Monthly Archives: February 2007

Some light reading while I’m out of town ;)

It’s been awfully exciting around here since Tom Joaquin piped up! His fantastic post on what’s becoming known as the Alabama Vibrator Law brought a lot of new visitors, and a new liveliness to the comments. I’m very excited by both of those things.

And, as it happens, right in the middle of all this excitement I have to go out of town. Tomorrow I’m headed to Georgia, as a matter of fact, home of Genarlow Wilson and also a ridiculous proposal on keeping sex offenders from living near school bus stops (see the first post mentioned below).

What does this mean for you? It means no new posts, at least not from me. Tom, if you feel like jumping in again, go right ahead! It also means a slower moderating of comments. I’m going to visit my sister and her family, and I have two adorable nephews who will be taking most of my attention. Surely you will be understanding 🙂

Since we do have so many new and interesting folks here, though, and since you all have raised lots of interesting questions and issues in the comments, I thought I would offer a brief review of some past posts, related to the ones that have sparked so much recent interest. I’ve chosen five posts from the archives, one for each day I’ll be away. Pace yourselves!

Note: Some of these posts mention legislative attempts, or court cases, that may have been updated since I first wrote about them. If you have new information, please share it in the comments. (I will moderate comments at least once every day, and I’ll try for twice.)

So, here you go:

June 27, 2006 — The absurdity of sex-offender free zones: I admit that the title of this post is a bit awkward. Does it mean free zones for sex offenders, or zones free of sex offenders? (The second, of course.) But it was posted on my first-ever day of blogging, and it’s a good post for teasing out some of the problems with rules that restrict where registered sex offenders can live.

July 26 — Risks and complications (and necessity) of reconceptualizing sexual orientation: (I swear I’m going to learn title-writing skills from Tom Joaquin. I mean how can you beat “Q: When is a vibrator more dangerous than a gun?”!). This post argues that it is no longer helpful to retain traditional SO categories because they divide us much more than necessary and prevent us from seeing sexual diversity and civil rights clearly.

August 23, 2006 — Age, consent, position, power, agency and privilege: This post was written in my frustration about the way the New York Times was increasingly raising the alarm about sexual predators on the Internet. The post asks questions about sexuality and kids and teens and adults that are difficult to answer.

October 3, 2006 — Going out on a limb: Mark Foley is not a “Child Sex Predator” and then, So hard to talk about, but we must get it right! These two posts were posts were written during the fall out from the Mark Foley scandal. I was angry about Foley’s behavior, but I was even more angry at the way that people in the mainstream media talked about it.

January 15, 2007 — Don’t panic about teen sex: This post tries to counter some of the media inspired panic about what teenage girls are doing, sexually, with teenage boys. As an aside, isn’t it interesting how we’re always concerned about the girls, but very rarely about the boys?

So, there you are. I said there would be five and there are actually six (because I’m giving you the Mark Foley ones as a set).

Read, think, comment, enjoy. Talk to each other. And I’ll be back on the 5th.


Filed under culture, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex offenders, sexual orientation, sexuality, sexuality and age

Update on Genarlow Wilson and Georgia’s laws about sex and young people

And while we’re doing updates, here is one on the Genarlow Wilson injustice I mentioned in “More Harm Than Good“.

The New York Times reported two days ago that a piece of legislation aimed at helping the young man is hung up in the Georgia General Assembly. According to the Times:

Senator Emanuel D. Jones, a Democrat, sponsored the legislation, which would make it possible for judges to reconsider the cases of hundreds of young adults, including Mr. Wilson, who are serving long mandatory minimum sentences in prison for having consensual sex with teenage minors. Mr. Jones said the bill was mysteriously left off the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

And on Monday, the Senate’s leader, Eric Johnson, publicly denounced the bill and said that although Mr. Wilson, now 20, was serving a harsh sentence, he deserved no leniency.

Remember, Genarlow Wilson was only 17 when he had consensual oral sex with a girl who was 15.

What troubles me most in the Times story is the change of heart apparently experienced by Senate Leader Johnson. Last year he supported legislation that made the kind of sex that Wilson had a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but now he rejects legislation that would allow Wilson’s case to be reconsidered in light of that very important legal change. His spokesperson, curiously, is quoted as explaining his change of heart this way:

“His line of thought is that we’ve already visited this instance once. If we were to go back, there would be hundreds of these cases that could be reopened, and there are victims in all of those cases.”

I think Mr. Johnson is confused about who the victims are. If we’re talking about consensual sex between minors, or between very young adults and minors (the law applies when the age difference is not more than 4 years), then the real victims are those who have been convicted of crimes. And if we want to help the victims, we should be letting judges revisit those cases. That’s what this legislation would allow.

If you live in Georgia, and perhaps even if you don’t, you might check out the Georgia General Assembly web site. If you’re a resident of Georgia write to your senator and your representative and urge them to do what they can to pass this legislation. And even if you aren’t a Georgia resident, consider writing to Senator Jones, telling him about your support for his legislation and encouraging him to fight. Write a letter to Senator Johnson urging him to change his mind.


Filed under activism, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality, sexuality and age

Help Keep Julie Amero Out of Prison

Julie Amero is the Connecticut teacher I wrote about a few days ago — and that many others have written about — who was convicted of exposing children to pornography. The exposure was accidental, yet she is facing 40 years in prison if her conviction is not vacated. I don’t think she deserves this, and lots of readers agree. So, what can you do about it?

Steve Bass, at PC World, has more information about the case, and some suggestions about how to help :

You can check the Julie Amero blog and consider helping by way of the Julie Amero Defense Fund …

You can also use the power of e-mail. The State’s Attorney responsible for supervision of David Smith, the prosecutor in the Amero case, is Michael L. Regan. You might want to write him and strongly urge he help Smith file a motion to vacate the conviction. An e-mail to the Chief State’s Attorneys of Connecticut Kevin T. Kane and Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell can’t hurt, either. (There are more e-mail links on the Julie Amero site.)

If you write, however tempting, try not to go on a rant. Use your computing expertise — and a civil argument — and you’ll likely get better results.

The case has the public’s attention and it’s taken on an energy that won’t be stopped. Stay tuned.

I think Steve Bass is on target. Writing letters is helpful. Donating money, if you can, is also helpful. Talking about the case and keeping it in front of people’s minds will also help. Most important, in doing all of these things, is to keep framing the issue in a way that generates more and more support for Amero.

Here is a link to the Julie Amero Blog.

For Steve Bass’s previous writing on this case, click here and here.

Thanks to Viviane for reposting the BoingBoing story that linked to the Bass article.


Filed under activism, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

More harm than good

I keep thinking about this discussion we’ve been having about “protecting” people from sex, or sexually explicit material. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that quite often our efforts at protection do more harm than good.

Think about the following recent cases:

A Florida appeals court has upheld the convictions of two Florida teens, a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy (or should we call them a young woman and a young man?) who have been charged with producing and possessing child pornography. They took digital pictures of themselves and she emailed them to his private email account.

Genarlow Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole, for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. After serving time in prison for most of his 20s he will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. In December of last year an appeals court in Georgia decided not to hear his case. He’s been offer a deal to plead guilty to a lesser charge and serve less jail time, but he’d still have to register as a sex offender. He doesn’t want to take the deal.

A substitute teacher in Connecticut let some kids in her classroom use a computer on which porn pop-ups appeared. She has been convicted and is facing 40 years in prison if her conviction for exposing children to pornography is not overturned.

Often these cases have bizarre ironies woven through them that come from our inability to get sex policies right. For example, in the case of the Florida teenagers mentioned above, the sex they were having was legal. It was the photos of the legal sex that were illegal. In Genarlow Wilson’s case, had he had intercourse with the girl, he’d have been fine. There was an exception made in the law for intercourse between teenagers. But not for oral sex. He was charged with aggravated molesting. Even more tragically in his case is that the Georgia legislature — after his case had been prosecuted — modified its laws such that most consensual sex between teens was counted only as a misdemeanor (one might well ask why it should be a crime at all). But they did not make the change retroactive.

In the case of the Connecticut teacher, she was not in control of the computer when it was being used. According to one story, she had “chased away” some students who were using to browse hairstyle web sites and then later in the class the porn images started popping up on their own. Totally plausible. She could serve 40 years because, in her shock at an event that was certainly surprising to her and that she did not control, she couldn’t think fast enough on her feet to turn the machine off or cover it with something. I can absolutely imagine being too stunned to act quickly, myself.

Were the children in her classroom really harmed by unintentional and short-term exposure to images of adults having sex? I don’t think so. I think they were surprised, I think some were shocked, and a few might even have been upset. Some might have been curious, and some might have been excited by what they saw. But I don’t think that any harm was done that a thoughtful conversation about sex would not have cured. Is that worth convicting a teacher of a sex crime and sending her to prison for what could essentially be the rest of her life?

Was the 14-year-old girl harmed by her consensual oral sex with Genarlow Wilson? She didn’t think so. And even the Georgia legislature later agreed that such sex, while illegal, shouldn’t be considered anything more than a misdemeanor.

Because we, as a society, as a culture, and as communities, cannot talk rationally about sex, we create policies that do more harm than good. Because we are unwilling or unable to remember our own sexual curiosity as children, and because we are so invested in denying childhood sexuality, we create policies to protect children — often from themselves — and we do them more harm than good.

I do not dispute that children need protection from those who would do them harm. But we are casting much to wide a net. It lets through most of the people who do actually harm kids — people who are known to them — and it creates these unreasonable and unintended outcomes that ruin the lives of people who do not seriously do harm to anybody.

It might seem unrelated at first, but this morning’s New York Times reports that a Newbury Award winning book for children will not be shelved in many school libraries because it contains the word “scrotum” on the first page. One librarian, from Colorado, calls the use of the word a Howard Stern-like shock treatment. A New Jersey school librarian says if he were a 3rd or 4th grade teacher he “wouldn’t want to have to explain that,” (meaning what a scrotum was). And a librarian from Brighton, New York, said she didn’t think the teachers in her school would want to do that vocabulary lesson.” It becomes clearer and clearer to me that we are not, really, trying to protect children here. We are trying to save ourselves, as grownups, from the discomfort and anxiety we have in confronting kids’ questions about sex and bodies.

Third and fourth graders are roughly 8 and 9 years old. Certainly that is old enough to know the names of the parts of their bodies. In fact, without understanding and being able to name the parts of their bodies, we can’t expect kids to be able to talk about the very things we are trying to protect them from. And if they can’t talk about it, they can’t talk to someone who could help them.

We need smarter policies. We need honest discussion. We need to confront our own discomfort around sexuality, as adults, before we can responsibly protect children.

(For an excellent and much more thorough exploration of this idea that we harm kids through our efforts to protect them from sex, see Harmful to Minors, by Judith Levine).


Filed under News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality, sexuality and age

No death certificates for abortions

A couple of days ago a friend alerted me to this post by the Tennesee Guerilla Women about a TN legislator, Stacey Campfield who has introduced a bill that would require doctors or hospitals to issue death certificates for aborted fetuses. This article explains that Campfield’s stated purpose for the bill is to help the state collect information about abortions but the article goes on to explain that:

“Tennessee law already requires abortions to be reported to the Office of Vital Records, though the identities of women having abortions are not included in the reports. Death certificates require identifying information like Social Security numbers.”

This is not about collecting information about abortions, this seems to be about collecting personal information about the women who have them.

If the state just wanted to collect information and keep records on the numbers of abortions, and the characteristics of people having them, they could easily do that without creating death certificates, and without collecting social security numbers and other personal information about the women having the procedures. But Campfield wants the state to collect information on the women themselves. This is an intimidation tactic, and a way of collecting data that can be used against women seeking abortions in the future.

Campfield wants people to think this is no different from what the state already does in the case of miscarriages or murders of pregnant women:

1. We give out death certificates to miscarried babies now. It is done on a weight determination basis. So in the eyes of the state the baby is (or was) a life.

2. When a person does a heinous crime and beats up A pregnant woman and kills her and the baby it is a double murder. In other states It is called Lacy’s law after the Lacy Peterson case. So in the eyes of the state the baby is (or was) a life. In these cases the child would also receive a death certificate.

What we are doing is having a variable determinations of when life begins. The variables are age, weight, when the baby fully leaves the body and is the child wanted. The first three factors we can measure. The fourth we can not. When or if the first three variable are used changes, based on the fourth. (From his blog post “Is it a Life“)

I don’t know anything about the giving of death certificates in the case of miscarriages, but I do know that when states began to enact laws making it two counts of murder to kill a pregnant woman (the fetus representing its own count), many of us were concerned that it was a very slick way of giving fetuses legal standing without much argument. In fact there was argument, but it was a very tough battle to frame in winnable terms.

This idea that “we can’t measure” whether or not a pregancy is wanted is ridiculous. Of course we can. Women do not voluntarily seek abortions when they want to continue their pregnancies. But part of the unspoken subtext of all of this is something that people just don’t want to talk about. I’m going to make an attempt at laying part of it out:

1. Yes, in the most technical of terms, a fetus is a form of ‘life,’ to answer Campfields blog question.

2. No, that life should not be construed as a fully human being with legal standing and “rights”.

3. If we are going to allow the state to give rights to the fetuses of women who do want to be pregnant, we cannot allow it to claim that the “want” is impossible to measure. (I do not support the giving of legal standing to a fetus in the first place. This has already been used for years to criminalize behavior that is otherwise legal, or that is representative of addiction, by making it “child abuse” if it occurs while pregnant.)

The life we are discussing depends for its existence on the cooperation and full consent of the woman who carries it. And her rights matter. And she needs a way to safely and legally withdraw her participation.

This is not just about what she “wants,” which makes the decision sound whimsical. It is about what she needs in order to live her life and be herself. And it is about her right to decide freely when and if to have a child. The state must not be allowed to enslave or taken over her body and force her to bear a child.

The closer we get to making fetuses into full people with full rights, the farther away we get from women’s rights to sexual and reproductive freedom. Death certificates for aborted fetuses should not be construed as parallel to death certificates for miscarriages.

The difference, as Campfield hints, is in whether or not the pregnancy was wanted, and that is eminently measurable. How do you measure it? Just ask the pregnant woman. She’ll know.

1 Comment

Filed under abortion, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality

Please welcome Tom Joaquin to Sex in the Public Square

Tom Joaquin, a dear friend, has agreed to contribute occasionally to Sex in the Public Square. He is a dedicated human rights and civil rights activist, and a brilliant attorney/educator/writer. He’s got his own blog, The Free Lance, which I hope you’ll check out. It’s full of smart and sometimes tragicomic political insight. I’m grateful to him for being generous enough to post here, on sex issues, now and then. You can see his first post, “Q: When is a Vibrator More Dangerous Than a Gun”, on the “Alabama Vibrator Case” below.

Welcome to our parlor, Tom!


Filed under public discourse

Q: When is a vibrator more dangerous than a gun?

A: When you’re selling one in Alabama.

According to a federal court decision announced yesterday (Valentine’s Day!), it’s perfectly fine for the state of Alabama to criminalize the sale of sex toys. Just to put this in context — 41 years after the Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to restrict the sale of condoms, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit thinks it’s fine for Alabama to jail (up to one year for first violation) or fine (up to $50,000) anyone who gets caught selling as much as a dildo. (PDF of the statue is here.)

I don’t think anyone would argue that there is any harm worth criminalizing in selling sex toys to adults. No one’s being forced to do anything, there’s no economic harm, no harm to children. But the Attorney General of Alabama told the court that the law barring sales preserved “public morality,” and was, therefore, constitutional.

The AG’s “public morality” argument might have held up in 1999, but in 2003, the Supreme Court held, in Lawrence v. Texas, “the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.” And that, one would have thought, was that. If public morality alone isn’t a sufficient reason for a law, then a law making it illegal to sell sex toys just has to be unconstitutional, yes? Well, no. The Court of Appeals decided that the Lawrence holding only applied to private behavior. So Alabama couldn’t make it illegal to own or use sex toys. But it can make it illegal to sell them. The court decided that selling sex toys was like prostitution, a commercial, public activity that can be punished under the law.

Let’s get back to my opening question, comparing the sale of guns with the sale of vibrators. Alabama is one of the easiest places in the US to buy a gun. There are no state laws requiring licensing, registration, child safety locks, a mandatory waiting period or a limit on the number of weapons that can be purchased at any one time. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Alabama has the 4th highest homicide rates in the US. So let’s take a look at Alabama’s moral restrictions on commerce. Someone sells ten assault rifles to a 16 year old who just walks into the shop without proof of parental permission? Perfectly alright. Someone sells a rubber duckie vibrator to a 40 year old woman at a sex-toy party in the buyer’s home?

Better close the shades.

Tom Joaquin, Esq


Filed under News..., public discourse, sex and the law, sex crimes, sexually oriented businesses

A few thoughts on Love this Valentine’s Day

Let today be a day when you freely express your love for another human being. It needn’t be romantic love, though certainly it could be. Just so long as it is love. Don’t be shy about it. Don’t be private about it. Do it publicly, openly, and unrepentently.

Let today be a day when you feel deeply your love of community. The biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is a good one to remember today. Let yourself feel the gratitude, love, or simple connectedness that you feel toward the people in your community who make it “home.” And a bit of self-love is in order, as well!

Let today be a day when that feeling of love for community radiates out to become an awareness of the connections we share beyond our communities, connections that tie all of us on the planet together.

Let today be a day to be mindful of the need for peace, for sharing, for connection, and for the part we each play in achieving peace, for sharing with each other, and for tending to the connections that bind us all together.

Love deeply and love widely.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

ps: A special Valentine’s kiss for Will, my partner-in-life and now in blogging!


Filed under life, Personal Reflections, Valentine's Day

Segregating Sex

“As long as we equate sex with dirt, weakness, and guilt, a powerful weapon exists for demagogues who not only flatter supporters that they are disciplining their own erotic instincts correctly, but also advertise the values they profess as essential to living a good life.” – Jay Gertzman, “There has been no sexual revolution,” p. 315 in Russ Kick’s Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong, The Disinformation Company, 2006

I’m still thinking about the discussions we’ve been having about what is “mature” and about what people should be protected from stumbling across accidentally. There is no question that most of the “what” here is sex, or sexually explicit, or erotic material. That made me think back to the Jay Gertzman quote, above.

By making sexually explicit or erotic material the stuff from which we protect people – or to be more clear, the stuff we segregate into a separate space so that people don’t come across it accidentally, we continue to link sex with “dirt, weakness and guilt,” which Gertzman warns us against. We could add all kinds of things to the list of “dirt, weakness and guilt.” We could add “shame,” “secrecy,” “fear,” “embarrassment,” and perhaps other things as well, but “dirt, weakness and guilt,” seem to form the foundation for all those other things.

Of course there are people who don’t want to come across sexual material. But why should we cater uniquely to those people and not, say, to people who would rather not accidentally come across movie reviews, or blogs about gaming, or blogs about gambling, or blogs about politics? Why segregate sex?

It is true that the values of our dominant culture in the US assume sex to be something reserved for private spaces, something that is supposed to be shared only between partners in long term loving committed relationships. But our own dominant culture is riddled with examples of where that is not the case. One only need to look at advertising to see that. Yet that is really just an aside.

It is true that our dominant culture values assert that sex should be private. But that, as Gertzman claims, supports a dangerous ideology, so why should the public sphere of ideas be governed by that? Isn’t the public square or the public sphere the place where we are supposed to have the most open exchange of ideas, where we test ourselves and our worldviews against others and where we persuade others to change their minds, or where we change our own minds in the face of persuasive arguments?

Separating sexually explicit material out from the rest makes it seem equated with “danger,” “dirt,” “guilt,” and “shame,” and contributes to its usefulness as a weapon – a weapon that is useful for instilling fear into anyone who wants to be ‘respected’ by neighbors, co-workers, families, or bosses, and who has ideas that deviate from the dominant sexual script. For that matter, it is a tool that is useful for cowing anyone, because it becomes a source for accusations that are nearly impossible to refute. Remember how sex was used to keep blacks down? Whites just had to assert that black male sexuality was dangerous to white women. No proof necessary.

As long as sex is segregated from all other kinds of material, we will continue to let it be a tool for exploitation, oppression, discrimination, fear, and hate. The danger of sex is not in sex itself, but in the hiding of sex and the shaming of sex.


Filed under censorship, community-building, Homophobia, life, Personal Reflections, public discourse, sex, sexuality