Monthly Archives: September 2007

Verizon to customers: NARAL 2 CNTRVRSL 4 U

The New York Times reports this morning that Verizon has rejected a proposal by Naral Pro-Choice America to use its network for sending text messages to people who sign up for them. Other cell phone networks have accepted the proposal which allows subscribers to sign up to receive text message updates from NARAL.

According to a communication with Verizon that NARAL gave to the times, the company’s policy is to reject proposals from groups that “promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its [Verizon’s] discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”

There are at least three very troubling pieces of this rationale.One is that a communications company should be allowed to censor the legal content that is transmitted over its network in the first place. This would seem to erode the “common carrier” rule and tremendously limit free speech. Cell phones now are as important to political activity, community organizing, and ordinary everyday life as landlines and the US mail have been in the past and we would never accept such a limitation from either of them. Can you imagine if Verizon’s landline division made a ruling saying that NARAL could not phone anybody who uses a Verizon phone service? Why should text messages be any different? (Sunburnt Kamal, I think we really need your “on the Internet there are no sidewalks” essay! Can you include cell networks too?)

Beyond that, even if Verizon’s policy is legal, applying it in this way is illogical. The messages sent by NARAL would only be sent to people who requested them by texting a 5 digit code specfically subscribing them to the updates. These are people who, by definition, would not find the messages controversial or “unsavory.”
Last, until I’ve had more coffee and thought a bit more about this, it would seem that just about anything could be “seen as controversial” by some user or anyother and Verizon’s policy is written to reject any program that might be seen as controversial to any of their users. To really be consistent then, they should accept no text message advocacy programs at all. Presidential candidates use these programs and have not, apparently been rejected by Verizon and yet presidential politics is by its nature controversial. Even the Repblican National Committee has such a program.

Jeffrey Nelson is Verizon’s media contact for Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs and he’s is quoted in the Times article indicating that Verizon might be considering a change in its policy:

“As text messaging and multimedia services become more and more mainstream,” he said, “we are continuing to review our content standards.” The review will be made, he said, “with an eye toward making more information available across ideological and political views.”

Want to let him know that you don’t think that a communications company ought to be restricting the kinds of information its customers can access? His phone and email info are on this Verizon Wireless Media Contacts page but in case you don’t want to go look him up yourself, his email is jeffrey.nelson (at) verizonwireless (dot) com and his phone number is 908-559-7519.

Note: This post is also published on our community-building web site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Drop by and check it out!

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Filed under abortion, activism, censorship, civil rights, Education, feminism, New York Times, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, technology

Last chance to send Pink Ghetto Blasters to SXSW!

I told you a while back that I proposed a panel for SXSW Interactive 2008 called Pink Ghetto Blasters: Destigmatizing Sex via Online Community Building. The panel would include Chris Hall, Lux Nightmare, Violet Blue, and Rachel Kramer Bussel as panel members with me moderating. Voting ends at 11:59pm central time.

As Chris explains at SexInThePublicSquare.org:

One of the principles behind Sex in the Public Square is that by putting the sexual aspects of our lives off-limits and keeping discussion of them “private,” we lose a valuable component of democracy. The category “NSFW” diminishes us as individuals and as a society because large chunks of both are kept in the closet. In short, we’re all about busting the Pink Ghetto, and this panel is a great way to get some of the sharpest minds in the field together to get beyond the basics and into the practical matters of what the real implications of fencing sex off from the rest of society are. This is a great opportunity for us, and we hope that as many of you as possible will give us your support.

If you have voted yet, please do! Click here for our panel’s page.

While you’re voting, consider these panels too. I’d love to see them make the cut!

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Filed under Chris Hall, culture, Lux Nightmare, pink ghetto, public discourse, Rachel Kramer Bussel, sex, Sex in the Public Square, SXSW, technology, Violet Blue

Another irresponsible piece on sex work

I’m trying to decide what makes me maddest about Bob Herbert’s recent op-ed pieces about sex work in Las Vegas.

It might be his use of a tug-on-your-heartstrings story and alarmist title in today’s piece, “Escape from Las Vegas.” In that piece he uses Amber, a 19 year old with a disabled mother and an abusive and drug addicted step father, who finds herself stripping in Las Vegas as representative of all sex workers:

Amber’s story is far more typical than many Americans would like to acknowledge. There are many thousands of Ambers across the country, naive kids from dysfunctional homes who are thrown willy-nilly into the adult, take-no-prisoners environment of the sex trade with no preparation, no guidance and no support at all.

They are the prey in the predatory world of pimps, johns and perverts that goes by the euphemism: adult entertainment. (This is a TimesSelect piece which means it requires paid registration for most readers, though I’m told that readers with a “.edu” email address can sign up for TimesSelect for free.)

Herbert is often a strong advocate of the kinds of social changes that would help the poor and reduce the amount of injustice and inequality in the United States. If he were writing about runaways who were seduced or coerced into the drug trade and then exploited and abused, he’d be calling for all kinds of social changes to help support poor families, to help improve education in poor neighborhoods, and to reform the juvenile justice system so that the kids who get caught in it would be truly helped.

But as soon as the exploitation becomes sexual Herbert’s solution is no longer to make sure that kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods or troubled homes have the support the need not to end up on the street, but instead seems to be to demonize an entire industry many parts of which don’t involve kids and are not more exploitive than lots of other kinds of exploitive work. That kind of irrational panic won’t help address the needs of people who are forced into sex work or the needs of people who choose sex work from a list of better and worse options.

Or maybe I’m angry because of his reliance on antipornography and anti-sex-work researcher Melissa Farley, treating her as an expert on the sex industry even though she shows little understanding of its complexities. Melissa Farley has compared Kink.com to Abu Ghraib, has written that there is no such thing as safe, sane and consensual BDSM, and since she believes that all pornography represents abuse and prostitution she recommends that nobody should keep or use any kind of pornography, and that if a person is involved in a relationship with a porn user that relationship should be ended.

Though she is touted as an expert researcher and holds a Ph.D. as a clinical psychologist, her positions are hardly backed up by scientific evidence or reasoning.

Then again, maybe I’m angry about the overgeneralizations and irresponsibly inflammatory and unsupported statements he makes. For example, from “City as Predator,” published on the Times op-ed page on September 4, 2007:

What is not widely understood is how coercive all aspects of the sex trade are. The average age of entry into prostitution is extremely young. The prostitutes are ruthlessly controlled by pimps, club owners and traffickers. (This is also a TimesSelect piece. )

Huge numbers of foreign women are trafficked into Vegas. The legions of Asian women in the massage parlors and escort services did not come flocking to Vegas from suburban U.S.A. (Also from the Sept. 4 “City as Predator” piece)

Phrases like “all aspects,” “extremely young,” “huge numbers” and “legions of Asian women” all keep readers from learning about the complexity of the sex industry while keeping us in a state of moral panic about it. That’s not a good way to create a rational solution to a problem.

And then there are passages like this one:

The women are exploited in every way. Most of the money they receive from johns goes to the pimps, the brothel owners, the escort service managers and so forth. Strippers and lap dancers have to pay for the right to dance in the clubs, and the money they get in tips has to be shared with the club owners, bartenders, bouncers, etc. (“City as Predator”)

Now, if Herbert were writing about forced labor or exploitive working conditions in any other industry he’d be calling, rightly, for reforms in the industry. He wouldn’t be reflexively linking that industry to slavery and then calling for the whole industry to be abolished. If Herbert were writing about the exploitation in agricultural work he wouldn’t suggest we stop farming. He’d call for stronger enforcement of workers rights laws. But here he’d prefer to say the work simply can’t be done in conditions reasonably free from exploitation.

Had he been talking about any other kind of exploitive work I suspect he’d also have been critical of the cuts in health care, education and job opportunities that produce the kinds of choices with which Amber was faced. But not here. No, because it’s sex work we don’t have to criticize other policy. We just have to condemn the sex industry.

It’s true that sex work is often exploitive and sometimes dangerous. Many kinds of work are exploitive and dangerous. It’s also true that within the sex industry the jobs done by the poorest workers are probably the most exploitive and most dangerous. That is also true of many industries. And it’s true that we should be fighting exploitation and abuse. It just isn’t true that to do so we need to try to eliminate all sex work.

If we want to help people like Amber, the young woman in Herbert’s op-ed piece today, we need to stop singling out the sex industry as a monolithic evil and start treating it like an industry. We need to organize workers, we need to fight for reasonable working conditions and we need to be addressing issues of poverty and unequal access to public goods like education and health care so that people are not forced to make brutal choices in the first place.

And if we’re serious about combatting trafficking we need to broaden our focus on forced labor to include all the industries where it occurs. (See this piece by Debbie Nathan for a poignant reminder of Trafficking Victims Protection Act often neglects those trafficked for nonsexual purposes.)
Email letters@nytimes.com to send a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Confront the assumptions made by Herbert in his pieces and challenge the use of “experts” like Melissa Farley. Letters are most likely to be published if they keep to about 150 words, are well written, have a clear position, and directly refer to a recent Times article. Click here for the Times’s own advice on writing letters to the editor.

Note: This piece is also published on our community-building site SexInThePublicSquare.org. Haven’t dropped by yet? Come on over!

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Filed under culture, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex work

Over the Boardwalk

It’s Labor Day in the United States, and in the US for most people that doesn’t mean “let’s celebrate workers,” it means “let’s get to the beach” so I was pleased to find a story in this morning’s New York Times that was a beach-related public/private space kind of story that touches on issues of sexuality and human rights.

The question is whether the Boardwalk Pavilion in Ocean Grove, NJ, is public space or private space, and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (a Methodist organization) must let the space be used by by gay and lesbian couples for the same purposes that straight couples use it: that is, for ceremonies celebrating their state-recognized unions.

The Camp Meeting Association owns all the property in Ocean Grove. Even home owners and business owners there don’t own the property their buildings sit on. According to the Times article, “all the land, beach and 1,000 feet of the sea itself” have belonged to the Camp Meeting Association starting with some purchases in 1870. Their ownership of the property is not really in question in question.

However, according to the Times, for the past 18 years the beach, boardwalk and oceanfront have been part of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s “Green Acres” program, which includes a tax exemption for the property owner in exchange for allowing privately owned space to be used for “public recreation and conservation.” The tax exemption reportedly saves the Camp Meeting Association half a million dollars in taxes per year.

Clearly the state realizes that public access to places like beaches, forests, deserts, lakes, and rivers is important. That’s why governments maintain parks. But sometimes important spaces are privately owned and then the government might create a program like the Green Acres program in order to increase public access to space that would otherwise be off limits. You can think of the tax exemption received by the Camp Meeting Association this way: The State of New Jersey is paying the Camp Meeting Association about $500,000 per year to assure that the land in question remains accessible to the public.

So, on the stretches of property covered by the tax-exemption should the CMA be able to discriminate in deciding who can use the property?

They think they can. In fact, the CMA has sued the State of New Jersey for abridging its First Amendment rights while receiving a half million dollar tax exemption for public use of its property. They make a comparison to disaster aid saying that the receipt of disaster aid money doesn’t obligate a church to operate differently than it otherwise would, and thus that receipt of this tax exemption should not require them to allow people to use their property for purposes that they would not allow in their church.

Put aside, for a moment, your visions of bikini-clad women and well-oiled men streaming in for Sunday services. We’re talking about marriage and civil union ceremonies, it is certainly true that receiving disaster aid might not obligate a church to start allowing civil unions to be performed in their building.

But the rules governing the Green Acres program cannot really be compared to those governing something like disaster relief money. The Green Acres program is all about enabling public use of private property. That’s why they give such big tax exemptions in return. Here is the definition of “Public Use” from the Eligibility document governing the Green Acres program:

“Public use” means a use or right of use available to the general public or some portion thereof for conservation or recreation purposes. Such use, and any limits thereon, shall be based on the uses best suited to the land, the capacity of the facility and the public benefits or advantages to be derived therefrom.

Further, in determining what property is eligible, the document specifies that eligible property “must be open for public use on an equal basis” (my emphasis).

And, in addressing what restrictions can be made on the use of the property, the document states:

Restrictions on the use of the real property by the public must be determined by the Commissioner to be necessary for proper maintenance and improvement of the property or because significant natural features of the land may be adversely affected by unrestricted access.

You can read a copy of the document here (MS Word file).

So back to the original question: In order to be eligible for this tax exemption can the CMA prevent some people from having civil union ceremonies on their Boardwalk but allow others to do so? That would seem to violate the “equal basis” clause of the guidelines. And it seems more than unlikely that allowing civil union ceremonies would interfere with “proper maintenance” or cause adverse affects in any way that marriage ceremonies would not. And in any case, the Commissioner didn’t make the decision. The CMA folks did.

If the CMA is unhappy with the deal it made, it needs to find a way to withdraw its participation in the Green Acres program and start paying its full share of taxes.
And the rest of us need to be mindful that the maintenance of public space is incredibly important not just so we can go to the beach, but more importantly to protect our civil rights.

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Note: This is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community-building site. If you haven’t dropped by yet, come on over!

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, heterosexism, Homophobia, marriage, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality