. This seems random at best, an attack on cognitive liberty at worst. In the scheme of human history drug prohibition is but a tiny blip. Possession or sale of illegal drugs (many of which were sacraments in religious rituals not so long ago) will now land you with a jail sentence and a criminal record.
Prostitution might be the ‘oldest business in the world’ but it wasn’t always demonized and stigmatized in the way it is today. In fact, similar to the use of certain hallucinogenic and narcotic plants, prostitution was seen as sacred in many societies of the past. The idea of the sacred whore might seem like an oxymoron from a modern Western point of view. Indeed many anthropologists object to the term ‘sacred prostitute’, even while admitting to the existence of priestesses devoted to a goddess who accepted payment donated to the temple in exchange for sex. If that’s not prostitution then I’m not sure what is. In those times, the priestess was seen as an incarnation of the great goddess. In her role as priestess she was a teacher of the mysteries, of the healing and restorative power of sexual energy. Maybe what we need to look at is why we have imbued the word ‘prostitute’ with such strong negative connotations that today our society cannot bear to associate the word with anything spiritual or positive.
There are some who will object to the idea that past (and often considered more ‘primitive’) civilizations’ acceptance of sacred drug use and prostitution should bear any weight in the argument to permit them today. So let’s look rationally at the crux of these issues and get past the initial reactions we’ve all been programmed to have when we hear words like ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitute’ in news headlines.
The idea that two consenting adults agreeing to exchange sex for money can be a crime (as it is in the US) is moralistic, and (ironically) out of step with the very principles of a capitalist system. Any number of goods and services are exchanged for money under capitalism, regardless of whether we’d prefer if those services were granted for free by loved ones instead (nursing, childcare, etc). Sex and companionship shouldn’t be any different. We can’t seem to get past the idea that prostitution is selling one’s ‘body’ ‘ or ‘self’ – as if selling manual labor that involves the rest of your body is somehow different from physical labor that can involve one’s genitals.
Yes, we can all agree that the seedier side of the sex industry needs a serious clean-up, that some horrible things like trafficking and coercion do occur (indeed these are the only times the media reports on the sex industry). But exploitation and trafficking are already illegal, we don’t need anti-prostitution laws to stop them. The simple act of prostitution doesn’t pose any inherent danger to society, unless of course the government is enforcing Judeo-Christian ‘morals’ as law. In which case, we should surely start imprisoning adulterers again too.
Most illegal drugs, whether cocaine (from the coca leaf) or magic mushrooms, originate as a plant in the natural world. In fact human use of mind-altering drugs originates from copying animals in the wild who sought out these plants, after witnessing the unusual effects they had on animal behavior. Some now argue that the desire to consume psychoactive plants is an evolutionary drive that is fundamental to all animals. How can it be illegal for a person to ingest a plant that grows naturally (often sprouting like weeds) on our planet?
A more mature discourse about illegal substances and prostitution will inevitably lead to a healthier culture around them.
Anti-prostitution laws are a reminder that our supposedly free society still has a heavy hangover from it’s Puritanical past. Perversely, we have no problem with someone paying two ‘actors’ to have (often unprotected) sex with each other on camera (pornography), but to pay someone to have sex off-camera is strictly prohibited. These laws make the lives of working girls more dangerous, leaving them in vulnerable situations and unable to go to law enforcement to report true crimes like rape, theft, or violence. They also dehumanize women in the sex industry, feeding exactly the stigma and belittlement that allows some men to justify abusing them (as in their eyes prostitutes don’t need to be treated with the same respect as a ‘normal’ women.)
The American prison population is now five times what it was in 1971 when President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of the nearly 2.3 million Americans currently imprisoned, drug offenders constitute 50% of those in federal prison and 20% of state prisoners.
As Terence McKenna once said, “If the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”
So lets look again the next time we hear the local news report on a new ‘prostitution sting’ – in other words, the round-up of women who were only trying to make a living, who will now suffer public humiliation and criminal charges. Or when police brag of a huge ‘drug bust’ – imprisoning ‘dealers’ while doctors and pharmaceutical companies make their fortunes peddling legal heroin and speed in the form of prescription drugs.
Not only do these laws infringe on personal liberty, they also perpetuate a criminal underworld of gangs, pimps and violence. The harms often associated with illegal drugs and the sex industry are the product of the black market we ourselves create by forcing these activities underground.
So let it be our own children and grandchildren who gasp reading their history textbooks, incredulous at the idea that in the ‘old days’ people really thought it was okay to lock someone up for the crime of consuming a plant, or selling a sexual service.