The comments on Tom Joaquin’s “Q: When is a Vibrator More Dangerous than a Gun” have intersected with many of the other themes on this blog. For example, when JanieBelle asks whether, when we look at laws like that one, we are not seeing symptoms rather than the disease itself. She identified the disease as the vilifying of a natural biological drive or when SouthOfStrange observes that legislation like Alabama’s is not so much targeting individuals in their bedrooms as businesses in communities, or when WhoreChurch raises questions about local/state laws in the age of the Internet, we end up talking about issues that transcend one ridiculous law and implicate our entire sexual culture.
What is going on in our culture that causes us to make such inane sexual/social policy as we often do, here in the United States? Why do our courts and our legislatures make the kinds of decisions they do? Certainly sometimes it’s “bad cases make bad law,” and other times it’s “bad laws make bad cases.” But either way, the question remains: Why do we have so many bad laws and bad cases? Some thoughts:
While reading a book review recently, I think that I stumbled upon part of the answer. Meghan O’Rourke, reviewing Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp, writes that the book seems to try to present a “concerned” view of college girls and their casual sex encounters, but that “just below its surface lurk the usual naked (and prurient) fears about girls and sex: Girls who put out are going to get hurt.”
When I read that line, the combining of “prurience” and “fear” struck me, hard. What if the primary way that mainstream America can own up to its interest in sex is by indulging in and expression fear about it. Do our lurking sexual curiosities about children, or about teenagers (girls, particularly) make us so uncomfortable that we channel them into fears about the same? And then do those fears get expressed in media, and law, and further narrow the range of acceptable sexual expression, causing more fear and shame?
Think about our current mass-culture fascination with “To Catch a Predator.” Douglas McCollam, in Columbia Journalism Review argues clearly that this is not really a journalistic news program that holds up to prevailing journalistic standards, and yet it is presented as a news show providing a public service. It “regularly outdraws NBC’s other primetime fare.” It is entertainment disguised as news. McCollum continues, “It succeeds by tapping into something that has been part of American culture since the Puritans stuck offenders in the stockade: public humiliation.”
But I think there is another reason: As an experience shared by many viewers, it serves to unite the “good” (or “us”) against the “bad,” (or “them”). Stanley Cohen called these socially constructed evil thems “folk devils.” As mass media focuses its lens on the folk devil, he noted, a moral panic is initiated. I think we’re in the midst of a moral panic around sexuality.
In our current situation, the folk devil is the sexual predator, (and by association, any “sexual deviant”) and these folk devils are useful for at least a couple of other purposes, aside from generating solidarity-through-exclusion.
1. We can use the sexual predator’s behavior, and our exposing of it, as a way to indulge in the sexuality of children without admitting to any actual interest in that sexuality.
2. We can direct attention away from real, likely, sources of harm that are hard to face and instead focus on those “bad guys” that we can lock up.
But, while indulging these two desires, we hurt ourselves in serious ways.
1. We fail to truly protect children from abuse. A majority of sexual assault cases involve parties that already know each other. The stranger/sexual predator is the exception, not the rule.
2. We generate so much hostility toward the sex criminal that we hamper our effectiveness in dealing with them. Consider a recent attempt in Suffolk County, New York, to deal with the problem that no community wants registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods. According to a Newsday article, “The program, which began this month, calls for the trailers to be shuttled to various locations on county-owned land from time to time.” This seems guaranteed to create the ideal conditions for reoffending: no chance to build stable ties to law abiding friends and family, a difficult time maintaining a job or a treatment regimen, and no regular community pressure or support to help the offender integrate into society. Instead, they get to live in “no-frills trailers have bathrooms and beds aligned in a barracks-type configuration. There are no TVs, telephones or kitchen facilities. Security guards will monitor the offenders, who will be kept inside from 8 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.” And because we have done such a good job of turning sex offenders into “Folk Devils” it is socially unacceptable to sound at all sympathetic to them. This, even when some sex offenders are guilty — remember Genarlow Wilson — of nothing more than consensual though illegal sex.
3. We make it difficult for people to discuss sexuality in any terms that deviate from what they imagine are the standards of their neighbors. To do so would risk being labeled a pervert and lumped in with the sex offenders. Or at least it begins to feel that way. (Given the import of “contemporary community standards” in cases of regulation of sexual expression, this limiting of discussion is especially problematic.)
4. We make it easier for ridiculous prosecutions to be pursued. Remember the Thomases, imprisoned for violating community standards in a community they’d never visited, or Julie Amaro, facing 40 years for accidental exposure of children to pornographic pop-ups.
5. We make it easier for otherwise-indefensible laws to be passed. Recall the Alabama law that started this discussion.
In other words, our fear of sexual predators and the moral panic around protecting children from all things sexual makes it easier to ban the sale of vibrators, support the sale of guns, and lock people up for consensual sex, all while actually reducing our ability to actually deal with sexual violence.
And we do it all in the name of protecting children.