Sex and psychedelics are two of the most powerful tools available for facilitating healing and spiritual growth.
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
– William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
I was nineteen years old when I found myself battling deep anxiety and depression, leading to years of cocaine, speed and then ketamine addiction. I was also struggling to find a healthy expression of sexuality in a patriarchal and objectifying world. My response was to find sugar daddies who would at least benefit me materially in exchange, compensating for my own dissociated relationship to sex. I was, seemingly, on a path to self-destruction. But falling headlong into addiction and maneuvering through often fraught casual encounters turned out to be two of the most important things I ever did – because along the way I stumbled upon the hidden healing and spiritual potential of sex and (psychedelic) drugs.
Over the next five years, sex and drugs switched roles in my life: the poisons became medicine.
Sex and drugs are powerfully tied together in the American imagination: through hedonism, scandal, taboo, stigma and crime. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also two of the most powerful, immediate, accessible, and universal ways to experience “altered” states of consciousness. In my experience, it is precisely because they lead to these other states of consciousness, the very states western society often associates with escapism and even madness, that they are such profound tools for healing.
In order to achieve these altered states, the final requirement is surrender: a surrender of the ego, whether through orgasm (la petite mort) or an ego-death experience on psychedelics. “Surrender” is often a dirty word in our control freak and victory-obsessed culture. Perhaps this surrender, this loss of control, is what’s really so subversive about sex and drugs.
In surrendering to the unconscious, or to something greater than our egoic selves, one finds knowledge and ways of knowing that subvert the dominant western paradigm. Psychedelics in high doses have consistently been shown to facilitate peak spiritual or mystical experiences, in studies from the 1960s as well as recent research at Johns Hopkins University. There is a similar potential for peak experiences during sex. It is possible during orgasm to find oneself and one’s lover melding into one being, to experience visions, shapeshifting, a dissolving of the ego or a meeting with “God.” Dr. Jenny Wade’s research on what she terms “transcendent sex” shows that approximately 1 in 8 Americans will experience something like this spontaneously during sex, whether or not they ever share it with their partners.
How Sex and Drugs Help Us Reconnect
The notion of healing with sex and psychedelics shouldn’t really be surprising. Both psychedelic and sexual experience can enhance sensory perception, facilitate reconnection to emotions and memories, reestablish the sense of connection between self and other, and leave deep impressions from states of expanded consciousness. In his book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the “sensory gating channels,” the scientific “doors of perception,” that control how much sensory input reaches awareness. Seratonergic psychedelics, such as DMT (the active ingredient in ayahuasca), psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms), LSD, mescaline, and bufotenin, all reduce gating activity of the thalamus and other gating parts of the brain. Similarly, “frequent sex stimulates the formation of new neurons in neural networks, irrespective of the type or age of the organism. Sensory gating channels open more widely, cognition improves, functionality increases.” Sex and psychedelics both open these sensory gating channels, allowing more information to reach consciousness – in a state commonly referred to as “altered.”
Sex and psychedelics hold strong potential for healing trauma. In The Birth of Pleasure, psychologist Carol Gilligan defines trauma as “the shock to the psyche that leads to disassociation: our ability to separate ourselves from parts of ourselves, to create a split within ourselves so that we can know and also not know what we know, feel and yet not feel our feelings.” Sex and psychedelics have the potential to heal because they can help us to reassociate. It was through sexual and psychedelic ritual that I began to reawaken to a deeper sense of self and a more profound connection to the world around me.
It was my psychedelic explorations that provided crucial insight into my addictive tendencies, allowing me to heal patterns that I now recognize as stemming from deep-seated anxiety and dissociation. Healing my own addiction made me realize just how much is missing from society’s current understanding of addiction as a whole. I believe it is time to redefine addiction, as Bruce K. Alexander does in his book, The Globalization of Addiction: “Addiction is neither a disease nor a moral failure, but a narrowly focused lifestyle that functions as a meager substitute for people who desperately lack psychosocial integration.” This reconceptualization shifts the focus away from the symptoms (particular drugs or habits) to the social dislocation and emotional pain that is at the root of all compulsive and self-destructive behavior.
There are, perhaps, infinite paths to healing and spiritual connection. However, at a time when all life on this planet is threatened by an ecological crisis humankind itself has created, born of compulsive consumption and disconnection from the natural world, time is of the essence. I believe there is a need to consciously catalyze new mindsets and perspectives as quickly as possible – through states that leave one with a profound sense of the interconnectivity of all life, of the illusion of the “I.” Practices like breathwork and meditation can take years to develop before leading to full-blown mystical states. I know from experience what effective and efficient tools sex and psychedelics can be for catalyzing paradigm shifts overnight.
But they are just that: tools. One’s mileage may vary based on intention, mindset, ritual, setting, and how the experience is integrated afterwards. A sexual encounter can be a short-lived and forgettable mutual masturbation session – or an intentional encounter with the divine. An LSD trip can be an excuse to watch Disney movies stoned – or the six hours that forever changed one’s understanding of the nature of the universe. It was a subtle change in my awareness and intention that made the difference between my use of sex and drugs as agents of numbing and escape and agents of change and growth.
Today, partly because of the very illicit nature of sex and drugs in American culture, few are available to teach one how to use these tools. I myself had to stumble my way down this path, lacking role models or any formal guidance. In another culture or time things might have been different. Other societies have established legitimate roles for the ones who would facilitate connection to the collective and divine, using psychedelic plants and sexual experience.
The View from the Ancients
When one takes a longer view back through human history, modern western society appears to be the aberration. Practically every other culture has had carefully prescribed ways of altering consciousness, often through the use of psychoactive plants or sexual ritual. Those involving plant medicines or sexuality were often the most sacred rites, used to heal and connect to the divine. This is true even in ancient Greece, cradle of western civilization. Participants in the mysteries of Eleusis, the most important of all Greek religious cults, included Aristotle and Plato. The greater of these mysteries involved drinking the kykeon, a psychoactive brew most likely made from ergot, from which LSD is derived. Indigenous cultures around the world use psychoactive plant sacraments, from psilocybin mushrooms to iboga, ayahuasca to peyote. The Tantric tradition holds sexual intercourse as a sacred rite, called maithuna. Early Taoist sects performed sexual intercourse as spiritual practice, called HeQi (“joining energy”).
Today, living post-sexual revolution and in an era of increasing acceptance of some forms of drug-taking, American culture is rife with sex and drug references. Sex and drugs are “fun.” But sacred sexuality scholar Georg Feuerstein argues in Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions that today’s “obsession with fun betrays an absence of pleasure or happiness” and that “beneath our hunt for fun or fleeting pleasure there lies buried a deep desire to realize our ecstatic potential.” Like Feuerstein, I believe that “sacred sex, which is the experience of ecstasy, is the real sexual revolution.”
A revolution in American drug use would be welcome as well, responding to the deep desire for rites of initiation and transcendence that underlies the urge for fun and escape. From ancient times, socially sanctioned and supervised use of what is today called a “drug,” but which was then considered a “sacrament,” would often be introduced in the transition from childhood to adulthood. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that in a culture that is missing these rites of initiation, the teenage instinct to just “get fucked up” (or alter one’s consciousness) prevails. But without any instruction, guidance or context, one is left shooting (up) in the dark.
Sacred is not a word often associated with sex or drugs in American culture today, but perhaps that’s exactly the problem. As sex and drugs are brought out from the shadowy underbelly of American society and into conscious awareness, as their stigma is removed, maybe the puritanical and repressive roots of this country will finally be overthrown – allowing once more for ways of knowing and understanding that were nearly exterminated along with the indigenous peoples who once populated this land.
Spiritual Tourism is Not the Answer
Sex and drug education, teaching harm reduction, is just the tip of the iceberg. New studies on the importance of intimate touch as well as the healing possible using psychedelic medicine seem to be emerging weekly. Why not think consciously about roles for teachers and guides to facilitate these explorations?
The potential for sex workers to function as healers is vast and not unprecedented historically, possibly dating back to temple prostitution in ancient times. Even today, sex surrogates, “neo-tantrikas” and other sex workers are actively doing this work. It was my own sexual journey that led me to research older forms of sacred sex and temple prostitution as well as to investigate the incredibly human (but often untold) stories of client-provider relations in the sex industry today. My own experiences have confirmed that there is always potential for healing when two people get truly naked with each other. This healing can take place in any intimate context – but sexual teachers, healers and facilitators are needed to facilitate a societal shift away from superficial and disconnected pornographic representations and back to something more genuine, embodied and profound.
Psychedelic facilitators have existed throughout time as well, from indigenous healers and spirit workers to underground psychedelic therapists and medical professionals continuing this ancient work. As psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin continue to gain acceptance within modern medicine as powerful and effective treatments for everything from anxiety and OCD to PTSD and depression, there will be a need to further develop and expand this role.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in the attempt to build these new western traditions. There is much to learn from other cultures and times, ancient techniques for going into transcendent states, psychedelic states, states of erotic trance. But even this re-learning process is fraught as the western appropriation of “shamanistic” and other traditions such as ayahuasca and tantra – seemingly with the best of intentions – risks perpetuating old colonial patterns of “borrowing” knowledge and resources from indigenous and other peoples, while giving back little in return. Decolonizing our spiritual practices is surely as important as (and perhaps fundamental to) decolonizing our bodies and the earth. Respectful cultural exchanges with other traditions can provide inspiration for new ways of doing things – but it will take slow, organic work from within existing western paradigms to grow the traditions that will make lasting social change.
Individual and Collective Healing
There are vast new worlds to explore as the West re-approaches psychedelic plants and the healing potential of sexuality and intimate touch. “Altered” states can lead one into rich and fruitful dark places, if one is willing to go: ploughing the unconscious and bringing repressed emotions, memories and knowings into the light of the conscious mind. It is in the darkest psychedelic trips that I gained the most insight; it is the places that were most uncomfortable, the places I most wished to avoid, that had the most to offer. It was only possible to heal, however, because I was in safe and intentional spaces. The difference between a potentially scarring trip and a deeply nourishing one can be simply a matter of where, how and with whom it takes place.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at twenty years old and it was the conscious use of sex and drugs – not my doctor’s prescription – that helped move me through it. My journey from addiction and disembodiment to healing and reconnection taught me the importance of removing the taboos around sex and psychedelics and restoring them to their rightful place as healing and sacred.
Now it feels as if my own story is just a microcosm of the greater story of western civilization today. An estimated 23.1 million Americans need treatment for a problem related to illegal drugs and alcohol, and 18.2 million Americans are diagnosed with a form of mental illness every year. I would argue far more than that are suffering from other compulsions and ailments as a result of mass disconnection and social dislocation.
Indeed, all life on this planet is threatened by western culture’s dissociation, disembodiment and addiction to consuming – which has now brought us to a mass extinction event, an ecological mega-crisis. As the inventor of LSD Albert Hoffman writes in LSD, My Problem Child, “A concept of reality that separates self and the world has decisively determined the evolutionary course of European intellectual history.” It will take the rapid opening of humanity’s collective sensory gating channels, the correction of this fundamentally flawed paradigm, to change this course. Through the process of embracing the shadow, of re-associating and reconnecting, of finding healing and spiritual awareness, we can collectively shift away from the destructive path we are on. It is time to re-sacralize nature and the cosmos, to find our way back to reconnection and reintegration, to an understanding of the interconnectivity and intelligence of all life, before it’s too late. I believe the careful and intentional use of sex and psychedelics is our best hope for quickly catalyzing that change.
We have the right tools – if only we can learn to use them in time.
Originally published on Alternet.
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Posted: May 25th, 2016
, Sacred Sexuality
, Sex Work
Can a provider of sexual services facilitate healing? How can transformation take place within such an exchange? We don’t often hear about them, but there are plenty of anthologies of sexual healers’ stories, for those who would seek them out. It is these men and women’s voices that I’d like to amplify in this piece. It would be illuminating to hear from their clients as well, but those accounts are few and far between. However, it is interesting to note that many of these people actually started out as clients, with trauma or pain to be healed, and later in life became healers themselves. Often their personal essays include stories of being in both roles.
Why is sexual healing necessary? Joseph Kramer, founder of the Body Electric School and a self-professed “sacred prostitute“ says:
You can talk to a psychotherapist about sexual abuse for years, but for intervention on the physical plane, we call on a sacred intimate…It is in the physical world that the trauma took place and that’s where the healing most effectively takes place. (Blackburn, 2007, p.61)
It seems important to note that the terms “sexual trauma” and “sexual abuse” carry a lot of stigma, and it is easy to forget that these things take place on all different points along the spectrum. Being addicted to drugs can mean being a “functioning addict” or being a “junkie” on the street. Although one might seem better off than the other, we’d agree that both people need treatment. Similarly, having a conscious memory of egregious abuse as a child is not the only qualification for trauma. I would argue that most of us carry sexual pain and trauma from living in this sexually dysfunctional society, whether or not we are conscious of it.
A legitimized role for sexual healers is not that far of a leap from what we already have as (almost) socially acceptable in society today: sexual surrogates who are sometimes recommended by psychotherapists as an adjunct to talking therapy. Still controversial, they are gaining acceptance. The International Professional Surrogates Association has a training program that you can go through if you wish to work within the realms of traditional medicine and therapy. The men and women featured in this article mostly work outside of those worlds, with only a couple of them doing official “surrogacy” work.
Two prominent and important aspects of all the featured healers’ stories is their ability to offer acceptance and presence:
A common trait of all the sacred intimates in this book is their full acceptance of themselves and those who come to work with them. Such complete acceptance is so rare that it is much more radical than any of the physical activities that take place during their sessions. Perhaps that is why we so often hear that shame is released in sacred healing sessions – because, in the presence of a loving person who accepts another ‘warts and all,’ a person can let go of their self-loathing and recriminations, even if for one precious moment. (Blackburn, p.215)
Presence means that you are met ‘where you are’ physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Presence doesn’t mean that the person is like you in all these ways, but that she respects you and accepts you fully. To be present also means that the sacred healer attends fully to the individual(s) he is with and the situation he is in, without jumping to conclusions about what is happening inside the person, and without attempting to lead or control. Sacred intimates often describe their experience of being present as being an open conduit for healing, as channeling divine energy, or as just being a witness for their client. They limit their own personal input, and allow healing energy to take over the situation. That level of presence allows wonderful and amazing things to happen. (Blackburn, p.219)
Similar to presence is the gift of allowing a person to feel wanted and received, something not all of us feel in life. Sensual masseuse Carolyn Elderberry says, “The men…knew they wanted their wives to desire them; they hadn’t realized the extra dimension of their frustration was their need to be wanted and received” (Stubbs, 1994, p.164).
In terms of healing, many clients have issues around trust, intimacy, sharing and surrender. All these things are important in living a “healthy” life and these kinds of sessions allow them to experience them, and to build their ability to have these experiences with another (non-working) partner. None of these sexual healers (and not all sex workers in general, for that matter) think of their job as providing a strictly sexual service, although sex is often (not always) a part of the time they share with their clients. It is the service of providing intimacy. This is increasingly common, as is well documented in Columbia professor Elizabeth Bernstein’s Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex.
Other aspects of healing can occur through exploration of fantasies:
We suspect that many of the dark fantasies we love to explore in SM are paths to the Shadow – paths to parts of ourselves that we wish to bring back into consciousness, split-off parts that we want to welcome back so that we can be whole. Seen in this way, the theater of SM is a sort of psychodrama, tracing a scary painful path to some dark cave in our iceberg, but with someone else to share in the journey and act as mirror to validate our experience…What if bringing our dark fears into the light of awareness can heal us, make us more whole? (Easton, 2004, p.167)
So if all this healing is possible, why would anyone choose to work outside of sexual surrogacy and brave the underworld of sensual massage and other services that could have them arrested for prostitution? As Selena Truth put it:
One of the pleasures of doing sensual massage was that I reached people who would never have come to see me if I had called my work “spiritual” or “healing.” Yet often they were the ones most in need of healing. The promise of an exotic sexual experience lured them in, and once they were there, they often received much more than just a hand job. Like with this man, I used the opening that happened with orgasm as a way in, to plant seeds of self-loving, heart-healing and a glimpse of a broader reality. (Truth, 2009, p.103-104)
Carol Queen, activist and self-identified call girl says:
To guide another person to orgasm, to hold and caress, to provide companionship and initiation to new forms of sex, to embody the Divine and embrace the seeker – these are healing and holy acts. Every prostitute can do these things, whether or not s/he understands their spiritual potential. (Stubbs, p.201)
To see an act of prostitution as “healing” or “holy” is to turn Judeo-Christian and Puritanical values on their head, to look at the world through a completely different lens. A lens that is sex-positive, that embraces embodied spirituality (rather than a spirituality that denies the body), one that seeks immanence rather than transcendence. Through this lens we see a whole new world of possibilities for healing, connection and oneness ahead. Shepherding us from the old world to the new are these bright spirits, these modern day sexual healers, leading the way.
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Blackburn, S., & Wade, M. (2007). Reclaiming Eros: Sacred Whores & Healers. Portland, ME: Suade Publishing.
Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2004). Radical Ecstasy: SM journeys to Transcendence. Oakland, Calif.: Greenery Press.
Stubbs, K. R. (1994). Women of the Light: The New Sacred Prostitute. Larkspur, Calif.: Secret Garden.
Truth, S. (2009). Tales of a Sacred Prostitute: Revelations of how Sexual Energy Heals. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
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In case you haven’t heard: there’s a new moral crusade on the rise. It began two years ago with a campaign for Craigslist to take down it’s adult advertisement section because it was being used by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. After winning every legal battle in court, Craigslist finally caved to public pressure and took it down. What followed was the inevitable exodus of adult services ads to another website, this time Village Voice owned Backpage.com, another website for classified ads. It wasn’t long before the anti-trafficking crusade was up in arms again.
The pressure has reached critical mass in recent weeks as scathing editorials by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have become near-weekly and a petition with a quarter million signatures was delivered by local clergy and council members to Village Voice Media in NYC. The movement is growing nationally with 19 US senators and 51 attorneys general signing on to the cause.
The idea behind this is a simple one. For example take the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has claimed that in two years, 70 percent of the 40 trafficking cases his office dealt with involved ads on Backpage.com. They conclude from this that Backpage is effectively pimping underage/trafficked girls and that the site’s adult services section needs to be taken down.
The thought on this issue seems to stop there. Firstly, it would seem obvious that whatever website is most popular for those seeking adult services is going to be the place traffickers go to advertise their victims as well. The whole discussion around this issue seems to also show a certain naiveté around the prevalence of consensual prostitution, which makes up the vast majority of the ads placed on Backpage.
Aside from that, it is clear from what happened after Craigslist was shut down that this is really a game of Whac-A-Mole. With the advent of the internet as a marketing tool, we are dealing with a new era for the sex industry (as for any other industry), and shutting down one website at a time is simply not going to solve the problem.
Not only is it not going to solve anything, it’s actually a dangerous tactic for several reasons. Any website that cooperates with law enforcement and is proactive about screening its advertisements for any hint of coercion or underage sex (as Backpage does) is an opportunity to monitor a world that law enforcement can’t usually access. Assuming that these ads will eventually all move to a new website (even the District Attorneys attacking Backpage admit they will), there is no guarantee that this new website will have the rigor or interest in pursuing this on the scale Village Voice Media does, never mind the funding to do so. There are an estimated 5000 adult advertisement websites that advertise sex workers/escorts in the United States, and an increasing number of them are not on US shores. Therefore not only might they not take a principled stand on this issue (as Village Voice has) – but they may not be under US jurisdiction either. Many prosecutions of sex trafficking cases use information obtained from Backpage via subpoena, something not possible with an off-shore company.
This all doesn’t bode well for the future protection of victims of sex trafficking. And it’s only the beginning of the problem with the cause to shut down Backpage. While taking down Backpage may make some feel better, there is no evidence that doing so will help victims of trafficking. What we do know is that it will have many unintended and dangerous consequences for those involved in the sex industry by consent.
Backpage is a low-cost advertising site that has allowed many people in the sex industry to break away from a pimp or madam, get off the streets or out of a house, and work independently.
What happens when you shut down an advertising site that services so many people? Further marginalization leads to increases in violence, HIV and other STIs, stigma and discrimination. Without sites such as Backpage it is much harder for sex workers to screen their clients and negotiate their terms of service, such as condom use. Closing down low-cost advertising sites makes it harder to be independent and forces sex workers to rely again on third parties, leading back to exploitation and trafficking.
Having heard little discussion of these and other consequences in the crusade to shut down Backpage, I spent the day at City Hall yesterday waiting for a chance to testify on the proposed City Council resolution recommending the closure of Backpage’s adult services advertisements. I was joined by the wonderfully bright and articulate Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of NYC. Chairing the panel were Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Brad Lander.
It wasn’t so much a hearing as a lynch mob. Cameras rolling, I watched as members of our City Council practically lined up to abuse Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall (who came to testify by choice). She was interrupted, insulted and accused repeatedly – while her sensible and sensitive responses to their questions went completely ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder: knowing that the city has no power to shut down Backpage (the resolution is just a strong recommendation), surely the opportunity to sit and talk with Backpage’s attorney about these issues would have been better spent in an in-depth discussion of what Backpage could do to improve it’s current efforts to curb trafficking? Unfortunately all that ensued was finger-pointing, angry raised voices and public humiliation. Having spoken to Ms. McDougall I feel it’s obvious that she truly believes that the Village Voice is doing the right thing here (and I agree). It’s rare to see a sense of corporate responsibility these days and it was truly painful to watch her efforts met with sarcasm and bullying.
The rest of the testimony might as well have been a mutual masturbation session as City Council members, District Attorneys, and anti-trafficking organizations congratulated each other on having the courage to ‘stand up’ on this issue.
Except all I saw in that room was cowardice and politics. It is pure sleazy politics to not stand up and admit (as at least one council member is said to have done privately) that shutting down Backpage will probably not help the trafficking situation. It is pure cowardice to hide behind an easily passed resolution to be able to say you’ve done something about trafficking – instead of pushing for the funding for programs that would really help the populations most at-risk from this kind of abuse.
There are some real and tangible changes our society can make, as my fellow SWOP member Kate D’Adamo explained to the City Council:
“According to the John Jay College study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City, 95% of the youths interviewed said they exchanged sex for money because “it was the surest way to support themselves.” And we are not talking about a missing population who is isolated in their quest for support. 68% had visited at least one youth service agency. And while 87% expressed a desire to leave the sex trade, the barriers can feel insurmountable at times. 60% said they would require stable, legal employment, 51% identified educational needs, and 41% required stable housing before this was possible.
While these all seem like lofty goals, they are clear, decisive places to start that we know will have a huge impact on this population. The most frequent request for services? Stable, long-term housing, most acknowledging that the typical 90-day maximum stay does not provide enough time for them to get on their feet. In 2007, before the financial crisis, one study identified 4000 unaccompanied youth in New York City every single night, and even this number is low. This number does not include youth with their family in the shelter system. It does not include youth who have not tried to connect with the system in some way in order to be counted. It does not include the increase in homeless and housing unstable persons which occurred during the financial collapse a year later. To meet this need, the city funds just over 300 shelter beds. And while 45% of the population of youth engaging in the sex trade is male, and half of street-based youth identify as LGBTQ, the vast majority of these beds have gender restrictions. This year, Mayor Bloomberg is seeking to cut this number even further. Funding emergency shelter services could be a silver bullet into this issue, and it would be a solution which preserves the agency, the rights, and the autonomy of this population.”
I’m afraid to say our testimony fell on deaf ears. The council members present had already made up their minds a long time prior to this hearing. We were briskly thanked for our testimony and spared a single question or follow-up, unlike the many hours of questions we sat through during every testimony prior to ours. The message, in our eyes, was clear. Our ideas are not popular and the voices of the sex workers on whose behalf we were speaking are not exactly important in the political world. A depressing day indeed.
In the meantime, with it’s long-held tradition of standing up for marginalized groups and civil liberties, the Village Voice doesn’t look likely to back down anytime soon. And I’m proud of them. Shutting down Backpage’s adult section would have many unintended consequences. As well-meaning as the anti-trafficking campaigners are, it’s one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem of sex trafficking is complex and deserves a thoughtful, multi-level approach to prevent its occurrence and facilitate the rescue of its victims. In addition, sex workers’ voices (those working with agency and by consent) need to be heard when considering a policy that will affect them more than anyone else. Yesterday may have been disappointing, but we can’t afford to back down when there is so much at stake.
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Posted: April 27th, 2012
, Sex Work
, Brad Lander
, City Council
, Julissa Ferreras
, Liz McDougall
, Margaret Chin
, Melissa Mark-Viverito
, Sex Work
, Sex Workers Outreach Project
, Village Voice
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, Guardian columnist Tanya Gold wrote “Dr Brooke Magnanti says she enjoyed life as Belle de Jour. Please don’t let this distort the grim reality of prostitution.” Why does a liberal newspaper like the Guardian consistently publish such reactionary commentary when it comes to sex and prostitution?
Tanya Gold is confounding the issue and confusing her readers by assuming that the sale of sex necessitates exploitation and coercion. Gold asks “can we ever untangle those two soul mates: violence and prostitution?” What a preposterous notion! We might as well ask whether it is possible to untangle exploitation from the textile industry. The obvious answer is yes. It is a matter of regulation and unionization, just like any other service industry.
The disfunction that occurs in the sex industry is a byproduct of its underground status. It is the constant stigmatization of prostitutes that allows some people to see them as less than human – seemingly giving license to a small percentage of clients to behave violently.
Otherwise, a sexual service provider should be no different from any other service provider. You hire a nanny to care for your child, a masseuse to give you a massage. In a perfect world there would be a full time mother taking care of the kid and your husband would be able to relieve the tension in your back but we accept that life’s not always like that. We pay for service providers.
Prostitution is just another service industry, providing intimacy, therapy, and the relief of sexual tension. It is an ancient, and I think noble, occupation. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of cleaning up to do. We need to address conditions in ‘working class prostitution’. We need to look at trafficking, under-age workers, and other forms of exploitation.
Dr. Brooke Magnanti could be seen as a middle class prostitute. And that is why she is so important. She can be a model for what the world of prostitution could and should look like. So no, Tanya Gold, violence and prostitution are not soul mates. I’ve interviewed enough sex workers in my own research to know that violence is a rare occurrence for most. But of course all violence in the world of prostitution should be eradicated. On that I think we can agree. So how to move forward?
De-stigmatisation, legalisation, and unionisation. Got it?