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.
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.
How Not To Win Over the Muslim World
1. Send soldiers into Iraq and Afghanistan with rifles engraved with Bible codes that reference passages of the New Testament. You know, so that extremists have real justification for claiming that this is a Holy War. Crusades anyone? Even the Afghan military were given these Bible guns. The Pentagon arms supplier Trijicon claims it has always used New Testament references on its products. Soon after ABC broke the story, Trijicon agreed to stop. But is the damage already done? See Al Jazeera English coverage for more.
2. Hire private security in Iraq from a company whose boss is now being accused by two of his ex-employees of viewing himself “as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe.” There are also claims that Erik Prince, head of Blackwater, “openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as ‘ragheads’ or ‘hajis’.
Whether or not those accusations are true, thousands of documents show Blackwater guards routinely opened fire in Iraq’s streets, then left the scene without aiding civilian casualties.
3. To top it all off, it surely doesn’t help that the proposed ban on burqas is receiving strong public support in France. I’m all for finding ways to target sexist discrimination, oppression and general misogyny. But we have plenty of that in our western society, even if it’s not as obvious to us as a woman dressed head to toe in black. Sarcozy may think he’s being idealistic, but in reality he is misguided. If he wants to address issues of racism and sexism in French society, there are plenty of places he can start that don’t involve singling out a religious minority that already faces heavy discrimination and difficulty assimilating.
Ex-President George W. Bush once said that the Muslim extremists “hate us for our freedom”. Looking over these headlines, one begins to wonder if some hate us because we won’t give them theirs.
President Obama might have laughed off the question at a Pennsylvania Jobs Town Hall, but legalizing prostitution, drugs, and gambling makes sense both in terms of personal rights and economic growth.
The fact is that these things go on anyway, untaxed. That is a major source of government revenue lost every year. On top of that, because all these industries are forced underground, criminal gangs get involved and violence enters the picture where it certainly shouldn’t have to. Leading, of course, to the government instead spending endless money fighting the crime that arises and a “War on Drugs” that can’t be won.
Never mind the fact that nothing involving two consenting adults, or the ingestion of a substance by personal choice should really be illegal.
Why is it that we are so far from making these changes that our so-called “liberal” president can literally just laugh off the question?
Of course these things aren’t going to become legalized overnight. But decriminalization would be a first great step. We could learn a lot from Portugal’s 2001 decriminalization of all drugs, for example. Seven years later the data is in, and the policy has been a “resounding success”.
What really killed me was President Obama praising the student who asked the question for “doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing,” in college by “thinking in new ways about things.”
Well yes, Mr. President, exactly. Something that shouldn’t end in college. Something we need to see more of in this country’s social policies across the board. You campaigned on the concept of change. Isn’t it about time we saw some?
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Posted: December 6th, 2009
, Sex Work
, President Obama
, sex industry
, Sex Work
As you may have noticed, there’s been a hell of a lot of writing about prostitution in the last week following Belle de Jour’s coming out on the cover of the Sunday Times. Here is the Daily Transmission’s pick of some of the more interesting articles and commentary from this past week:
Belle Lays Bare The Myth That Every Hooker is a Victim
Belle De Jour’s Mother Proud of ‘Brilliant’ Daughter Brooke Magnanti (Heart-warming!)
Brooke Magnanti’s Surprisingly Logical Call Girl Confession: That’s DR. Belle De Jour To You
How Belle de Jour’s Secret Ally Googlewhacked The Press
There is No Shame in Admitting if You’re a ‘Happy Hooker’
More Myths About Students Going On The Game
Enough Hand-wringing On Prostitution
Belle de Jour and the Myth of the Happy Hooker
Brooke Magnanti Says She MIsses Parts of Old Belle de Jour Life
Of course, there will always be some who manage to call themselves feminists and yet deny the validity of a woman’s account if she dares to claim an experience that doesn’t suit some feminists’ political agenda. Here’s a classic example:
Belle de Jour: I Don’t Believe Brooke Magnanti Was a Happy Hooker
All too predictable. Belle de Jour may have made a brave first step in opening a new dialogue on prostitution, but it seems we still have a long way to go.
A shout out today to the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE), I found the following posted on their website particularly inspiring:
The CCLE’s focus is on protecting the unlimited potential of the human mind, and we maintain that criminal drug prohibition infringes on the inalienable right to freedom of thought. We maintain that the war on drugs is not a war on pills, powders, and plants, anymore than the earlier governmental efforts to ban books or to censor publications was a war on paper and ink. These are wars against thinking certain ways, and for this reason we maintain that criminal drug prohibition is unconstitutional cognitive censorship, and inconsistent with the basic values and freedoms upon with the United States was founded. So long as a person does not endanger others, the CCLE maintains that the government lacks the constitutional authority to punish the person simply for self-determining his or her own cognitive processes.
The CCLE strives to protect the fundamental right to freedom of thought — a right that Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo has called “the matrix, the indispensable condition for nearly every other form of freedom.” Because our enumerated rights date back to a time in which the drafters could not have conceived of modern methods of mental enhancement, or mental surveillance and control, the CCLE is committed to gaining legal recognition of cognitive liberty and to expanding legal protection for our rights of mind.
Sounds about right!