Monthly Archives: October 2007

Genarlow Wilson is Free

I posted yesterday at SexInThePublicSquare.org that he had been ordered freed, but this morning’s Times has photos of him outside the prison. It’s about time!

That’s the good news, and I wish the best to Wilson and his family. We’ve been pulling for Wilson for a long time here at Sex in the Public Square. And we know it is not easy to put a life back together after spending time in prison, and Wilson’s prospects — which had looked bright — have been damaged. We hope he finds the kind of external support and inner resources necessary to make things work.

At the same time, we need to remember that Genarlow Wilson was not the only one. The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran this piece yesterday describing how other teens have been caught up in sex offender registration rules for consensual sexual activity.

We need a serious discussion in this country teens and sex. Right now we’re in the untenable position of denying teens sex education, thus making it very difficult for them to make smart sexual decisions, and then treating them like criminals when they have sex.

We need to treat teens like they are people with rights, and we need to treat sex as a legitimate human interest. There are lots of ways that teens need support as they develop their sexualities. Draconian enforcement of age-of-consent laws is not one of them.

UPDATE: I’ve created a forum on SexInThePublicSquare.org where we can have that discussion. Click here if you’d like to join in

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Filed under culture, Genarlow Wilson, moral panic, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

The danger of dismissing Fred Phelps

 Are he and his small band of followers on the lunatic fringe of the Christian Right, or aren’t they? First they blame the wildfires in California on homosexuality. Now the loss of American troops is also the fault of gays and America’s failure to properly condemn them?

The New York Times today has the story of a lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church, which is being sued for creating a media circus outside of a soldier’s funeral. They protested outside the funeral carrying signs that blamed the deaths of American soldiers on the fact that the U.S. condones homosexuality. Actually they’ve been doing this for at least two years now, but because the father of a soldier whose funeral was protested has filed a lawsuit, Fred Phelps and his crew are back in the news.

Westboro Baptist Church members protesting Laramie Project in Ann ArborIt is easy to cast Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as a kind of lunatic fringe among Christians. The Wikipedia page for Westboro Baptist Church cites sources estimating its membership as between 70 and 150 people and most of them are related by blood or marriage. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Westboro Baptist Church to be a hate group. Phelps, and Westboro, maintain the web sites “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America“. They also hate Jews, Catholics, Muslims and anybody who supports any of those groups. (They are certain that God hates Canada and Sweden , for example.) And they’ve been around for a long time. Phelps started out protesting the funerals of people with AIDS. You may recall that he and his followers picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. There is a counter on GodHatesFags.com, that keeps track of the days Shepard “has been in hell.” (Shepard isn’t the only one, either. They also have a counter for Diana Whipple, a lesbian who was mauled to death by dogs that Fred Phelps believes God sent to punish her for her sins.)

Yes, he sounds like nothing more than lunatic fringe, and it would be reassuring to put him in that box, put that box away on a shelf, and ignore it.

Yet in many ways he is not so much “fringe” as we might want to believe. While Fred Phelps might be crazy, and may lead a small number of people, there are folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who ultimately promote the same basic ideas but in more mainstream venues and who as a result have exponentially larger audiences, and access to Congress, and to power. Dobson, for example, has a radio show that is reportedly run on over 1,000 radio stations, and reaches over 3 million listeners. His Focus on the Family organization has much more political clout than Phelps could ever muster, yet it works for the same basic agenda. When Dobson came out against Republican presidential hopefuls like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson it made national news, with stories on CNN, the Washington Post, and other mainstream news outlets.

Conservatives for American Values, which runs the disclaimer “Everything posted on this blog is satire and should be read as such” spoke more truth than satire about the relationship between Phelps’s lunacy and Dobson’s comparatively staid performance when it published this in 2005:

Also, it’s people like Fred Phelps who limit the donations that groups like Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family can get from righteous Christians who dislike gay people. He hurts the rest of us because he’s too stupid to know how to effectively frame his own disgust with homosexuality. Simply put, he’s hurting the cause he claims to support.

Listen, I’m sure if Fred Phelps, Dr. Dobson and I all sat down at a table we’d find a lot we could agree on. I mean we all understand what James Dobson meant when he spoke out against the Texas sodomy case. When he says that he doesn’t want homosexuals to have the right to have sex because it will destroy the family we catch his drift. He didn’t come out and say, “I don’t want homosexuals to have sex because they’re gross and I hate fags.” Dr. Dobson is much too smart for that.

It will remain difficult to believe that Phelps and Dobson don’t represent mainstream Christian thought until many more Christian groups stand up and speak out against them, and call for more understanding and respect for sexual diversity. The silence of the real mainstream lends credibility to the extremists. It isn’t enough to denounce Phelps, either.

It is important to see past the theatrics of the Westboro Baptist protests and recognize that the basic principles of sexual oppression that motivate Phelps and clan are the same ones that motivate folks like Dobson.

In fact, the danger Phelps poses is really that he makes the Dobson crew look reasonable. Yet Dobson’s rhetoric is just as dangerous when it comes to disenfranchising people because of their sexualities. Without similarly denouncing Dobson, mainstream Christians will just be making the hate and the heterosexism seem more polite.

I give a lot of credit to groups like the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. Debra Haffner and her organization do important work. But many more mainstream religious organizations and left-leaning religious organizations need to add their voices to the call for acceptance of sexual diversity.

Otherwise, it’s going to seem more and more like the “the love-thy-neighbor” and “judge-not” Christians are the fringe, and the one’s who’d like to bring back stoning are the majority.

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Photo of Westboro members protesting the Laramie Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2005 taken by AlanLK and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

Note: this post is also published on our community-building site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Visit us there for blogs, forums, reviews, event calendars and interesting people talking about sex.

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

See no evil, see it everywhere: The cloak of invisibility renders child porn more terrifying and harder to do anything about

Debbie Nathan raises a taboo but important point yesterday morning: We must be allowed to see the child pornography that exists. Why? Because we can’t accurately report on that which we can’t see. It’s a simple and obvious observation, really, and profound in its implications. She is writing specifically about her investigation of the Kurt Eichenwald/Justin Berry story (PDF from Counterpunch), but the point applies broadly and it deserves to be amplified.

When we fight against sweatshops and child labor we demand to be allowed access to the factories where the abuses are occurring. We photograph and document what we see. Accurately documenting the problem, we provide evidence and ammunition to those who are fighting it. With the problem of child pornography, we are not allowed to do that. Even when the pornography in question has been entered into evidence in a trial, meaning that it has become part of the public record, the Federal government has ruled that the public can be prevented from seeing it.

In fact, when defending against charges of child pornography, defendants and their lawyers have been refused adequate access to evidence. For example, in David Westerfield’s 2002 murder trial in California the state argued that it was was prohibited from providing Westerfield’s defense team copies of child porn images taken from his computer because the law allowed for duplication of child pornography only for prosecutorial purposes. An appeals court upheld that interpretation but was ordered by the state’s supreme court to vacate its ruling and ultimately the state had to provide copies of the material (PDF).

Who gains by preventing reporters and researchers (along with everybody else) from witnessing the fact of child pornography? Those who benefit from our “culture of fear.” It is much easier to keep people outraged and afraid if you can make assertions without providing evidence. There is no limit then to how awful you can make something seem. And the thing that is too terrible to be seen is terrifying indeed. And how easily we can be convinced that it is every bit as terrible as “they say it is.” After all, what basis do we have to question the claim? And there may be reasons why law enforcement especially doesn’t want their claims questioned.

Recall Judith Levine‘s Harmful to Minors (one of the most important books for those who really care about the health and well-being of kids and teenagers). It is a brilliant and courageous piece of investigative journalism and in the chapter on child pornography and pedophilia panic she highlights another reason why, perhaps, law enforcement does not want journalists to see their evidence:

“Aficionados and vice cops concede that practically all the sexually explicit images of children circulating cybernetically are the same stack of yellowing pages found at the back of those X-rated shops, only digitized. These pictures tend to be twenty to fifty years old, made overseas, badly re-reproduced, and for the most part pretty chaste.” (p. 36)

She continues, asking who is putting these old pictures online in the first place, and finds evidence, including a statement by an LAPD officer, that most of the actual transactions where child porn is bought and sold online are managed by law enforcement:

“Virtually all advertising, distribution, and sales to people considered potential lawbreakers were done by the federal government, in sting operations against people who have demonstrated (through, for instance, membership in NAMBLA) what agents regard as a predisposition to commit a crime.” (p. 37)

Journalists need access to what is being called child pornography so that we, the public in whose names anti child porn laws are being enforced, can know exactly what that means. Because I certainly have been of the impression that there are tons of new images of kids being abused or exploited sexually uploaded every day. It seems this is probably not the case, and yet I have no independent way to confirm or reject that assertion without breaking the law.

Defining the scope of child pornography is is especially important given that what constitutes child pornography is not as clear as we might be led to think. For example, just a few weeks ago a photograph by Nan Goldin was seized from the English art gallery where it was to be displayed because there were questions about whether or not it constituted child pornography. Patrick Califia, Judith Levine and Debbie Nathan have all documented cases where parents and artists have seen their lives turned upside down because photos of their own naked children have been misconstrued as pornography. With child pornography we can’t even apply Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” criterion because we aren’t allowed to see it in the first place. We’re left with, “You’ll know it because I’ll tell you so, and I’ll just assure you that it’s every bit as horrible as you can possibly imagine.”

The opposite is also possible of course. That is, it is easier to render a problem invisible when that becomes useful to do, because troubling images aren’t burned into people’s minds. Photographs and visual representations are powerful. Think about how people responded to the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison. Stories about those abuses had been reported months earlier, but there was not a general sense of outrage until the photographs were released in the press. Because we don’t have such images burned into our minds, when we want to shift people’s attention from child porn as a threat all we need to do is stop talking about it for a while.

Children do not gain when journalists who are reporting on child porn are prohibited from seeing the evidence of the problem on which they are reporting. In fact, they are worse off. Children who have been made subjects of child pornography need to have their identities protected, certainly, so that they are not harmed in the reporting process. But that does not require complete denial of access to the images. But children on the whole are worse off when we are unable to understand the threats they face. If child pornography is a significant problem, we need to research it, document it, and work to stop it. But we can’t do that in the face of fear-mongering and the panic that ensues. We cannot do that if we can’t talk calmly and rationally about evidence. Ultimately, if we are going to protect children from being victimized by child porn, we need to see what it is, know the scope of the problem, and then address it strategically.

I am not arguing that child pornography should be legal. Nor am I arguing that pornographic images of children should be treated cavalierly. Quite the contrary: I think that they need to be treated very seriously, which may include viewing them in order to accurately report on the problem.

Because to be honest, when my government says “trust us, we’ll tell you what major threats you face” I can’t say that its track record gives me any confidence that they’ll be right.

This piece is also published on our community site, Sex in the Public Square dot Org. Haven’t been over to see us? Drop by soon!

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Filed under pornography, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex crimes

NCSF Survey on discrimination and sexual diversity

Just a very short post to request that you take a few minutes out of your day to take the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s survey on violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.

From the first page of the survey:

Please help us by taking a moment to fill out this survey even if you have not been a victim of discrimination or violence. We are tracking demographics of our community and we also need to know the types of crimes, discrimination, harassment and abuses of authority that occur based on sexual expression or the perceived association with BDSM-Leather-Fetish groups.

This is an anonymous survey being distributed to the BDSM-Leather-Fetish communities throughout the world. We do not ask for your name, address or any other identifying information and all responses made on this website are fully encrypted. Any questions that require a response are marked with an asterisk.

You may contact the authors of this survey by emailing surveybdsm@gmail.com, or by writing to us at: Survey of Violence and Discrimination, 875 Sixth Avenue Suite 1705, New York, NY 10001.

Thank you for helping us raise the level of awareness of this important issue to our community. By completing this survey you are not only helping us to better understand ourselves, but you are helping in the fight for sexual freedom and sexual equality for all sexual minorities.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is a leader in the national effort to protect freedom of sexual expression and end discrimination against those who participate in BDSM, polyamory, and other forms of sexuality that challenge this society’s sex norms. The more good information they have the better able they are to do that work. The survey only takes a short time.

By the way, this is National Coming Out Day. What better day to reveal, even anonymously, a bit about the impact your own kinks have had on other aspects of your life?

Click here to take the survey.

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Filed under community-building, culture, discrimination, heterosexism, nonmonogamy, public discourse, research, sex, sex and health, sex and the law

Because mastectomy should never be an outpatient procedure!

It’s been kind of quiet around the Public Square on WordPress and that’s mostly because I’m back full time at the college after a year of sabbatical and am just getting up to speed with classes, students, committee work while trying to keep an active hand in at SexInThePublicSquare.org (our very exciting community-building site).

One of the wonderful things about being back in the classroom, though, is that students share information that I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about. Just today a student passed along to me a link to a petition sponsored by Lifetime that calls for passage of legislation to guarantee that health insurance companies pay for at least two days of hospitalization for women who have mastectomies. This is to guard against the health insurance companies’ desires to limit coverage to one day or even to outpatient classification.

Outpatient mastectomies? We’re talking major surgery here. Removal of a breast is not an uncomplicated thing, nor is the aftercare required in the days immediately following the surgery.

And this year’s legislation isn’t the first time the issue has been raised in Congress. Not by a long shot. Not by a decade, in fact. For the past 10 years Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has been trying to get legislation passed in Congress that would mandate insurance companies to pay for at least two nights of hospitalization for women having mastectomies. She has introduced her bill, called the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act, five times. Each time it has been consigned to languish in committees.This year she has agan reintroduced the bill. It is HR 758 this time around, and again it has been assigned to several committees. In fact, here’s the list of committees to which it has been referred before action can be taken:

House Energy and Commerce

House Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health

House Education and Labor

House Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions

House Ways and Means

House Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Health

The corresponding Senate bill (S. 459 ) has also been assigned to committees: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

Lifetime has a petition in support of this legislation and of course I encourage you to sign it. But sometimes petitions are not enough. Clearly this is one of those times. What we need now is a direct call-in, letter-writing, and email campaign.

Click here to locate your Senators and Representatives. Call them or email them to tell them, very simply, that you don’t think that mastectomy should ever be an outpatient or overnight procedure and that insurance companies should not be allowed to override doctors when it comes to providing proper care for a patient.

Mastectomy surgery is major surgery. Women need the kind of care that can best be provided by nurses and doctors in the days immediately following a mastectomy.

These bills will be allowed to expire in committee again, for the fifth time, if we don’t loudly draw attention to the issue.

If you do write, I encourage you to leave a copy of your letter as a comment here. That will help others who want to write but aren’t sure how to get started.

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Filed under feminism, Health, medicine