Category Archives: culture

A Valentine for Gene Nichol

So maybe this isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day post. This is in reaction to the letter Gene Nichol addressed to the College of William and Mary community yesterday announcing his resignation as President of the college. It was a love letter, of the sort that comes at the end of a sudden and painful breakup. (Mimi alerted me to it. I found it published by the campus paper, DogStreetJournal.com, but it’s widely Google-able. Here is the transcript and audio of a passionate statement he gave to supporters. Video is available here.)Gene Nichol at a rally after his resignation

Nichol resigned after being informed that his contract would not be renewed. The nonrenewal seems to be largely because of controversy regarding four important decisions he made.

I really can’t speak to the quality of his presidency overall. I wish I could, though, because based on recent coverage of his decisions I have a feeling I’d have really supported him. His own statements indicate a love of free speech, open society, diversity, and opportunity that are at the heart of what we support here on Sex in the Public Square.

I’ve excerpted some passages from his Letter to the Community, but I encourage you to go read the whole thing. Here is a passage regarding one “free speech” decision, which was over the Sex Workers Art Show, a traveling exhibitwe’ve supported here in the Square (we wrote about the controversy here), and one “separation of church and state” decision which had to do with the location of a cross on public university property:

First, as is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular College events — both voluntary and mandatory — in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the College’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more.

Second, I have refused, now on two occasions, to ban from the campus a program funded by our student-fee-based, and student-governed, speaker series. To stop the production because I found it offensive, or unappealing, would have violated both the First Amendment and the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities. It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students. It is perhaps worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear on oath not to do so.

Then, not a sex or speech related decision, but one that is dear to me for different reasons:

Third, in my early months here, recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell eligible, students than any public university in America, and that our record was getting worse, I introduced an aggressive Gateway scholarship program for Virginians demonstrating the strongest financial need. Under its terms, resident students from families earning $40,000 a year or less have 100% of their need met, without loans. Gateway has increased our Pell eligible students by 20% in the past two years.

I teach at a community college. This was a choice of mine based on a feeling of commitment to low income students and to the notion that higher education should be accessible to everyone who wants it. Nichol’s work to make a prestigious liberal arts college accessible should be applauded. The fact that such a decision comes with institutional challenges is a given. I’m sure the college community was able to rise to those challenges.

Finally, in an ironic twist, Nichol tells us:

I add only that, on Sunday, the Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree “not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds” or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.

Free speech. Paid speech. It really does make a difference.

Listen to Nichol’s statements to his supporters and you hear even more of his love.

I understand that love can lead us into dangerous places. People do terrible things, sometimes, in the name of love. Not having been at William and Mary I really can’t know what the day-to-day feel of the Nichol presidency was like. Was he like the abusive partner who sometimes does beautiful things just to keep you off your guard? I suppose that is possible, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seems to be the “beautiful things” that were the controversial ones; those things that had to do with free speech, diversity and opportunity, and a balance between church and state, those are what the fight was over.

At a time when intellectual freedom is being attacked all over the place — just check the Free Exchange On Campus blog if you don’t already know this — people like President Nichol are to be admired and supported for their willingness to defend that freedom.

In an age when college education is both increasingly necessary and increasingly unaffordable, his decisions about opportunity are to be admired.

And in a media climate where it can be impossible to tell the sponsor from the source, the fact that he didn’t take their money to spin the story their way makes me all the more impressed.

I <heart> sexual freedom.

I <heart> academic freedom.

I <heart> openness, diversity and opportunity.

And this Valentine’s Day I <heart> Gene Nichol.

This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org — its like this blog but with a whole lot more going on. Join us there!

Sex In The Public Square

activism + community + information

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Filed under censorship, community-building, culture, Education, News and politics, public discourse, sex work, Valentine's Day

Note to Bob Herbert: Misogyny is much more complicated!

Herbert’s column in the NY Times this morning reprises his claims about the misogyny of prostitution and pornography but in a different context this time and with some unwittingly apt parallels.

Readers of this blog know that I have a very different analysis of sex work, one that doesn’t assume that prostitution or pornography are inherently and essentially misogynistic, so I won’t reprise that here. (You can get a glimpse of some of that here and here) Instead, I’d like to point out some of the things I think make Herbert’s analysis here especially weak, including some false assumptions about causality, and unfortunate parallels to sports and the military.

Let me start with the false assumptions about causality. Herbert seems to be asserting that the existence of pornography and prostitution, as evidenced by legal brothels in Nevada, serve as evidence of the misogyny in American culture that then leads to the epidemic of violence against women. Wrong. Are more wives and girlfriends murdered by their partners in Germany or the Netherlands where prostitution is legal? No. I would say it is our culture of violence that leads to violence of all sorts. (Note: I am not asserting a direct connection between watching violent movies or playing violent video games and committing violent acts. I am suggesting that in a culture where violence and aggression are rewarded, as they are here, that you get more violence and aggression.)

The other problem with Herbert’s argument is his assertion that sex work is somehow uniquely problematic. The fact that he uses sex work and pornography as the sine qua non of misogyny tells us that he sees those things as uniquely and irredeemably degrading and dehumanizing to women. One of the bits of evidence Herbert shows us — again — from his Nevada trip to support his claim that the brothels there degrade women (and I have no doubt that some are run in degrading ways) is that the women must answer to a bell. Now others have previously pointed out that school kids answer to bells, workers in factories and other locations often answer to devices like bells or buzzers. I bet even Mr. Herbert has a Blackberry or some other device that vibrates or rings in his pocket, and causes a Pavlovlian response where he hastens to comply with some instruction from his employer. Oppressive? Yes. Unique to sex work? Not a chance.

In fact, Herbert mentions the men at the Jets games, which made me think about the way that professional athletes, while much better compensated than sex workers, are also selling the use of their bodies in dangerous circumstances, governed by whistles and commands, for the entertainment of others and the profit of a few immensely wealthy owners and media corporations.

Herbert also raises the very real — and too little examined — problem of sexual violence in the military, but again he misses an important connection. He completed passes over the degradation rituals common to military life. Think drill instructors shouting insults at new recruits as they train. Think chants about blood and killing. Think hazing-type rituals as groups are formed and as their members shuffle in and out.

Think leasing your body to a male-dominated institution for a period of years to be used as the leaders of that institution wish. They can send you to another country. They can separate you from your family. They can command you to kill and send you on missions where your chances of being killed yourself are incredibly high. And you can’t refuse without breaking the rules.

Think your only option for escape, if they don’t want to let you go, is to commit the crime of desertion.

It is all the more clear now that Herbert opposes prostitution and pornography specifically because they are centered on sexual transactions. But degradation and dehumanization in work are problems that are not unique to the sex industry, and the sex industry ought not be uniquely condemned for them.

The Times ran an article on Sunday about the violent crimes committed by returning vets and noted that about a third were committed against spouses, girlfriends, kids or other family members. If Herbert wants to understand the causes of violence against women he needs to look beyond pornography and begin examining the toxic aspects of conventional masculinity — including the valorization of violence and aggression — and he also needs to remind himself of the economic exploitation and oppression and hardship facing so many families, including those of returning vets, that cause so much stress and anxiety in people’s lives. If he understood the intersection of those problems he’d be much closer to understanding how the misogyny that does still percolate through American culture puts women at great risk.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at the community site Sex in the Public Square dot Org. If you haven’t visited, check it out!

Sex in the Public Square | activism + community + information

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Filed under Bob Herbert, culture, feminism, pornography, public discourse, sex, sex work

Pepper Schwartz joins us on SexInThePublicSquare.Org

Come, talk about sex and older women with Pepper Schwartz!

Pepper SchwartzStarting this weekend, Pepper Schwartz will join us on SexInThePublicSquare.org for a discussion of her new book, Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex and Love in the Sensual Years.

Please join us!

Jeffrey Rosenfeld reviewed the book for us here. We’d especially love to hear from people who have read the book, but all are welcome.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz is a noted sociologist specializing in sexuality. She has written over 40 academic research articles, and also many accessible books on sex and relationships including, including The Great Sex Weekend and Everything You Know About Sex and Love is Wrong, along other books aimed at helping people keep their sexual relationships interesting and vibrant. She has also written Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character and 201 Question to Ask Your Kids / 201 Questions to Ask Your Parents, books that help parents talk about sex with their kids, Pepper Schwartz has dedicated her career to opening up sexuality as a realm of sociological study, but also to making that study useful and accessible to the public. In Prime, she does something academic-types rarely do under their own names: she reveals much about her own sex life, using her own experience as a prompt to offer advice to herself and to other women experiencing the dating and relationship-building world in their 50s.

This conversation marks the beginning of a new feature for us at SexInThePublicSquare.org. We’re initiating a series of conversations with authors of the books we review, and we’re thrilled that Pepper Schwartz has agreed to kick off the series for us.

The conversation will take place in the comments section of Jeff Rosenfeld’s review. When we start, I’ll put a direct link to the conversation on the sidebar of the site so you can get there quickly!

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Filed under culture, Gender, public discourse, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age, Travel

ENDA Tabled?

Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliha and LGBT Center's Cristine HerraraSo you might have been following the ENDA stories and known that it was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House last week or the week before. And you might have noticed that that didn’t happen. And you might have been waiting for news about that. I even tried to put a legislation tracker on the site (SexInThePublicSquare.org) so we could more easily keep up with bills like ENDA. (Aside: you’ll probably have noticed that so far it is only working in Safari browser.) Even with all that, I’d noticed that, well, nothing seemed to be happening. So, I’ve been poking around trying to figure out what’s going on, and I just came across this, from October 31, by EJ Graff at TFM Cafe:

The latest news on this front: ENDA, which had been scheduled for a House floor vote this week, has been taken off the table.

The official reason that ENDA won’t come up for vote: it’s been pushed aside by other business. The generally accepted reason is the split between the Barney Frank faction and the Tammy Baldwin faction.

The Tammy Baldwin faction, remember, is the faction that was going to offer an amendment, on the floor, that would put gender identity back into ENDA. The Barney Frank faction is the one that “compromised” gender identity out of the bill.

Graff does a great job explaining, again, why keeping gender identity in the bill is so important. It isn’t just to protect the trangendered, though to my mind that would be reason enough. It is also important because much of the discrimination that lesbians and gays face comes not as a result of sexual orientation but as a result of refusal or inability to comply with gender normative behavior. Some examples from her piece that make this crystal clear:

After all, when grade school and middle school kids taunt or beat up some boy for acting “gay,” it’s not because he’s been kissing other boys; it’s because he hasn’t been masculine enough for their taste.

and

Consider what happened to Darlene Jespersen, who lost her bartending job at Harrah’s Casino after 21 years—when her employer instituted a policy that said all women had to wear makeup. She couldn’t do it; her whole being revolted against that mask. (And yes, the 9th circuit decided that this was legal)

These examples also make it clear that the teasing and the discrimination that we’re talking about can also be used to victimize heterosexual people who don’t conform to gender norms. In neither of the examples above do we even need to know the sexual orientation of the people involved (real or hypothetical) in order to know that their treatment is wrong.

Does anybody else remember the amazing book, Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism, written by Suzanne Pharr? I remember reading it in a Philosophy of Sexuality class in college (eternal thanks to the phenomenal Peggy Walsh) and having one of those “eureka moment” epiphanies where suddenly all kinds of seemingly disparate oppressions slid into their interlocking positions and I really got why this was all so important to me. (It’s no accident that we read this alongside a piece by Marilyn Frye describing oppression as a bird cage.)

Pharr’s argument, very briefly and probably oversimplified, is that homophobia is used to keep people obeying gender norms that are sexist and that privilege masculinity over femininity. Any thing that challenges that system is framed in homophobic terms, and their success depends on our own internalized homophobia.

ENDA, while being framed as a piece of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights legislation, is really much bigger, but only if it includes gender identity. If it does, it is a piece of legislation that moves us forward in the enormous task of dismantling a gender role system that oppresses all who fail to conform to its narrow expectations. While some in the mainstream gay rights movement might not be comfortable with that goal (preferring a more liberal model where people of any sexual orientation are free to assimilate into the dominant culture) they need to realize that they won’t achieve protection for lots of gays and lesbians if they don’t back the gender identity part of ENDA. (This is something Barney Frank seems not to understand. In his statement in the House on October 9 he seemed to believe that ENDA could protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals effectively without the gender identity provision, and that later some bill could be written to protect the transgendered, who should effectively ‘wait their turn’. His mistake is in thinking that without specific gender identity protection that gays and lesbians can be protected effectively themselves.)

It irritates me that Barney Frank, a gay white man in power, is willing to sacrifice the effective protection of LGBT folks in order to look as though he’s done right by us. He doesn’t stand to lose if ENDA gets passed without gender identity, (though others of us do) but he does stand to lose of ENDA doesn’t pass at all.

ENDA is not for Barney Frank. ENDA is for all of us. It needs to be brought back to the table so that Tammy Baldwin can offer her amendment. The tabling of the bill is, I’m certain, in fear about Baldwin’s amendment, and I for one would much rather see the legislation voted down by people who have to go on record opposing the inclusion of gender identity then to see Baldwin and others intimidated behind the scenes into accepting the Frank compromise or having the bill die without a vote.

Note: This post is published on my blog at SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Come join in!

Thanks to Feministing‘s always amazing Weekly Feminist Reader for the link to EJ Graff’s piece!

Photo of Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliyah and Christine Herrara from the LGBT Center borrowed from GayCityNews story, “Not So Hot on Caliente” . Khadijah Farmer is the woman who was kicked out of Caliente Cab Company, a restaurant in New York City, because a bouncer believed she was a man using the women’s restroom. Though she offered to show him ID she and her party were still forced to leave. Her case, while not about employment, is an excellent example of how perception of gender identity is a source of discrimination. She was not kicked out because she was a lesbian. She was kicked out because a bouncer refused to believe she was a woman.

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Filed under civil rights, culture, ENDA, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexuality

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

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

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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The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org, our community-building site. Come on over!)

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, public discourse, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality