Category Archives: moral panic

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

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

Interpreting the new research on child pornography use and child molestation

The New York Times reports today on research that demonstrates a very high correlation between use of child pornography and the actual molesting of children. The Times did a good job of reporting why it is so important to be cautious about interpreting a study like this one. And it also does a good job of reporting on the need for continued research on child molestation.

Because of the tremendous moral panic risks that are attached to publishing anything about htis kind of research I am going to focus entirely on the cautions. There will be lots of voices out there focusing on the tentative conclusions of the study itself, so here lets just focus on the limitations:

1. Remember when thinking about these results that they were produced using only already-incarcerated men convicted of child pornography charges. These men may well not be representative of all people who have ever downloaded or viewed child pornography.

2. The men who were studied were not only incarcerated, they were voluntary participants in treatment programs for sex offenders. It is quite reasonable to ask whether men who volunteer for sex offender treatment are like other users of child pornography. There are several ways in which they could be different. They could be more likely to be men who had in fact molested children and thus believed they could benefit from treatment, for example.

3. The Times reported that the study found that 85% of the child-porn convicts in their sample also admitted to “acts of sexual abuse with minors,from inappropriate touching to rape”. But we can’t tell what to make of this statistic. We don’t know whether the use of child pornography came after the acts of sexual contact with kids or before it. (The study has been at least temporarily blocked from publication by the Federal Bureau of Prisons whose psychologists conducted the research, so we can’t yet evaluate it in its entirely.) Given the lack of complete information, it would be dangerous to interpret the statistic reported in the Times. Correlations are notoriously misinterpretable. For example, what if there is a correlation between use of child pornography and likelihood of molesting children. Does it matter whether it is the inclination toward molesting children that causes the use of child pornography, or whether it is the use of the child pornography that causes the molestation? Of course it does. It also matters whether there is some external variable that causes a person to be inclined toward both of those other activities.

The limitations of the study that the Times reported today should not be cause for putting down the research itself. Rather, they should be used as a guide for interpreting the findings and for highlighting where more study needs to be done.

The Times has, in the past, discussed the difficulties with studying sex offenders. While some of the challenges are methodological, and some are ethical, in an article published in March, a professor from a law school in Minnesota pointed out that some are cultural:

Professor Janus said he hoped for “an explosion of knowledge” about how to prevent sexual violence before it happened, which he said would prevent far more sex crimes than civilly committing offenders.

That sort of research is unlikely to happen in the United States, Dr. Berlin and other experts said, because so many Americans believe that the only investment in sex offenders should be punitive.

Research on sex offenders, on their treatment, and on preventing sex crimes is all very important and needs to be encouraged. It’s difficult to encourage research in an environment like ours, where findings — whatever they indicate — are so potentially explosive because of the moral panic that characterizes our approach to policy around kids and sex and crime. If as Dr. Berlin suggests many of us believe that punishment is the only thing to consider when we address sex offenders, we will never get any clear understanding of how to prevent those crimes in the first place. Such an attitude essentially guarantees that more kids will be harmed and more adults will become criminals.

In encouraging more research on sex offenders and sex crimes, we need to keep the following goals in mind:

1. To develop prevention strategies that work so that harm is avoided in the first place.
2. To develop treatment strategies that work to reduce rates of reoffending.
3. To better understand adult sexuality, childhood and teen sexuality, and to better understand consent so that we can distinguish between criminal acts with real victims, and loving, affectionate or simply playful acts that harm no one.

This last is a controversial goal to be sure. When Bruce Rind and colleagues published an article in Psychological Bulletin (a peer-reviewed and widely respected academic journal) in which they found that not every instance of sex between a child and an adult caused harm to the child, they were the subject of a firestorm that even led to their being “unanimously condemned by Congress.” And when Judith Levine published Harmful to Minors, perhaps the clearest discussion of kids, sex, and policy out there, she writes that “overnight I became the author of ‘the pedophilia book,’ even though the book only touches on pedophilia in a few of its 300+ pages. University of Minnesota Press, which published the first edition, was overwhelmed with calls “demanding that the press’s management resign and Harmful to Minors — and maybe its author — be burned.” (p. 229, Afterword, Harmful to Minors, 2002 edition.) The book went on to win the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and its 2002 edition, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press, has a foreword by Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

Yet this last goal is ultimately important if we are to avoid the kinds of harm we cause to children, teens, and adults when we make policy based on fear rather than on evidence. Prevention, treatment, and a clearer understanding of the sexuality of kids, teens, and adults are all essential if we’re going to get a handle on sex crimes.

This entry is published on SexinthePublicSquare.org and also SexinthePublicSquare on WordPress.com

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The good news and bad news about the new teen birth rate data

A new study by the Federal Inter-agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that the teen birth rate is at an all time low. The current birth rate for teens between 15-17 in the US according to the study is 21 per 1000.* (That’s down from a high of 39 per 1000 in 1991). The same report gives a teen pregnancy rate of 44 per 1000 in 2002, the most recent year for which they give a rate, and some of the drop is attributable to an increase in condom use. You can see a PDF version of the report here.

Any drop in the teen pregnancy rate, the teen birth rate, and any increase in the rate of condom use is certainly very good news. But the good news is hardly unqualified. There is a fair bit of bad news that surrounds those important bits of good news.

One bit of bad news is that the teen pregnancy rate in the US is still much higher than it is in other western postindustrial societies. In the Netherlands and in Switzerland there were only 5 births per 1000 women between 15 and 19 in 2002 according to UN data. (There were 53 per 1000 young women in the US that same year according to the UN figures). The UN data I found did not report pregnancies, only births. Data from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that the pregnancy rate in the Netherlands was 12 per 1000 in 2001.

Another bit of bad news is that in the US there are significant differences in birth rates for girls of different racial and ethnic groups. The lowest teen birth rate is found among Asians (including Pacific Islanders). That group has 8 births for every 1000 girls between 15 and 19. For non-Hispanic White teens, the rate is 12 per 1000, for Native Americans (classified as American Indian/Alaska Native) the rate is 31 per 1000, for non-Hispanic Blacks it is 35, for Hispanics it 48 per 1000.

These differences must reflect, at least in part, access to health care, contraception, accurate sex education, and abortion services. The differences are not likely to be primarily related to differences in sexual activity between groups. A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics reporting on National Survey of Family Growth data from 2002 finds that Hispanic girls between 15-17 are less likely than their non-Hispanic black or white counterparts to have had sex. The same is true for 18-19 year olds. In the first age group 30% of non-Hispanic white girls, 41% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 25% of Hispanic girls report having had sexual intercourse with a male. In the second age group 68% of non-Hispanic white girls, 77% of non-Hispanic black girls, and 59% of Hispanic girls report having done so (p. 24). And, of those girls who had had sex in the previous four weeks, 19% of non-Hispanic white girls had had sex 4 or more times in that period compared with 13% for both black girls and Hispanic girls.

Why do white girls have lower pregnancy and birth rates if they’re having sex more frequently? This same study found inequality in use of contraception (which may provide some support both for the observation of unequal access and also of the observation of cultural barriers to use). White girls were more likely than either other group to be on the pill at the time of their first intercourse (18% compared to 13% of black girls and 10% of Hispanic girls), and were also more likely to use both pills and condoms together during their first time (15% compared to 9 % for black girls and Hispanic girls). This may speak at least in part to their access to multiple methods of contraception and to their ability to gain access to birth control pills before becoming sexually active.

In fact, when asked whether they had ever used specific methods of contraception, the study found that only 37% of Hispanic girls had ever used birth control pills (compared to 68% of white girls and 55% of black girls). Given an intersection between ethnicity and religion, and the prohibitions against contraception by the Catholic church, some of this difference might be explained by religion and culture. But given that Catholics around the world use birth control pretty regularly, I think that inequality of access to health care and prescriptions is a big part of the story.

There is no teen sex crisis in the United States, but there is a sex education and sexual health care crisis in the United States. If we want to bring our levels of teen pregnancy and teen births down to rates that are in line with those of countries like the Netherlands, we need to start addressing teens sexual health as a serious matter, treating teens with respect, and giving them the tools they need to make smart decisions and creating an environment in which those decisions are respected.

We need to do this while paying attention to race, class and ethnic inequality. Teen parenthood is associated with long term disadvantage for parents and for their children. Girls who become parents in high school are less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to college. Children who start their lives in poverty are less likely to make it into the middle class. They’ve got all kinds of structural factors working against them.

The answer is definitely not to continue promoting abstinence-only sex education. The answer is complicated, but it certainly requires promoting sound, accurate sex education where the values of abstinence are taught in conjunction with the importance of contraception, relationships skills, and emotional well-being. It involves providing support for teen parents so that they are not so disadvantaged. It involves making sure that access to emergency contraception is secured for everyone, and that abortion remains a legal option for young women. It involves providing equal access to health care. And it involves the acknowledgment that we can’t talk about inequality without talking also about sex.

*The original version of this post incorrectly labeled that rate as the “teen birth rate” which would have been the rate for girls between 15-19. The error was brought to my attention by a very careful reader, Carole Joffe, of UC Davis, who continued:

“…the overall figures from 15-19 (birthrate) was 40/thousand–in fact, nearly identical to the year before. This fact aside, I think your analysis of the Report is right on. I look forward to reading more of your postings. Best wishes from a fellow sociologist, Carole.”


Return to the corrected sentence.

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Filed under abstinence only, culture, Education, Family, feminism, Gender, Health, inequality, moral panic, News and politics, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

Julie Amero Gets a New Trial!

Another tip of the hat to JanieBelle, who is suddenly occupying the role of News Girl of the Public Square, for sending this update on Julie Amero.

In a bit of guardedly good news, it seems that a judge has ruled that Amero’s original jury may have relied on some bad information and has ordered a new trial. Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut, was to be sentenced this week, and was facing up to 40 years in prison for exposing kids to pornography when pornographic images started popping up on a computer that two girls were using in her classroom.

From the Wired article sent by JanieBelle:

Judge Hillary B. Strackbein granted the motion for a new trial filed by Amero’s new lawyer, William F. Dow, after a state laboratory’s examination of the computer’s hard drive after the trial contradicted evidence presented in court.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that faulty information,” said Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, according to the Associated Press.

I’ve written before that I thought the conviction and possible sentence were way out of proportion to the event that occurred in Amero’s classroom. Since the prosecution didn’t object to the motion for a new trial there is some speculation — reported in the Wired article — that they won’t bring the case forward. I hope that speculation proves true. But if the case does go back to trial, I hope to see a fairer proceeding and a more rational outcome. Amero did nothing criminal. The school’s computer was infected with spyware and Amero, while she might ahve acted more quickly and unplugged the machine or covered the screen, certainly did not intentionally subject students to pornography.

 

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Filed under Julie Amaro, moral panic, News and politics, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

Update in Genarlow Wilson Case

Today Wilson’s supporters were in court petitioning for his release. They report on the Wilson Appeal web site that the judge will issue his ruling on Monday. Watch that space (and this one) for information.

Genarlow Wilson is the young man, now 21 who was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole — and lifelong registration as a sex offender — for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He has served more than two years of that sentence. Since his conviction of aggravated child molestation the Georgia state laws have been changed to make what he did a misdemeanor rather than a felony, but those laws were not made retroactive and so have not affected the outcome of his case.

The Georgia Assembly has grappled with that omission and, though hard to believe, some have actively argued that the new law should not be applied to Wilson or any others similarly situated. In fact, Georgia Senator Eric Johnson, who believes Wilson’s sentence to be just, continued to trot out the videotape of a rape that occurred at the party where Wilson’s sex act also occured — a rape Wilson was found innocent of having any part in — in such a way as to inflame the moral panic around teens and sex, and to conflate force and consent.

I hope the judge who presided over today’s hearings is a reasonable one.
Click here for all Sex in the Public Square posts that make reference to Genarlow Wilson’s case.

And a tip of the hat to JanieBelle for sending this CNN story on Wilson’s hearing today just as I was finishing this post!

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Filed under Genarlow Wilson, moral panic, News and politics, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

Meanwhile in The New Yorker

This week’s New Yorker contains a cartoon showing a man looking at Internet porn as a way of celebrating the online filing of his income taxes. The drawing includes a computer monitor with a naked woman on all fours looking behind her as if for the partner who is standing just off the screen. It’s a pretty explicit drawing, and the caption makes it as clear as it needs to be. And this is not exceptionally racy for The New Yorker, in that naked women, and couples in bed seem to be staples of New Yorker cartoonists, but it is interesting that this one actually depicts pornography itself. And I think it raises some interesting questions.

When it comes to all things sexual-thus-potentially-dangerous-to-unsuspecting-readers-or-children, is it the things in themselves that are presumed to the be danger, or is it the representations of the things? In other words, is it the woman having sex for money and an audience, or is it the representation of the woman having sex for money and an audience that is understood to be the danger?

Because if it is the thing itself, then one would imagine that any representation that does not condemn the dangerous thing, or warn against it, would be equally harmful.

And if it is the representation that we claim is harmful, how important is the context to deciding whether or not harm is likely? For example, if the New Yorker cartoon was not in The New Yorker but was instead in Playboy, would it be seen as more harmful for being located in a context that is more overtly sexual? (I can’t tell you how many cartoons in The New Yorker include naked people, especially women, and especially showing their nipples, these days.) Does being in The New Yorker make the cartoon safer, or does the cartoon make The New Yorker potentially more dangerous? Certainly The New Yorker hangs out in many doctors office waiting rooms and other places where children could accidentally see the cartoon. And then, too, there it is right online, where any unsuspecting child could happen upon it.

I don’t raise this because I want to see The New Yorker begin to censor its cartoonists. Far from it! I want to see less censorship around all things sexual. I raise it only to point out that when it comes to portraying sex in the mainstream media — or media in general — there is a system of privilege. And as with so many systems of privilege, I think this one needs to be examined and, perhaps, dismantled.

I wonder what the Terms of Service of The New Yorker’s ISP say about nudity and sexually explicit content!

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Filed under Art, censorship, culture, feminism, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the media

You have the right to speak freely (in an increasingly limited number of spaces)

Whose Terms of Service control your access to the increasingly private “public spaces” where you express yourself?

Chris Hall of Literate Perversions recently made a very cogent comment on my post, “My Way or the Highway’s Way.” He was pointing out how much of the limiting of “acceptable use” of public spaces involves a shift from citizen to consumer as the model for the individual. When we think of ourselves as citizens, we are thinking of ourselves as members of a community and as having collective rights, responsibilities and needs that we must act together in order to protect. When we think of ourselves as consumers — or when governments and corporations frame us as consumers — suddenly our rights, responsibilities and needs are framed in individual terms. “I” need something, “I” don’t want to pay for something, “I” am offended and don’t think certain messages should be transmitted. I come first (or my family comes first) and I am not so encouraged to think of myself and my family as part of an extended network of people whose needs all need to be negotiated somehow.

That got me thinking about how much our “public” spaces have been privatized. The New York State Thruway’s rest areas are not really public spaces in the traditional sense. Really they are a collection of private businesses that team up to provide a public service. The mall has become the new town square. And no, I don’t mean “mall” in the sense of “wide avenue or grassy space where people walk, gather and discuss the events of the day.” I mean “neon lit enclosed commercial space where people walk, gather and discuss the issues of the day so long as they don’t offend the owners of the space.”

And then I started thinking about the Internet and got very optimistic and then very depressed. The Internet and the World Wide Web, are incredible tools for creating powerful, decentralized, democratic spaces where free exchange of ideas is managed across nations and continents, not just across towns and neighborhoods. But who controls our access to the Internet so that we can make our spaces on the World Wide Web available to others? It was in answering that question that I got depressed.

For me, the first “who” is Verizon and when I looked at their Terms of Service I was very disappointed. (To spare my regular readers I will not revisit my WordPress.com TOS discussion in this post.) Verizon, the vehicle I use to connect to the internet, not only prohibits my using their service for illegal purposes like, say downloading or distributing child pornography, but also prohibits using their service in a way that is “sexually explicit, or graphic in nature.” They can immediately terminate my service at their sole discretion if I am found to be in violation of their policies. There are things I like about Verizon. For one, many of its workers belong to unions. But I looked at their terms of service and realized that I could be regularly in violation of it and that they could, should they choose, terminate my access to the Internet.

That’s my ISP. But let’s say I find an ISP that won’t consider what I do to be a violation of their Terms of Service. I still need a place to host a web site. Powweb, a hosting company recommended to me by a friend who has used them for years, prohibits material that would commonly be considered indecent, or would appeal to the prurient interest, and would also prevent me from linking to sites that do those things. Open Source Host, another company recommended to me by a friend who has been happy with their service for a long time also prohibits “sex-related links” including sites that “infer sexual content.” Not only could I not post such content myself, but I could not even link to it. And again, the company will be the sole arbiter of what counts as “sex-related.” I did find some hosting services that did not expressly prohibit sexually explicit content. AN Hosting and DreamHost, both recommended by WordPress.org, only prohibited sexual content that was illegal — i.e., child pornography. Another open source host, Laughing Squid, actually took the time to distinguish between “erotic photography” sites and “porn membership” sites, and explained that they don’t host the latter because of traffic issues. But the breadth of the prohibitions made by companies like Verizon, Powweb and OpenSource was startling. And there were others. Yahoo! Hosting prohibits material that “(ii) is threatening, obscene, indecent, defamatory, or that otherwise could adversely affect any individual, group, or entity (collectively, ‘Persons’)” and later excludes material that is vulgar or obscene. BlueHost, a company recommended by WordPress.org prohibits “pornography, nudity, sexual products, programs or services. Escort services are not allowed or other content deemed adult related.” All policies make it clear that the company itself is the “sole arbiter” of what violates its policies. (And of course these sites all separately prohibit expressly illegal behavior.)

Is this insane? No nudity? Nothing that could “adversely affect any individual”? And with these companies being the sole arbiters of what might be harmful, enforcing their policies at their “sole discretion”? How many of us are in regular violation of the terms of service of the major corporations — or small businesses — that control our access to this otherwise democratic world wide web?

I am convinced that, sexually speaking, we are about as schizophrenic as we can be. Yesterday I talked with my sister in Atlanta who told me that when she got up in the morning morning and turned on the television the news was reporting the story of a veterinarian in Japan who had had his arm bitten off by a crocodile (the event happened on April 11th). This was on a mainstream media channel on a large screen television. They showed the crocodile with the man’s arm in its mouth. Before breakfast. This is not going to be disturbing to children? The same channel also showed graphic coverage of the man who jumped from the Empire State Building yesterday. Not disturbing for children? But let a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple escape onto the airwaves again — a nipple being something that lots of children are intimately familiar with and probably have happy memories of — and no doubt we will have another cultural panic about how disturbing that must be for kids. Severed limbs, okay. Healthy bodies, not so much.

Is there a cure for a schizophrenic society? I think there is, and I think we are part of it. We need to be inserting sensible, playful, compassionate, honest, difficult, and open discussions of sexuality (and bodies) into absolutely every cultural venue we can manage.

Of course in order to do that we may need to violate the policies of the companies that control our access to those “public” spaces.

Extra credit: Who controls your access to free expression online? Read the Terms of Service documents for the companies that control your Internet access or hosting. If you find that they are sensible and don’t exclude legal expression, drop a note in the Comments section below. I’d love to compile a list!

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Filed under activism, censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the media

My Way or the Highway’s Way?

I still haven’t received a reply from the New York State Thruway Authority to my e-mail about their filtering software and its settings. I thought I’d look for a customer service phone number, but the two on the Thruway Authority’s WiFi brochure are automated lines for technical assistance. I’ll go through their web site soon and find a real-person phone number. I’ll also resend the email.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking: highways are like public utilities. They are infrastructure supported by government money because without them the economy would wither. They are “public goods” because we all get to use them regardless how much we contribute to their upkeep. (Another blogger can discuss highways as “public bads” given that they encourage too much driving and discourage funding for rail and other public transit.)

Would you allow the electric company or the phone company to tell you what you could use their services for? While its true that many “public utilities” are privatizing, we still expect them to behave like protectors of public goods and back when there was only one local electricity provider we’d never have put up with their telling us what appliances we could buy, or what television stations we could watch. Likewise with phone companies. They don’t tell us who we can call, only what it will cost to do so. The Thruway Authority is offering a public good by providing WiFi access at its rest areas, and it should not be restricting the use of that access, even if their motivation is to “protect children.” I wonder what their rationale is. Perhaps they are acting preemptively, imagining that they will face the same kinds of challenges that public libraries have faced.

Libraries have already been around and around on this issue, and generally speaking, have lost. The Child Internet Protection Act requires public libraries that receive federal subsidies to install filters on their Internet access so that kids don’t accidentally come across pornography. Of course these filters also block a lot of mainstream informational web sites. But in any case, the US Supreme Court found CIPA constitutional and it remains the law. (Libertine reports in the comments on the previous post that his public library has never blocked access to his blogs, one of which is sexually explicit. Perhaps they have a better filter! Or perhaps they don’t receive federal funding?)

I would argue that the Thruway is more like a utility than like a library. And even if someone wanted to argue that the Thruway might be like a utility but that the rest areas are like libraries (libraries filled with McDonalds and Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts), I would point out that you can only even get to a rest area if you have a legal driver, and that person would have to be at least 16, and so nearly an adult (age-wise, anyway). Any young children would very likely be with their parents who could certainly make decisions about their Internet usage (and would probably be providing the machines).

Another issue raised by this policy is the differential treatment of print and electronic media. This is one focus of Susie Bright’s post from a few weeks ago, and also a comment made by Alex on my previous post. The Thruway doesn’t tell you what you can read, by way of magazines, in their public spaces. You could sit with your Big Mac and a Penthouse and presumably nobody from the Thruway Authority would throw you out. “Ah, but they’re not selling Penthouse in the little convenience store,” you say? Well they’re not selling the WiFi access or directing you to any specific sites, either. They’re simply providing the connectivity. Why do they care what you look at? It isn’t as if you are displaying it for all to see (and even if somebody caught a glimpse, how is that different from catching a glimpse of a dirty magazine?

All this filtering is said to be a way to protect children. But do parents really want the government deciding what is appropriate for their own individual kids? Wouldn’t parents typically want to decide that for themselves? Again, we’re not talking about what is being displayed on the ubiquitous rest area TVs. We’re just talking about what you, on your own portable wireless device, might browse while drinking your coffee.

I’m thinking that the New York State Thruway Authority is just trying to play it safe. They’re probably worried, given the case of public libraries, that Congress will require state thruway authorities to install filtering software at rest areas in order to be eligible for Federal highway dollars.

This false and unnecessary “safety” irritates me, as I’ve written many times before, and it certainly points to a continued need for people to speak out against censorship, and in favor of sexually explicit material, and to advocate for reasonable policies around public access to the Internet, which is not a trivial thing. The US Supreme Court, explained the value of public Internet access in libraries by noting that they provide “a vast democratic forum, open to any member of the public to speak on subjects as diverse as human thought.”

Meanwhile, in New York, the next time you see a “Your Highway Dollars At Work” sign, you’ll know that at least some of those dollars are used to ineffectively limit access to that diverse range of human thought.

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Filed under censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexuality and age

This Blog “Not Safe for Thruway”

The New York State Thruway has put wireless Internet access into all their rest areas. This came in handy recently when my partner and I had to go back to his childhood home to be with his family as his father was dying. There was — until just a few days ago — no Internet access at his parents’ home, and so we went in search of WiFi spots when we could.

The Thruway WiFi was very useful when, on our drive up to his family’s home, we were called and asked to send an e-mail to family in the Netherlands with the day’s update on his father’s condition. It was useful when we were on our way to pick up one of Will’s nephews from the airport in Rochester and, while stopped at a rest area for a cup of coffee, we got a call saying his flight had been delayed. We stayed at the rest area for a while checking email, and checking blogs. And that’s when I discovered that this blog is “NSFT” (Not Safe for the Thruway). I was happily clicking through email messages and found some comments in need of moderation. When I clicked on the link to the comment moderation page, I got the following message:

“This site has been blocked due to content.”

I tried again. After all, the content on this blog is not obscene. Sure, the words “sex” and “public” are in the title, but it contains no very explicit material. Again I saw:

“This site has been blocked due to content.”

I was baffled. I tried some sites that I know are much more explicit (note: if explicit writing or naked pictures bother you, don’t follow these links). I tried Chelsea Girl’s Pretty Dumb Things, one of my favorite sites for smart explicit writing about sex. Her current post was about having anal sex with her boyfriend. (This is something she writes about with some frequency, great style, explicit detail, and much intensity.)

I tried Deviant Delyte’s DeviantsLair for photos that outraged a small but vocal number of community members in her small Oklahoma town, and ultimately resulted in her husband (the chief of police) and other town officials resigning their positions.

Hoping to find out more about the filtering software I picked up the Thruway Authority’s brochure promoting their WiFi service. Not much help. All it said was:

“The Authority reserves the right to filter content that may be inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza.”

Could the content on Sex in the Public Square be more “inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza” than the content on DeviantsLair or Pretty Dumb Things? I can’t imagine so. I’m sure this is the result of filtering software that casts a very wide net with very large holes. It apparently filters key words in site names and URLs rather than screening the words on the page.

Let me put aside for a moment my perennial complaint that fast food — ubiquitous at (Thruway) Travel Plazas — is more harmful to the general public than is sexually explicit material. We can debate what is or is not “inappropriate for the general viewing public at a (Thruway) Travel Plaza,” and we can debate whether or not public utilities ought to be filtering at all, but I cannot dispute that I agreed to the filtering when I accepted the terms of service. Still, if they’re asserting this as a “right,” I’d say they are not exercising their right very effectively.

In any case, we moved on. I found that I had unfettered access to my blog at the local Subway sub shop. I am not a fast-food fan, as you might have guessed by my statement above, but they had free WiFi and, better yet, did not filter sites. I was able to check in on my blog, and was happy to see a new comment or two and saddened that I did not have time to write any new posts.

Another place that had wireless access was the Valvoline Instant Oil Change spot we dropped in to on our way to the hospital one morning. (If you are getting a sense by now that I am rather dependent on my Internet connectivity, you are perceiving the situation accurately!) I checked my email (all four accounts!) and then tried to check my blog. No luck! Turns out the VIOC used a filtering software and this blog was blocked as “Pornography.” I hope their oil filters are more effective than their web content filters. There is nothing pornographic on this blog, though it has the words “sex” and “public” in the title and in the URL. Interestingly, just as at the (Thruway) Travel Plaza, I checked a few erotica blogs I read and none were blocked.

I’m especially interested in this because I have in the past recommended parental controls on web browsers as a way of helping parents keep their children from seeing material that they — the parents — don’t want them — the children — to see. I’ve known, abstractly, that these “parental controls” and filters have weaknesses, but I hadn’t realized quite how weak they could be.

I’m very interested in your stories about using such filters or blocks or parental controls. Have you found them useful? Have you found that they screen out too much? Please tell me about your experiences in the comments section below.

Oh, and by the way, I sent an email to the Thruway’s customer service department asking about their filtering software and its settings. I’ll let you know what I find out!

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Filed under censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, Travel