Category Archives: sex and the law

Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women

Melissa Farley and her fringe research mill Prostitution Research and Education have teamed up with a Scottish anti-prostitution group to produce a new ‘research’ report with the problematic title “Challenging Men’s Demand for Prostitution in Scotland: A research report based on interviews with 110 men who bought women in prostitution” (PDF here).

Readers of this site will understandably be rolling their eyes and groaning, “not again!” But it is important to remember, awful though it is, that other folks take Farley’s research seriously and that it deserves serious attention to help mitigate the damage it can do to real efforts to advocate for women’s safety and sex worker safety. Such ‘studies’ play to particular political positions, in this case pressure to export the Swedish ‘solution’ through Europe, but political expedience is not the same as sound policy. Check today’s Daily Record (Scotland) for the most recent orchestrated flood of bad news coverage of a poor study to support wrongheaded policy.

It is important to stress, again and again, that Farley’s research cannot be considered reliable and certainly doesn’t approach even basic scientific standards. The problems with the current study are many but can be summed up in terms of ethical concerns, bias and inadequate attention to detail in the write up. The write up is problematic enough that it is hard to judge the quality of the research, but the very clear bias is enough to call the findings into question. The bias also leads to the making of recommendations that are not proportional to the findings. Below I address just a few of the major problems. (Watch this space for links to critiques by other feminist sex worker advocates and researchers.)

Ethics and Methods

In the section describing the research methods we learn that most of the respondents were recruited via newspaper ads that read in part: “Ever been a client of a prostitute? International research team would like to hear your views.” We don’t learn what they were actually told about the study once they called the number listed. We do not know if they signed consent forms. We do not know if they were informed of the policy positions advocated by the sponsoring organizations. We do not know if there was any ethical review of the methods prior to the conducting of the study. Instead of any statement of ethics regarding the use of human subjects we have a long statement about the pain and anguish suffered by the researchers. While recognizing the subjectivity of researchers is an important aspect of feminist methodology, this statement is over the top:

“The interviewers reported feeling skeptical about the men’s professed ignorance about prostituted women, fearful about the possibility of being stalked by the interviewees, physically revolted, had flashbacks to their own previous experiences of sexual violence, questioned some aspects of their own relationships with the men in their lives, and at times felt the inclination to dissociate or drink alcohol in order to numb painful emotional reactions to the interviews. ” (p. 7)

I applaud the authors’ acknowledgment of the interviewers strong reactions, but the fact of those reactions causes me to be very skeptical about their ability to maintain, as the authors mention earlier, a “nonjudgmental and friendly rapport with the men.” Is it possible that the degree of revulsion felt by the interviewers is because they went in to the research prepared to be revolted, expecting to be revolted, and that they constructed the conversations in such a way as to make sure that the revulsion occurred? In fact, one interviewer even questions her own sanity for being able to participate in the research in the first place:

“What does it say about me? How did I manage to interview so many men and not lose my temper, not react angrily or indignantly with them? It is a comfort to me that I do feel anger now, and did after the interviews. It is a comfort to me that some of the things they said hurt me. This reassures me that I’m not some hard-hearted individual who is at ease with hearing about the abuse of women.” (p. 7)

While this interviewer reports that she maintained a calm demeanor with her interview subjects it is difficult to believe that all the interviewers did. And even if they did, it is hard to believe that, going in with the assumption that they would be hearing about the abuse of women that they had an open mind about the answers the men might give.

Of course the men apparently gave the kinds of answers that Farley’s team was expecting. Now, because of inattention to methodological issues and to the write-up itself, we are not given a copy of the 100-item questionnaire on attitudes toward prostitution, rape myths, and about sexual behavior and sexual violence. Nor are we provided a copy of the 34-item questionnaire about “hostile masculinity” designed by Dr. Neil Malamuth. Nor are we given a copy of the 64-item structured interview guide on men’s history and preferences around purchasing sex, their perceptions of prostitutes, their knowledge of pimps, and how they talk about prostitution with their friends. Since we can’t see the questions it is difficult to evaluate the findings.

Given, though, that some of the basic demographics can’t be trusted (the income categories overlap, for example, we don’t know whether a person with a family income of, say 20,000 pounds is in the 20,000 or less category or is in the 20,000-30,000 category) it is hard to have faith in the other data.

And perhaps the biggest methodological flaw, the one that Farley and her research partners commit most often, is the lack of any comparison group. We learn a lot about these 110 men, but we know nothing about any similarly situated group of 110 men who do not purchase sex. So we don’t know whether the propensity to violence or the misogyny has anything at all to do with these men’s purchasing of sex.

For example, the authors tell us that there was a statistically significant association between the men’s pornography use and the frequency of their purchasing of sex. They can say with confidence that among men who pay for sex, there is some kind of relationship between the amount of sex purchased and the amount of porn used. That may reflect nothing but differences in sexual interest levels. What we don’t know is whether the amount of pornography used by these men is at all different from the amount of pornography used by men who never buy sex. It is possible that those men exhibit the same range of pornography use. Likewise for the believing of rape myths, the violence toward partners, and so on.

Editorializing and unsupported statements

Another problem with calling this scientific research is the tendency of the authors to editorialize and make unsupported statements throughout the report. For example, in a section on men’s first purchases of sex, the authors note that for 17% of the men a commercial sexual transaction was their first experience of intercourse. Quoting one man as saying “It’s uncomplicated, it’s a good way to have your first sex,” the authors then dismiss their respondent with the unsupported claim that “the sex that men learn in prostitution – disconnected and unemotional – is the opposite of the sex that most women are interested in when they are in relationships with men” (p. 10). Based on what do they declaim that men learn disconnected and unemotional sex in prostitution? They don’t say. But it is hard to imagine they have talked to many escorts, who often put a tremendous amount of emotional labor into providing a connected and intimate – if temporary – experience for their customers. (It is ironic that the authors don’t note this given that they mention Elizabeth Bernstein’s work in the References section. Then again, there is no actual reference to Bernstein that I can find in the text, another indication of lack of attention to detail.)

Logic and proportionality

The authors find that, when asked, a vast majority of their respondents (89%) agreed that being added to a sex offender registry would deter them from buying sex (p. 27). They use this data to recommend exactly that policy. This is interesting given that just a few paragraphs earlier they note that “the men’s responses suggest that there are a number of equally effective alternatives that would reduce men’s demand for prostitution.” Why do the authors then go for the most damaging of the public humiliations? Precisely, I imagine, because it creates a legal connection between prostitution and sex abuse. It reifies the sense that buying sex is committing rape, which is exactly the starting point from which these authors began.

If cutting off hands were acknowledged by shoplifters as a reliable deterrent would we be pursuing amputation as a public policy? Sex offender registries are deeply problematic, and the conflation of truly violent sex offenses with offenses that might better be considered disorderly conduct, if anything, will only serve to ruin careers, families and lives — way out of proportion to the offense in question: the purchasing of a sexual encounter.

Why does this matter?

Deconstructing “research” like this is very important. Because this kind of work fits into dominant political and ideological agendas it is often accepted at face value despite its tremendous flaws. Policy should be based on scientific research and sound logic, not on biased research that simply fits into a political or ideological agenda.

Prostitution needs to be understood as a complex social phenomenon involving the exchange of sex for money in a multitude of ways and for a wide range of reasons. When we reduce it to “men violating women” we render invisible all of the male or transgender prostitutes, all of the women or transgender clients, and all of the respectful interactions between purchaser and provider.

We do no service to women, to families, to communities by accepting reductionist and reactionary analysis of sex work or of violence against women. There is no shortage of real research that looks at these issues carefully. Any of these would be a much better start for a conversation on sensible approaches to studying prostitution and the policies that control it.

(NOTE: This was first published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org – our community-building site.)

Technorati Tags: prostitution, Melissa Farley, Scotland, sex, sex work

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Filed under sex, sex and the law, sex work

Sex in the Public Square Presents…

sex work forum banner

For one week, starting next Monday, on SexInThePublicSquare.org, we’ll be devoting a forum to that discussion of reducing harm to sex workers and ending human rights abuses involved in the movement of labor around the globe.

This is not a debate on the legitimacy of sex work but rather an exploration of how to protect people’s human rights. We’ve invited some of the smartest sex worker advocates we know — representing a range of connections to the sex industry — to talk about the intersection of these complicated issues (and also to talk about how to make them easier to discuss!).

Here’s how it’ll work:

On our forums page there will be a forum with the title “Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights.” As participants post forum topics they’ll also appear here on the front page, and you’ll be able to go straight to the entire forum itself by clicking on the banner above (which will appear at the top of this column during the forum). The forum will be open, but comments strictly moderated for tone and for staying on topic. Debating the legitimacy of sex work as work is not on the agenda.

What is on the agenda? Items including but not limited to:

Defining our terms: Is the way that we define “porn” clear? “Prostitution”? “Sex work” in general? What happens when we say “porn” and mean all sexually explicit imagery made for the purpose of generating arousal and others hear “porn” as indicating just the “bad stuff” while reserving “erotica” for everything they find acceptable? When we say sex work is it clear what kinds of jobs we’re including?

Understanding our differences: How do inequalities of race, class and gender affect the sex worker rights movement? Are we effective in organizing across those differences?

Identifying common ground: What are the areas of agreement between the abolitionist/prohibitionist perspective and the human rights/harm reduction perspective? For example, we all agree that forced labor is wrong. We all agree that nonconsensual sex is wrong. Is it a helpful strategic move to by highlighting our areas of agreement and then demonstrating why a harm reduction/human rights perspective is better suited to addressing those shared concerns, or are we better served by distancing ourselves from the abolition/prohibition-oriented thinkers?

Evaluating research: What do we think of the actual research generated by prominent abolitionist/prohibitionist scholars like Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen? Can we comment on the methods they use to generate the data on which they base their analysis, and then can we comment on the logic of their conclusions based on the data they have?

Framing the issues: What are our biggest frustrations with the way that the human rights/harm reduction perspective is characterized by the abolitionist/prohibitionist folks? How can we effectively respond to or reframe this misrepresentations? What happens when “I oppose human trafficking” becomes a political shield that deflects focus away from issues of migration, labor and human rights?

Exploring broader economic questions: How does the demand for cheap labor undermine human rights-based solutions to exploitation in all industries, including the sex industry?

Participants will include:

Melissa Gira is a co-founder of the sex worker blog Bound, Not Gagged, the editor of Sexerati.com, and reports on sex for Gawker Media’s Valleywag.

Chris Hall is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square and also writes the blog Literate Perversions.

Kerwin Kay has written about the history and present of male street prostitution, and about the politics of sex trafficking. He has been active in the sex workers rights movement for some 10 years. He also edited the anthology Male Lust: Pleasure, Power and Transformation (Haworth Press, 2000) and is finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies at NYU.

Anthony Kennerson blogs on race, class, gender, politics and culture at SmackDog Chronicles, and is a regular contributor to the Blog for Pro-Porn Activism.

Antonia Levy co-chaired the international “Sex Work Matters: Beyond Divides” conference in 2006 and the 2nd Annual Feminist Pedagogy Conference in 2007. She teaches at Brooklyn College, Queens College, and is finishing her Ph.D. at the Graduate Center at CUNY.

Audacia Ray is the author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In On Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), and the writer/producer/director of The Bi Apple. She blogs at WakingVixen.com hosts and edits Live Girl Review and was longtime executive editor of $pread Magazine.

Amber Rhea is a sex worker advocate, blogger, and organizer of the Sex 2.0 conference on feminism, sexuality and social media and co-founder of the Georgia Podcast Network. Her blog is Being Amber Rhea.

Ren is a sex worker advocate, a stripper, Internet porn performer, swinger, gonzo fan, BDSM tourist, blogger, history buff, feminist expatriate who blogs at Renegade Evolution. She is a founder of the Blog for Pro-porn Activism and a contributor to Bound, Not Gagged and Sex Worker Outreach Project – East.

Stacey Swimme has worked in the sex industry for 10 years. She is a vocal sex worker advocate and is a founding member of Desiree Alliance and Sex Workers Outreach Project USA.

Elizabeth Wood is co-founder of Sex In The Public Square, and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College. She has written about gender, power and interaction in strip clubs, about labor organization at the Lusty Lady Theater, and she blogs regularly about sex and society.

To view the press release for this event, click here. Please feel free to distribute it or post it!

And for more information you can contact me via the contact form on my profile page , or at elizabeth (at) sexinthepublicsquare (dot) org.

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Filed under human rights, pornography, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex work

ENDA Passes the House: No Party in the Square

The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) was voted on by the House of Representatives today. It passed by a vote of 235 to 184 with 14 not voting. It needed 212 to pass.*

It passed by the skin of its proverbial teeth. So, why are we not celebrating?

Let’s review:

1. ENDA does not really protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Even though the debate about including or not including protection for gender identity or expression was framed in terms of protecting the transgendered, really those provisions would have protected gays, lesbians and bisexuals better than simply stating that, as the bill that passed the house does, that you can’t fire or refuse to hire someone because of his or her real or perceived sexual orientation.

That is like saying “Fine, so we can’t fire you for being a lesbian as long as you aren’t too butch.” If you’re “too butch” all bets are off.

HRC and its coaltion and Barney Frank and allies in the House have framed this as an issue of society becoming used to talk about GLB issues and being ready for civil rights legislation for lesbians and gays, but not quite being ready for legislation protecting transgendered folks because that issue is just newly in our consciousness as a society. That is naive and elitist. It presumes that most GLB folks are middle class and upper middle class professionals just looking to move up in the corporation. That simply isn’t the case.

2. ENDA does not consider the U.S. military an employer. All those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not covered by ENDA. After all, we can’t let an important civil rights bill interfere with our “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

3. ENDA does nothing about housing discrimination which weights much more heavily on working class and poorer LGBT folks than on middle and upper class ones.

4. ENDA will likely be vetoed.

Here’s where I think the HRCs cynicism creeps in. I think they don’t like the eviscerated ENDA either but they recognize that a veto is likely and is counting on that opportunity to go out and say “See how bad the Republican party is to LGBT folks? Don’t vote for them.”

But the truth is that we already know that the Republican party is bad to LGBT folks. There is no better evidence of that than their own sex scandals. You don’t see nearly so many people falling out of the Democratic party closet partly because the Democratic party doesn’t force people to be so closeted.

I’ll be away at a union conference this weekend so won’t be blogging much, but in that spirit let me ask you a question:

How much value is a bill like ENDA when so much employment in the US is “at will” employment, meaning that your employer can simply fire you because he feels like it anyway. So long as he doesn’t give an unfair reason for firing you he can simply say “you know, this just isn’t working out. I’m sorry. We have to let you go,” or “No, we have so many people I don’t have any hours for you next week, sorry! Check back in on Thursday.”

We need strong legislation that moves us toward economic and social justice for all of us. Not “civil rights” bills that say, essentially, that you can’t refuse to promote the clean cut guy in the business suit just because his partner is a man.

ENDA-as-is? It makes for weak symbolic politics and ineffective workplace protections.

It certainly isn’t the bill we need.

Note: This was published first on SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Drop by!

 *I first reported that the bill passed with a vote of 218-205 and 10 not voting. That was a mistake. That vote was actually a vote on procedure (a vote to consider the measure.) The vote on the bill itself is now correctly reported above.

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Filed under congress, ENDA, Gender, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

Prevention bill(s)* still stuck in committee while Democrats increase Abstinence-Only Funds

File this under “with friends like these…”

What has happened to the Prevention First Act (H.R. 819/S. 21)? Why are these bills stuck in committee while the Democrats are INCREASING funding for abstinence-only education? Don’t they at least have an obligation to hold the line on such misappropriate of funds? We’re talking about the spending of 141 million dollars on programs that we know don’t work and that actually put our communities at risk. And we’re talking about the party in control, the one that is supposed to be friendly to smart sexual health policy, granting this increase in spending and as a result teaching kids that abstinence-until-marriage is the only legitimate approach to sexuality and that condoms don’t work well.

James Wagoner at RH Reality Check, expresses his outrage about this far more articulately than I could express mine. He writes:

I am constantly told that it’s not “politic” to call out our friends on an issue like sex education. There are bigger fish to fry. I’m not buying that anymore. Not when ten thousand young people get an STD, two thousand become pregnant and fifty-five contract HIV every single day in this country. Not when poll after poll shows this issue to be a political winner, not a loser, for Democrats. Not after Democrats exploited this issue in opposition and now, with control of Congress, act like it’s an insignificant chit to be bartered away at the whim of a recalcitrant committee Chairman.

It is now time to call this what it truly is. A stunning disgrace.

A stunning disgrace, indeed. And this is not a new story. We wrote about this here back when the Dems in the House of Representatives voted to approve the increase when they passed the Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill. But its in the news again because the bill has just come out of the Democrat-controlled conference committee and the increase is intact. And the increase is outrageous. SIECUS reports that the Senates version of the bill would have reduced funding for abstinence-only programs. Why didn’t they hold that position in the conference committee?

We’re nearing election day and it is important to remember that the Democrats are not so clearly our friends. And they ought not be allowed to continue to get away with hurting us just because the Republicans might hurt us worse.

You know, it really starts to feel like an abusive relationship, doesn’t it? You know, the kind where you are being beaten but feel trapped because if you leave you’ll be worse off?

We need shelters for the battered body politic. I think they’re called multiple-party systems. You know, where real choices are possible.

Maybe that would be a truly “pro-choice” system.

I think we need to start building one.

Now.

*The Prevention First Act is only one of a slew of bills that were introduced to try to make sane sex ed and contraception policy. The REAL (Responsible Education About Life) Act is another that is stuck in committee. For a look at the whole list, depressing though it is that none are moving, click here.

Note: This piece is also published on my blog at our community-building site, SexInThePublicSquare.org. Drop by and join in!

Photo of “Condom Police” sign not taken in the US no matter how much it may feel that way. The sign was photographed in Vanuatu by “Phnk“, posted on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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Filed under abstinence only, Education, Health, News and politics, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age

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

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

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

Sex in the Public Square Launch Party!

Join us to celebrate the launch of SexInThePublicSquare.org!

August 17, 2007
7-10 PM
Rapture Cafe
200 Avenue A between 12 St. and 13 St.
Manhattan, NY
United States
See map: Google Maps

Sex in the Public Square.org is dedicated to expanding the space for public discussion of sexuality. Blending the techniques of blogging and social networking (think Blogger meets MySpace — but all open source!), Sex in the Public Square.org is a space on the Internet where members can explore which parts of sex are private, which parts are public, and what happens when private and public collide. We believe that sexuality is a fundamental component of human life, and that by excluding it from “polite conversation,” we lose an important element of democratic participation.

With forums, blogs, reviews, resource lists, calls for action, and a nationwide calendar of events dedicated to sexualities of all genders, colors, and persuasions and with thousands of visitors and new contributors joining each week, we’re ready to celebrate our “birth” and we want you to join us!


Help Keep Sex Out Of The Closet!

Readings and performances by:

Audacia Ray

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Lux Nightmare

and more!

Plus screenings of film clips from Cinekink and some old sex ed films too!

Click here to check out Rapture Cafe.

And check back here for updates on the festivities!

The party is free and all are welcome. Invite your friends. And we hope you’ll help us support Rapture by enjoying their coffees, teas, and bar offerings.

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Filed under Audacia Ray, community-building, culture, Education, feminism, Gender, public discourse, sex, sex and the law, sex education, sexual orientation, sexuality

Democrats vote to increase funding for abstinence-only “education”

I don’t know how I missed this item posted on the Advocates for Youth web site last week:

Democrats INCREASE Funding for Discredited Abstinence-Only Policy
Ignore Findings that Programs Don’t Work

WASHINGTON, DC (July 19, 2007) Today, by a vote of 276 to 140, the House of Representative passed the Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill which included an unprecedented $27.8 million increase for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, bringing the total annual funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) to $141 million.

“In one spectacularly cynical move, the Democrats turned their backs on science-based public health and chose political expediency over the health and well-being of young people,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. “With friends like these, who needs conservative Republicans?”

Democrats who have been ardent critics of abstinence-only voted to increase the very programs they opposed when Republicans controlled the Congress.

“With this vote, reproductive health ‘champions’ like Representative Nancy Pelosi and Nita Lowey have aligned themselves with ultra-conservative abstinence-only proponents,” added Wagoner. “They are now complicit in funding programs that promote ignorance in the era of AIDS.”

Since 1982, Congress has allocated over $1.5 billion for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that censor information about birth control and the health benefits of condoms in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. A 10-year congressionally mandated evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and released in April, 2007, found that “youth in the [abstinence-only] program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell our friends from our opposition these days,” concluded Wagoner. “The majority of Democrats say they oppose these ineffective programs because they withhold life-saving information, yet they failed to act on those beliefs. Shame on them!”

Cynical? Cynical doesn’t even come close.

Now I know these provisions are buried in huge appropriations bills. And this one is interesting because in at least some states (New York, California, I haven’t checked them all!) it is the Democrats who tended to support the bill and Republicans who tended to it. So clearly the vote wasn’t “about” abstinence-only “education.” It was more likely about the funding of things like public schools and hospitals, for museums and libraries, public broadcasting, programs for the blind, for Medicare, for the National Labor Relations Board, and other important stuff. (Click here for the text of the bill, its provisions, and the programs it funded.)

But Democrats certainly had an opportunity in moving the spending bill through the House to amend it or alter provisions to which they objected, and they certainly could have cut funding for abstinance-only programs and allocated money instead for comprehensive sex education programs (which, by the way, also promote abstinence as the best policy for teens).

Here is the section of the bill that deals specifically with “abstinence education”

Provided further, That $136,664,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants under the immediately preceding proviso shall be made only to public and private entities which agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided: Provided further, That within amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, up to $10,000,000 may be available for a national abstinence education campaign: Provided further, That in addition to amounts provided herein for abstinence education for adolescents, $4,500,000 shall be available from amounts available under section 241 of the Public Health Service Act to carry out evaluations (including longitudinal evaluations) of adolescent pregnancy prevention approaches: Provided further, That up to $2,000,000 shall be for improving the Public Assistance Reporting Information System, including grants to States to support data collection for a study of the system’s effectiveness.

We are now spending almost 137 million dollars to teach teenagers that abstinence is the only acceptable method of preventing STDs and pregnancy, and we are prohibiting organizations that accept grants from this allocation from offering “any other education regarding sexual conduct.”

Ironically, or not, this same bill in Title V section 517 b provides that “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to disseminate scientific information that is deliberately false or misleading.”

Click here to find out how your legislators voted (once there, click on your state to see each of your legislators’ votes) and then call them or email them and let them know you’re outraged that they didn’t address the problem of abstinence-only funding but instead voted to increase funding for the very programs they claim are harmful to kids. You can use the “Speak Out!!” box on the left side bar to find contact info for your representatives.

By the way, this same bill in Title V section 507, continues the ban on spending federal money to provide abortions (so they aren’t covered for poor women, or for women insured under federal health insurance programs).
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This is posted here and also at SexInThePublicSquare.org

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Filed under abstinence only, activism, Education, Health, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, sex and health, sex and the law, sex education, sexuality, sexuality and age