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.
As the Daily Transmission is on a summer hiatus, here are a few not-to-be-missed headlines that should keep those juices flowing:
‘Why do we so willfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?’ asks Angus Macqueen in The Guardian. Macqueen has just completed a documentary series for Channel 4 called ‘Our Drugs War’ which is a well-needed examination of the global ‘War on Drugs’. (Save for another time a discussion of what exactly constitutes a ‘drug’ in the first place… possibly the ‘War on Drugs’ belongs in the same failed category as the ‘War on Terror’?)
For further evidence of failed drug policy look no further than ‘Mephedrone found not guilty, but the next legal high may be a killer’ from former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris. We’re on a road to nowhere, attempting to ban each new pharmaceutical ‘high’ that comes out of a lab. It seems the recipe that got MDMA banned still works: Take tabloid headlines, scare stories and incomplete research, mix in some panicked political bravado, season with a bit of ignorance, and bam! You got yourself a mephedrone ban.
And for a shining example of where rational thought ends and politics begins, Sky News reports on why legalizing prostitution works (in Australia) – but ends telling us why prostitution laws in England are not likely to be changed any time soon:
There are not many votes to be won by decriminalisation and, potentially, many votes to be lost if it sparked a moral crusade by opponents of reform.
But that’s why we elect politicians, isn’t it? So they can get in power and ignore what they think is right in order to ensure getting re-elected?
♥ Let’s start with a story of trivial magnitude that I still found fairly unbelievable: ‘Oshkosh Police Arrest Las Vegas Woman For Prostitution After Viewing Posts For Services On Websites’. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been living in the UK too long. But the idea of government money spent on an ‘undercover operation’ to arrest a single independent woman advertising sexual services on the internet seems unreal to me. No excuse of stopping trafficking, coercion, soliciting – just good old-fashioned moralizing on the exchange of cold hard cash (versus presents and dinner?) for sex. She was only living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin temporarily – a pretty harsh wake-up call to the fact that our Dorothy wasn’t in Las Vegas anymore!
I have no idea how common these kind of police operations are, tracking working girls on the internet. If you have any further info, please feel free to post in the comments below.
♥ On to some discrimination on a much larger scale. Queerty has been bringing CBS’s ridiculous hypocrisy to the public eye with regards to it’s Superbowl ad choices.
First we hear that ‘The Super Bowl Welcomes $2.8 Million Ad Buy From Hate Group “Focus on the Family”‘. Which is fair enough, until you remember CBS’s own policy that does not allow any ad that “touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance”. This quote is from a letter to the United Church of Christ, whose ad campaign of inclusiveness (“Jesus Didn’t Turn People Away. Neither Do We.”) was rejected for broadcast in 2004. So much for CBS’s ‘long-standing policy of not accepting advocacy advertising.’ No one’s seen the Focus on the Family ad spot yet, but from what the group has said publicly, it is going to be very clearly pro-life.
Just to emphasize the political nature of these decisions, Queerty has posted two ads rejected from this year’s Superbowl: ‘CBS Won’t Let Super Bowl Viewers See GoDaddy’s Gay-ish Ad Or a Gay Dating Site’s Spot. 30 Seconds of Abortion Still OK’. Although some might argue the content itself was not up to snuff – I demand you watch your average American TV spot before you make that judgement.
♥ Next, to the BBC reporting on how ‘Sanitary pads help Ghana girls go to school’. “Schoolgirl absenteeism in Ghana could be cut by half by providing free sanitary towels, a study has shown.” So easy to take things like that for granted in life. Somehow I think this is the kind of study that only gets done when it’s women on the research team!
♥ The NY Times had an interesting article called ‘Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret’ on the number of gay partnerships that are open sexually, and how they negotiate that understanding. I find it fascinating not just in itself, but as a model for straight couples as well. There needs to be a certain amount of trust, lack of jealousy, etc. – but these are things that often make relationships stronger. Some studies show that open gay relationships last longer than closed ones. As Joe Quirk, author of the relationship book “It’s Not You, it’s Biology”, put it: “If innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.” Here, here!
♥ On a final, lighter note, click here to read how ‘Student Peter Backus uses alien maths to explain why single men can’t find a girlfriend.’ Apparently the probability of finding love in the UK is only about 100 times better than the probability of finding intelligent life in our galaxy! Somehow I bet those chances are much improved by spending less time in front of a calculator.
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Posted: January 31st, 2010
Categories: Sex Work
, sex industry
, Sex Work
There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times today called “How teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy in sex”. Natasha Walter addresses the issue of internet pornography and it’s effects on a generation of children who see their first hardcore porn at a younger and younger age.
According to a London School of Economics study in January 2002:
Nine out of 10 children aged between eight and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures.
I clearly remember attempting to visit the website for the US government and making the unfortunate mistake of typing in whitehouse.com rather than whitehouse.gov at a very young age. But I would imagine that as we see children dealing with adult themes earlier and earlier in their lives, a lot of this viewing is not unintentional.
We mustn’t make the assumption that children viewing sex at a young age is necessarily harmful – however, the problem is that most popular pornography is a very skewed and one-dimensional portrayal of sex. As a teenager, I personally thought of sex as something one does because men like it – that was the impression I had gotten from my exposure to porn on the internet. It wasn’t till years later that I would start to understand female sexuality, and then my own.
It would be great if our education system could provide sex education that taught more than just the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. How about teaching our children something about sexuality as an important way humans express intimacy and sometimes love?
I agree with Walter when she writes that:
“If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.
“…women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.”
Unfortunately the article goes downhill from there, as she goes on to attack the sex industry across the board.
I was disappointed to see the conflation of the entire industry with the intimacy-less portrayal of sex in much popular porn and culture.
Walter completely ignores the shifting trend in the sex industry away from the “porn-star experience” (PSE) prostitute in favor of sex workers who offer the “girlfriend experience” (GFE). Many men are not interested in paying for sex without intimacy. The highest paid call girls in the industry are those who provide more personal interaction – not just completing a sexual act, but focusing on things like kissing, cuddling, foreplay, and conversation.
For more on this I highly recommend Elizabeth Bernstein’s “Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex”. In this model, intimacy is being sold along with sex. Sex workers are seen as just another kind of service provider (in line with therapists, masseurs, etc.) in a capitalist economy where (let’s face it) we all prostitute our time and labour for money in one line of work or another.
Walter claims that “women are scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive career choice” citing two girls who worked in the sex industry as examples. But when she refers to the bestselling memoirs of prostitutes such as Belle de Jour, she completely ignores the validity of their experiences as empowered sex workers. Denying women’s agency and subjective experiences – is that not typical misogyny?
Surely we can do better than that Ms. Walter.
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Posted: January 17th, 2010
Categories: Sex Work
, girlfriend experience
, sex industry
, Sex Work
He’s compared himself to Rosa Parks, but don’t laugh. Read what 25 year-old “Markus” has to say in his interview with Details first.
Markus is America’s first legal male prostitute after Nevada finally changed it’s health codes in December. Male prostitutes were previously unable to qualify under these codes because they specified that prostitutes must undergo “cervical” testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Talk about confirming the assumption that the word prostitute always implies a female worker!
It’s great that Markus is a political crusader who wants to make a point through his employment:
“This actually isn’t about selling my body. This is about changing social norms.”
Having empowered straight male prostitutes who work legally in Nevada will probably help build the case for de-stigmatisation and legalisation of sex work across the country. Somehow the fact that he’s so heteronormative stops people from reverting back to a prostitutes-as-victims discussion.
However, as Gawker pointed out, his business plan is a bit flawed. For now, women who purchase sex are a serious minority in the sex industry, and the competition is rough. Judging from the fact that he’s not much to look at, he probably stands a better chance in the world of gay prostitution, a market with a higher demand. Society seems to allow men the right to pay for sex, so prostitution is more accepted among free-thinking homosexuals.
So unless he’s the charmer of the century, he may have to reconsider the idea that his “sphincter is not for sale”. Even if he only wants to service women, how about all the potential clients who enjoy pegging?
Funny how we pick and choose which social norms to deconstruct, eh Markus?
Today’s outrageous headline comes to us from Change.org, where Alex DiBranco reported ‘Don’t Carry Condoms in D.C. – You Could Be Charged with Prostitution’.
That’s right, police in Washington D.C. have the right to arrest anyone suspected of sex work – and carrying three or more condoms has been used as proof of intent to sell sex.
In any sane society, you’d think the police would be relieved to find prostitutes carrying condoms. After all, sexually transmitted diseases are one of the most common ways we tend to stigmatize prostitutes.
But we live in an insane society, because apparently New York and San Francisco use condoms as evidence of prostitution as well.
In New York:
Some businesses are even afraid to offer the city’s snazzy free condoms because they can also be used as evidence of “maintaining a premises for prostitution”.
Apparently public health is lower on the agenda than a moral crusade against sex work.
Will the madness ever end? Only if you want it to. Sign the petition on change.org now to tell D.C., San Francisco and New York that condoms aren’t a crime!
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.
Yesterday the Sunday Times cover story was “Belle de Jour reveals her biggest secret: she’s a research scientist”. Yes, the anonymous call-girl blogger turned writer whose books became the TV series Belle de Jour played by Billie Piper has revealed her identity. And about time too.
Time for the estimated 90% of prostitutes who work indoors to start coming out and speaking up about their experiences. Time to realize that most of our common knowledge about prostitution comes from street workers – primarily through police records – hardly representative of a massive industry that operates entirely underground. Time to find out just how big a minority women like Dr. Brooke Magnanti are in the sex industry.
Yes, that’s right. Dr. Brooke Magnanti, an educated research scientist who worked as a call girl while writing her PhD. Her experiences were in such contradiction to our cultural folklore about prostitution that many decided she must be making it up, that it was male fantasy, a complete fiction. But no, there are thousands of women like Dr. Magnanti who have these experiences in their past. Who don’t speak up because of the stigma. But its time to start talking, because whoever has got the mic has got the power. And right now it seems everyone’s had their chance at the podium except working girls themselves.
The Daily Transmission is proud of Dr. Magnanti. Maybe it’s time for a coming out party?