Monthly Archives: December 2006

Happy New Year

This year is ending with a huge upsurge of interesting comments and I promise to respond to them when I return on January 2, 2007.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something to read, may I suggest, based on what has triggered all the recent interest, these two posts from the archives. The first is more personal, the second more political.

Sex is a way of knowing

Age, Consent, Power, Position, Agency and Abuse

Wishing peace and joy and compassion and pleasure for all in the new year,
Elizabeth

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Filed under News and politics, Personal Reflections, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

NYT Editorial Page Gets It Right On Sex Offenders

The New York Times this morning ran an editorial “Sex Offenders In Exile” that is about the most sensible thing they’ve written on the topic. In it, they rightly point out that driving sex offenders underground by overly restrictive policies about where they can live is a dangerous and misguided tactic.

They also rightly point out that such policies — which have effectively made some entire cities and towns off limits to sex offenders — are often made because we are justifiably afraid. That our fear is justifiable does not mean that it is a good driving force for policy-making. Fear leads to irrational decisions.

(Note: This is not the first time I’ve written about sex offender policies. See here and here for other posts on the topic.)

Sociologists are big on discussions of unintended consequences. Policies like those that bar sex offenders from living within 1000 or in some cases 2000 feet from a school, playground, place of worship, etc., are rife with unintended consequences, as the editorial points out. For one thing, they often push sex offenders into margins where they are harder to monitor. They also make it harder for offenders to hold jobs and become integrated into the kinds of social networks that would actually support their rehabilitation. Remember not all sex offenders are hard-core recidivists. But even those who are less likely to re-offend become more likely to do so if they’re only friends and neighbors are also other offenders.

Another unintended consequence of these policies is that they lull us into a false sense of safety. For one thing, the majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to the child, not by strangers. For another thing, simply making a likely re-offender live farther away from children does not keep them from traveling into circles where children will play. And there is a class-injustice here as well: poorer families are more likely to live in the places where sex offenders are allowed to live, making their children more likely than wealthier children to be the targets of registered sex offenders.

I am easily frustrated when I see irrational decisions being made. I am prone to outbursts like “Why don’t people think rationally about X,” whatever X might be. This editorial points out that people don’t make decisions based on how they think. They make decisions based on how they feel. And this is a very important insight.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Judith Levine, a writer whose work on sexuality and the perils of “protecting” children in ways that do them more harm has been very influential in my own thinking about sex policies. Judith reminded me that the important work that we who write about sexuality or politics or any sensitive issue need to take up is not to change how people think, but rather to change how they feel.

It is hard to imagine how to change people’s feelings about sex criminals or about children. We have made children into frail and sacred objects and have projected onto them so many of our fears about so many things.

How do we make ourselves less afraid? How do we make ourselves care enough about safety and justice to get it right? How do we get ourselves to be outraged at the effects of our fear-based decisions?

Consider the impact of these policies on the life of Genarlow Wilson, who, three years ago when he was 17 had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. He was convicted of molesting her and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She never filed a complaint about the sex. Even prosecutors in the case wish that the outcome had been different. They had originally been bringing a rape charge against a group of boys, including Genarlow, and Genarlow was found to be not guilty of that charge, but videotape evidence presented in that case showed him having oral sex with the 15-year-old-girl. In explaining why he would not accept a plea deal offered to him, which would have cut his prison time, he said:

“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. ”It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”

Nobody intended for an outcome like this to occur. Nobody intended for a bright, successful, promising young man’s life to be ruined because he was sexually active and had consensual sex with a girl just a few years younger than himself.

But that is what has happened, and it has happened because of policies made in fear. I will refrain from my ordinary appeal to reason. I take Judith Levine’s point. People act based on their emotions. So instead I will appeal to compassion. How do we generate compassion such that it puts our fears in their proper perspective? And how can we moderate our fear so that it matches our actual level of risk?

One way is by reducing our exposure to fear-inducing media and increasing our exposure to more sensible opinions. I’ve written before about the damage done by such popular programs as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” Certainly programs like that one do much to make us afraid and little to make us truly safer.

But we should also be talking to each other more honesty about how we really do feel and what we really do think. It is incredibly difficult to speak up against injustice or irrationality when sex offenders are the target of the injustice or the irrational policy. But it is important to do it. It is important not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is one of the few things that can change our feelings, lead us to make better policy, and really make us safer.

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Filed under Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexuality and age

“Middle School Girls Gone Wild”… Really? I think the boys are wilder!

Today I was going to write about how this blog has served an unexpected purpose: social networking. When I set it up I had only intended it to be a place for me to write about the topics and issues that distracted me from my “other” work; often these would be pieces I had read in the newspaper that really irritated me and sent me off on a tangent that was not what I was “supposed” to be writing about. But in addition to serving that purpose, it has became an avenue upon which I met very interesting people. And I was going to tell you about them today.

But that entry will have to wait, because this morning a New York Times piece really irritated me. This New York Times Op-Ed piece, written by Lawrence Downes, the father of a middle school girl, begins with the words “It’s hard to write this without sounding like a prig” and ends with the declaration, “Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.”

Without reading the piece you can pretty much imagine its contents: middle-aged parent of middle-school child sits in middle-school auditorium watching a talent show which, predictably, falls pretty short on imagination and talent. The girls writhe around like stripper-wanna-bes to sexually explicit Janet Jackson lyrics (yes, what would outrage at mass media sexualization of girls without a swipe at Janet Jackson). The boys, somehow, never appear on stage. Or if they do, we never learn what their acts consist of. We are just told that they would never “waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor.” Hmm. Really?

I’m not so much angry at this man because he objects to the sexualized performance of the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls, though I would remind him that this is hardly a new phenomenon, and that way back in the 80s –good god 20 years ago — when I was in middle school, girls were prancing around imitating Madonna, Cindy Lauper and, yes, Janet Jackson.

No, I’m angry because he asserts that boys would never let themselves be so reduced to this kind of spectacle. And, while he doesn’t tell us what the boys did do for their performance, there is no question in my mind that boys are constantly reducing themselves to such spectacle. And being rewarded for doing so. Perhaps not an overtly sexualized spectacle, but a spectacle that rewards them for their physicality, their bodies, their writhing. A spectacle that places them in danger and that lauds their violent or at very least aggressive behavior. A spectacle that reduces their gender-role options rather than expanding them. And parents of boys are generally not appalled. No, in fact, this is seen as so commonplace that it is not worth even mentioning. No, beyond that, it is seen as so spectacular, so wonderful, that we organize leagues and teams and television channels and billion-dollar advertising campaigns around it.

Why are we not outraged at the valuing of young boys bodies and the lauding of their masculinity in organized competitive sports?

We are not angry about that because we believe that such activities prepare boys to be men. In fact, we so believe that the skills and capacities learned in sports are beneficial that we encourage girls to get involved too. And certainly capacities for teamwork and cooperation and the discipline of training are all very important. But those can be generated in a number of ways that are less aggressive than, say, football, a sport on which colleges and universities depend for money, which exploits the bodies of young men and subjects them to debilitating injury, but for which we celebrate them as participants.

No, we are not angry because we value aggression in boys. We see it as a sign of their masculinity. Apparently we don’t feel as strongly about valuing sexuality in girls. And that’s unfortunate, really. Think about it: aggression is rarely a positive attribute. In fact, boys and men end up struggling with their aggression in relationships with others. Aggression: fighting, abusiveness, intimidation, bullying. Sexuality, on the other hand, is linkable to pleasure, playfulness, intimacy, connection, communication. I don’t mean to suggest that it is always associated with these things, but the potential is always there within sexual experience to lead to these things. This is not true of aggression. It is hard to imagine aggression leading to anything particularly positive.

I’m angry because we privilege boys for their physical performances of gender even when those performances depend on aggression and even violence. Yet we criticize girls for their physical performances of gender, especially when those involve overt displays of sexuality. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one of the reasons we are so fearful about our girls displaying their sexuality is because we fear what might happen to them at the hands of aggressive, out-of-control boys! Yet somehow it seems better to limit the girls’ personal expression than try to change the culture of violent masculinity.

I hope Mr. Downes rethinks his talent-show experience. What were the boys’ performances reflecting? And what about all those other instances where boys are rewarded for a very narrow, very physical, very exploitive, dangerous set of performances? If Mr. Downes is serious about his concern for gender equality, as he seems to be by his closing declaration, I hope he reexamines his feelings about the performances of these middle school girls in light of a new examination of middle school boys activities. I think he might find the range to be equally narrow, and the outcome to be much worse.

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Filed under Childhood Memories, Gender, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

Holiday Generosity?

I know you didn’t ask, but, if you should happen to be looking for a couple of sex-positive causes to support with your year-end or holiday giving, may I suggest two that are currently experiencing pretty urgent needs?

Audacia Ray writes that $pread Magazine is weathering a crisis and needs an infusion of cash to get out their next issue. $pread is a fantastic magazine that gives sex workers a way to share information, tell their stories, advocate for themselves, share resources and, of course, educate the rest of us. You can reach their donations page here.

And just this morning I read that donations to Scarleteen are down. This is especially sad because Scarleteen is one of the best online sources of sexuality information for teens, and does lots of incredibly good work. They not only help teens with accurate and understandable information, but they also help teens build positive body image, negotiate relationships, and make smart decisions. You can reach their donations page here.

And of course there is the Center for Sex and Culture, one of my favorite organizations. It’s run by the incredible Drs. Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence and in addition to all its direct education through workshops and readings and the like, it contains an unparalleled library of sex-related materials — pornography, dissertations, ‘zines, comics, educational materials, and more — that spans decades. The CSC is in the middle of a move from one location to another, and could very much use some help. You can visit their donations page here.

Happy holidays,

Elizabeth

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Filed under Advocacy, Info, and Activism, community-building, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sex work

Sex work is work, and yes, the language matters

I attended the vigil marking International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at Judson Memorial Church last night. It was a very moving vigil, organized by some wonderful and dedicated women representing $pread Magazine and Prostitutes of New York (PONY). We lit our candles and the woman who led the vigil read a statement calling for a moratorium on arrests of prostitutes in Atlantic City until the murderers of sex workers there are solved. Then a brief history of the event was read, and then we listened as people took turns reading the names of sex workers — more than 60 of them — who were killed this year. My thanks to the organizers. What you did yesterday was important, it was noticed, and it was appreciated.

I read this morning that a man is being held in the investigation of the murders of 5 sex workers in Suffolk, England. There are not many details as yet. You can read the story, as reported by the BBC, here.

Meanwhile, I just read a story, pointed to by the fantastic feminists at Feministing.com, that made my blood boil, to use a tired cliche. It’s amazing how close to the truth some tired cliches can be. Perhaps that’s how they become so tired.

In any case, the story is this: While most nations, human rights groups, and even the UN, use the term “sex worker” because they want to be as accurate as possible, the US, as represented by John Miller, director of the State Department’s office to combat human trafficking, would prefer “women used in prostitution” to describe women who are sex workers. This, he believes “is not pejorative” and neither does it “pretend that violence to women … is ‘work'”

Not pejorative?

How is it not pejorative to imply that I am being “used” in prostitution if I have chosen that work? And if I have not chosen it — if I have been coerced — wouldn’t abused be a better term than used?

Pretending that it’s work?

There is no question that sex work is work. It is true that some sex workers are coerced — some even enslaved — into the work. That should be called forced labor or slavery. But to deny that the work itself is work is absurd. Let me shift to the word prostitute just for a moment so that the next sentence will be clear. You could substitute any kind of sex worker (stripper, escort, model) and the meaning would be the same. Here is the sentence: When a prostitute is having sex with a customer she is working. She is working whether or not she is doing it voluntarily. Even if she is being forced, she is working.

Use of the term “sex work” is important because it allows us to make a distinction between the voluntary engagement in sex work and the forced or coerced engagement in sex work. Mr. Miller’s term obscures that very real difference, and really that is what he wants, apparently, though he claims the opposite.

In support of his position he tosses out a number of unsubstantiated claims and unnamed studies. The statistics he cites are alarming, but their sources unidentified. There is no way to evvaluate them. They also don’t always link clearly to his conclusions. For example:

Clinical research, he said, showed that vast majorities of people in prostitution are subject to trauma, violence and rape, and 89 percent wanted to escape.
“These 89 percent are victims of slavery,” he said.

What clinical research? Who were the subjects? What regions of the world are being covered here? And if 89 percent want to escape, does that automatically mean they are enslaved? If you asked 1,000 workers in the service sector in the US if they would like to escape their work, do you think many would say yes? I do. And I wouldn’t call them slaves. I would call them people in jobs that are not good jobs and I would call them absolutely reasonable and rational for wanting out. And I think there are many sex workers who would also like to be in better jobs.

Miller claims that “People called ‘sex workers’ did not choose prostitution the way most of us choose work occupations,” but that is an elitist perspective. First of all, many sex workers do not enter that work from positions of privilege. Many are choosing from a range of options that “most of us” would not enjoy: namely the work that serves people like Miller but without reliable hours, reasonable wages, or benefits. I put “most of us” in quotes there not only because they are Miller’s words, but because it is absurd to imagine that in a world of such economic inequality and concentration of wealth, power and prestige, that “most of us” have the kinds of choices Miller seems to be implying — that is, the choices of occupations requiring higher education, money, access, and powerful social networks.

Second, some sex workers do choose sex work from positions of relative privilege, and others choose it from a range of options that include less desirable choices, and some of those people see their work as a profession and do it proudly — or would like to be able to claim pride in it — and would like to see their working conditions improved so they can do their work more safey. They would also like to be able to do their work without stigma attached to it, and without risk of prosecution. (I have written before about how destigmatizing and decriminalizing sex work would make it safer.)

I support efforts to end trafficking of human beings for any kind of work. I support an end to slavery no matter what the nature of the work. I support economic and social justice, and a system that does not relegate large numbers of workers to jobs that are not secure and that do not pay a living wage. I support a system where all people, regardless of employment or income, have access to health care.

Miller is right that the language we use affects how effective we can be in addressing the serious issues we face. The problem is that his choice of language obscures the issue of trafficking and slavery by lumping together voluntary and involuntary sex work. This is not accidental. This is the clear product of a political culture that would prefer eliminate all sex work, not just the involuntary kind. And that is not a goal I can support.

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex work

Collaborative, egalitarian, erotic community-building

I rarely write to promote web sites, and I even less frequently write specifically about erotic work, but I just came across what I think is a really interesting, unique effort at creating erotic community in a collaborative and equality-minded way.

Playful-Bent is a free site where people can create profiles and then collaborate on erotic stories and participate in photo strip shows. Remember those “pick the ending” stories you used to read as a kid? These stories are like those, except you get to write the story adding pages to what others have written, or changing the direction of the story if you don’t especially like where someone else has taken it. The photo strip shows are by invitation, and you don’t get to see another person’s show unless you reveal yourself as well, and you only reveal as much as you want (or as much as you want to see of the other person!).

The site is created by and seems to attract mostly polyamorous pansexual people, which is another reason I think it’s interesting and worth looking at. It offers a space where multiple sexualities are welcomed, where participants interact as equals and where community is built as participants share in the production of the material.

The treating of written erotic material as equal in value to visual images is refreshing, and the emphasis on real people interacting with each other is really wonderful. I imagine since Violet Blue’s review the site will grow a good deal, and it will be interesting to see how that changes the interactions.

If you’re looking for a different take on online communities, and if you’re interested in sexuality and erotica, you might really enjoy spending a few moments over at Playful-Bent.com.

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Filed under community-building, public discourse, sex, sex -- kinds of, sexuality

When sex workers are not safe, no woman is safe

Perhaps you have been following the story. At least five women, all believed to have been prostitutes, have been found murdered in Suffolk County, England. Three have been identified. They are Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, and Anneli Alderton. Two others have not yet been identified, but two women in the same are were reported missing and there is a fear that these two, Annette Nichols and Paula Clennell, might be the women whose bodies are awaiting identification.

The police are investigating. They appear to be taking the crimes very seriously. What distresses me is this: The message to prostitutes, and to women in general, has been this: “Stay off the streets.”

Here is the Chief Superintendent of police is quoted by CNN.com, speaking about prostitutes alone:

“I’m not sure what starker message there can be at the moment: Certainly three of their peer group have been murdered, now potentially another two,” said Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull of Suffolk police.

“Clearly it’s not safe, they need to stay off the streets.”

And here his assistant is quoted by the LA Times, speaking about prostitutes and women generally:

Assistant Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer has made repeated appeals to women on TV and radio since the first bodies were found:

“Please stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night you are putting yourself in danger. We are coming up to the party season and up to Christmas. There will be groups of women going out, and I would say you have really got to look after each other, plan how you are going to get there and come home together. Whatever happens on your night out, do not leave your friends alone.”

Of course — on an individual level — it makes sense, when the streets are dangerous, to stay inside. And I’m glad that the Chief Superintendent isn’t blaming the women directly for what happened to them.

But to tell workers not to do their jobs because to do so is dangerous, well, can’t remember the response to the on-the-job deaths of miners in the US over the last couple of years. The deaths of those workers generated tremendous anger at the mine owners, and increased calls for regulation of mining and for enforcement of worker protection rules.

After the Sago fire that killed 12 miners in West Virginia this past January, state and federal regulators enacted a flurry of new rules to improve the safety of mine workers. Forty six miners have been killed on the job this year. We don’t tell other miners not to go to work. We tell responsible agencies and employers to protect them.

There ought to be a parallel call here. There ought to be a call for strategies to make sex work safer. Sex work is work, and sex workers ought to be protected as other workers are protected. Destigmatizing sex work makes sex workers safer because they are freer to report threats against them, and decriminalization makes sex workers safer because workers can then, without fear, work directly with police to help catch dangerous johns. (It does not surprise me that in England, where small scale prostitution is largely decriminalized, that the police are doing a more serious job than, say, the Atlantic City police are doing to find the murderer who killed Molly Jean Dilts, Kim Raffo, Tracy Ann Roberts and Barbara V. Breider.) And, if everybody knew that sex workers could do their work openly, without disparagement, they would less likely be seen as “disposable” people who will not be missed because they are not cared for.

Making sex work safer makes women safer in general, as is evident in the statement attributed to the Assistant Chief. Clearly when prostitutes aren’t safe, no woman is safe.

Remember, this Sunday is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and Audacia Ray has compiled a list of events in a variety of areas. Check for one near you. Add these women to your thoughts and get out to a vigil or rally or event to publicly declare that it is not okay to kill people because they make a living selling sex.

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Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex work