On this Easter Sunday, I reflect that among the followers of Jesus were sex workers. In the Gospel of Matthew, an particularly telling exchange takes place between Chief Priests and Elders who have questioned Jesus’ very authority. In response, he tells a parable, which concludes, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Though much has changed between now and then, this statement still has the power to shock and offend.
Apr 24 2011
A Comprehensive Look at Sex Work
Jul 02 2010
Fashion, photography, sexuality and social anxiety?
I probably shouldn’t pull punches here. I find some of the rhetoric and claims in this video a bit suspect.
Perhaps the oddest part for me is that the videomaker is using imagery that she considers disgusting at least, while arguing (it seems to me) that the ads for children’s clothing used by American Apparel are somehow pornographic.
Now there’s a part of me that sympathizes with this view. And then there’s the part of me that thinks… didn’t you just manage to make an unpaid ad for this company by using the same images as part of your critique? Aren’t you also exploiting these children by showing the images, and not only that, but unlike the company that paid the models and their parents, you’re exploiting them without any compensation. (Then again, by embedding this and drawing attention to it, perhaps I’m doing the same thing?)
It strikes me as a very slippery slope, to say the least. Before I sound like a pontiff from a religion that doesn’t institutionalize child sexual abuse, let me just embed the video I’m talking about, so you can make up your own mind before I continue my rant.
Don’t view the following video if you think it might contain soft-core pron.
Jan 26 2010
Somewhere Between Two Hypocrises Lies the Truth
I recently came across, through a YouTube video, a rather unique French public service announcement. It encouraged heterosexual men to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS by using a condom before engaging in sexual contact. Predictable enough subject for a PSA, one might think, but the video’s concept was both amusing and novel. While the American mind would likely appreciate the humor, it would also deem it too graphic to be aired on network television and probably cable as well. American liberalism has, I realize, a long standing Francophone tradition, just as American conservative thought has an equally lengthy history of criticizing it, so my point is not to cater directly to either camp. Somewhere between the two is something close to the truth and as such I seek to find it.
To get to my point, in France, sex is everywhere, and yet attitudes towards sexuality in one’s personal life are often more traditional than in the United States. While on the continent, one often encounters nudity on billboards, street signs, and shop windows while out and about, but the attitude of most residents is that the body is a natural entity, as are public depictions of it without the benefit of clothes to disguise the objectionable parts. To us, of course, the only truly socially acceptable manner of presentation regarding the unveiled human body is in the art gallery and even then some people have been known to register their visible discomfort. Furthermore, we deem nudity or frank depictions of nudity in any form to often only be granted as a privilege based on reaching a certain age and with it some perceived degree of maturity, believing that children and minors ought not to be exposed to its supposedly corrupting influences until the age where they can make an informed decision whether or not to partake. Put that way, it sounds almost as though nudity is some health hazard, like smoking or consuming too much alcohol. Still, for all the energy we expend spinning out cautionary tales and guilt-laden commandments, one would think we ought to expect more for our efforts.
Dec 17 2009
Adult Behavior is the Best Antidote to Moral Panic
A recently released survey stated what many of us had long suspected, namely that the sexting hysteria is vastly exaggerated. Sexting is merely the latest in a series of overwrought histrionics to consume and articulate the fears of parents. Before that it was rainbow parties. Before that it was sex bracelets. Nothing inflames passions more than the mortal fear that children are being led astray by a culture of evil that is growing more corrupt by the microsecond. This degree of hysteria never stops at those we deem most vulnerable, which is a big part of the problem. In a massive rush to judgment, we impose our will without understanding the context.
To provide a bit of needed contrast, here are a couple examples of past moral panics, which at least to these eyes seem as though they could easily make their way onto today’s cable news cycle.
In Victorian Britain, campaigning journalist William Thomas Stead, (editor of the Pall Mall Gazette) procured a 13 year-old girl for £5, an amount then equal to a labourer’s monthly wage (see the Eliza Armstrong case). Panic over the “traffic in women” rose to a peak in England in the 1880s. At the time, white slavery was a natural target for defenders of public morality and crusading journalists. The ensuing outcry led to the passage of antislavery legislation in Parliament.
However, it has been reported that the most extreme claims “were almost certainly exaggerated”. Investigations of alleged abductions in Victorian England often found that the purported “victims” had participated voluntarily. Still, the “climate of prudery” prevalent in the late Victorian era made for easy scandalization of almost anything sexual, and various prohibitions were enacted. (emphasis mine) Parliament passed the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen in that year.
This is, of course, not to say that the fervor over the sex trafficking which continues today has no basis in reality or fact, but rather that once something this patently inflammatory comes to light, for every genuine instance worthy of outrage, someone jumps on board the train to make a profit or to grab the attention of a ravenous public. (See Woods, Tiger, et al.) Nor is this meant to somehow negate the hard work or passion of activists in our age who do us all a great service by voicing and reporting upon the human trafficking of women that occurs on a far too frequent basis. What I am saying is that the real instances of oppression are damaging enough and shocking enough without the need of clearly fabricated cases that effectively bring the matter to a raging boil. When even one eventually disproved example enters the picture, many people have a tendency to lose interest or to discount the entire movement as a whole. All of that hard work for nothing. This may not be fair, but it is the reality any group clamoring for reform must entertain.
Not only that, laws that are enacted to pacify massive societal outcry often find themselves being used for nefarious purposes that their original intent never implied, nor intended.
In our country, a similar panic broke out around the same time as that of the UK.
A subsequent scare occurred in the United States in the early twentieth century, peaking in 1910, when Chicago’s U.S. attorney announced (without giving details) that an international crime ring was abducting young girls in Europe, importing them, and forcing them to work in Chicago brothels. These claims, and the panic they inflamed, led to the passage of the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. It also banned the interstate transport of females for immoral purposes. Its primary intent was to address prostitution and immorality. The act is better known as the Mann Act, after James Robert Mann, an American lawmaker.
The Mann Act was frequently used as a blanket piece of legislation to deliberately ensnare those who happened to defy existing social mores or who spoke out publicly against the status quo. Though usually used to prosecute men involved with loose women or who pursued relationships with underage girls, prosecutors rarely stopped there. Jack Johnson, the World Heavyweight Champion of his age and first Black sports superhero, was unfairly prosecuted under the Mann Act because of his fondness for white women, particularly prostitutes. Though Johnson’s dalliances were consensual and not adulterous, he never made any attempt to conceal them, which many a conservative figure found odorous and deplorable. As an aside,
In September, 2008, sixty-two years after Johnson’s death, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant a pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing. In April 2009, Senator John McCain of Arizona joined Representative Peter T. King of New York in a call for a posthumous pardon for the boxing legend by President Barack Obama.
Charlie Chaplin’s unashamed leftist views led him to be indicted under the auspices of the Mann Act, damaging his reputation and leading him to leave the United States to live in exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. The Mann Act seems to be an equal opportunity offender of sorts, since even women found themselves on the wrong side of the law, as Canadian author Elizabeth Smart found out in the 1940’s. One would have thought by now that we would have learned that legislating morality is both a very bad idea and quite impossible. Still, some persist in pushing it, even though the end result almost always backfires.
Going back to the idea of protecting children and teenagers by way of communal panicked cry, gallons of ink, and legion of self-proclaimed experts in the field, I think at times many of us believe that while we might not be able to control our own impulses or desires or even control the forces which push us in directions we do not wish to go, we can at least assert our force of will upon our children or, for that matter, someone else’s children. However, that is a very dangerous and deeply unfair assertion upon which to base any act, because it completely removes free will from the equation. The Mann Act might have been crafted to protect women at face value, but it ended up being applied in the same ways and to the same extent that keep women from having control over their own bodies or from being able to make their own decisions for themselves. This condescendingly Paternalist point of view persists into our day and the sexting nontroversy is part and parcel of it. If only we could, in all seriousness, claim that we know better.
Simply because adolescents aren’t legal adults yet doesn’t mean that they can’t make informed, healthy choices for themselves. Teens are probably much more inclined to use their sexuality in responsible ways then we give them credit for, but instead we are consumed with the ones who don’t. This would be like believing all citizens of a country are exactly like its law-breakers. Furthermore, it’s a myth that adults are somehow supremely evolved enough that they don’t end up exhibiting childish behavior on a frequent basis. We like to believe otherwise, of course, but all one needs to do is read the first ten comments on any web forum and that assertion flies right out the window. No troll I have ever met could ever be confused as mature and rational. Many of them are likely older than I am, and I’m merely pushing 30. The superficial facade we display to the world outside of the internet apparently stops the instant we log on and start typing madly away.
A quote from the movie American Beauty has stuck with me over the years. In it, Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey’s character, describes the struggles of his rebellious daughter, Jane.
Janie’s a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her.
True. But it doesn’t mean we have to linger in a state of arrested development, either. Immediately after I reflect upon this quote, a very familiar refrain comes to mind, one that has grown truer and truer with every passing year.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I no longer used childish ways. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Trust, love, respect, hope, faith, empathy, and compassion. These are adult traits and these are virtues which promise not just the assumption of the mantle of adulthood, but bring us into greater community with our fellow person. Once having adopted these things, there is no need for moral panic. Upon living them, there is understanding in the place of fear, love in the place of hate, shared purpose in the place of division, trust in the place of suspicion, and compassion in the place of anger. I would hope that we would wish to negate the charges of hypocrisy slung back and forth like some unceasing war with no end game ever even proposed. The boldest example we give to our children and to other peoples’ children is our own conduct and our own behavior. We lead by example in ways we cannot even begin to fathom.
Dec 10 2009
This Amanda Knox thing has totally been bugging me.
Sometime last year, I caught a 20/20 TV program (or Dateline, or somesuch other news magazine) regarding Amanda Knox. I remember being bothered by the reporter’s tone regarding Ms. Knox (which was, at best, Nancy Grace-ish sensationalist), and I remember being bothered that nothing in this twisted story seemed to add up or make any sense.
The program was two hours long and I was way, WAY confused when it ended.
For those of you not paying attention, Amanda Knox is a 22-year-old American woman who was convicted of murder last week, in an Italian court, for the death of her roommate, Meredith Kercher.
I’ve been minimally obsessed with this thing, and I’ve now read a metric fuckton regarding the entire situation. It doesn’t take a friggin’ rocket scientist to figure out Ms. Knox was not convicted in an Italian courtroom. They had extremely sketchy physical evidence, Holmes.
Like many other high-profile cases of this nature, Ms. Knox was convicted in the fucking press. And she was convicted because she’s a “whore”.
Aug 18 2009
“In This I See God”
(“TRUE BLOOD” SPOILER ALERT)
When True Blood started, I quickly tuned in to the way they were using discrimination against vampires as a metaphor for our society’s attitudes towards gays- (even “God hates fangs”, during the opening credits)- most obviously in the evangelical Christian movement’s overt and hypocritical hate-mongering. But the show is about more than that, now. It’s really exploring our entire societal approach to sexuality and love. As a friend just pointed out, we even find Eric intriguing and exciting, even after we saw him mercilessly torture the wonderful Lafayette. So, what does that say about us, and our own, perhaps latent, sado/masochistic tendencies? Even Bill, with his tortured conscience, can be nakedly vicious. He hates that part of himself, but it’s still there, and when it serves his purposes, he uses it. But it’s much more than any of this.
Jul 25 2009
On Respect, Or, How To Avoid Mispronounciation
For today’s story, we will travel far afield from the typical domains of politics or science or law that have so often provoked our thinking into an often overlooked area of human relations:
To which gender do you belong?
It’s a simple question, or so common sense would tell us-either you’re male, or you’re female.
As it turns out, things aren’t quite so simple, and in today’s conversation we’ll consider this issue in a larger way. By the time we’re done, not only will we learn a thing or two about sex and gender and sexuality, we’ll also learn how to offer a community of people a level of respect that they often find difficult to obtain.
Jun 27 2009
There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the death of Farrah Fawcett–even the august New York Times has more than half a page today. Like the rest of the mainstream media, it gingerly avoids the n-word: nipple. But nipples are why Farrah Fawcett signifies; she embodied quite an important cultural shift in US society.
I kinda stopped watching teevee before Charlie’s Angels came out, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that it was one of the great masterpieces of the medium or that, with better politics, the then FFM would have rivaled Vanessa Redgrave or Jane Fonda.
Cultural achievement was not why the red swimsuit poster became ubiquitous in the late ’70s. It was because you could see her nipples right through the damn fabric.
Observers have long noted that American males, the straight ones anyhow, tend to have deep-seated breast fixations, and psychiatrists and anthropologists and creative people in diverse artistic fields have responded in their own ways to this fact. But there have been changes within that general pattern.
In the decades before Farrah Fawcett arrived on the scene, the sexualization of breasts in film and photography was centered on the size of breasts and particularly on cleavage. Think Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. Cleavage is fairly artificial, the product of confining clothing designed to produce it (or fake it). And it has nothing to with the actual erotic zones on the breasts. It emphasizes the preparation of the female as passive object for consumption by the male gaze.
But the claiming of sexual agency by women was a part of the ’60s upsurge and of the modern women’s movement born during it. The red swimsuit poster marked the mainstreaming of the nipple (and underscored the then-shocking symbolic dumping of painfully restrictive women’s undergarb enacted at the Miss America pageant less than a decade earlier).
This was, I’ll argue, a historic advance for materialism and for democracy. Nipples are, among other things, full of actual nerves which can carry actual sexual sensations. Even in guys. And pretty much everybody is born with them. Even guys.
I make no giant claims that Farah Fawcett ended the sexual objectification of women, nor even that the real advances in sexual enjoyment and equality she symbolized are solid-look what happened to Janet Jackson. But she deserves credit for the role she played, not the pussyfooting around we’ve been treated to since her death.
Crossposted from Fire on the Mountain.
Jul 25 2008
Teen Breakthroughs Around Gender and Sexuality
What follows is a pair of articles recently posted by an NYC public school social worker over at Fire on the Mountain, articles I hope will be of interest of interest to educators and parents and perhaps more broadly.
Teen Breakthrough, Part 1: “I’m Not Racist Against Gays”
In my workaday world in the NYC public school system, this year’s big news was the growing acceptance of and sympathy for gay guys. And because male homosexuality has been, in my experience, so deeply stigmatized among youth, I think this is a tremendous breakthrough. I still don’t hear many guys in high school saying flat out, “I am gay,” but there’s definitely less attempt to deny or repudiate or hide attributes that might brand a young man as gay.
Little things like young men casually mentioning, “My uncle is gay,” or an African-American senior who is into fashion design, tends toward the flaming in his manner and shows no romantic interest in girls being elected a class officer. Or a young man saying to a female classmate who called him “fa–ot”in an argument: “Well, I don’t appreciate that because you must not think too much of gay people, and my brother is gay.” In the past, the likely response would have been to hurl back an insult, and the main concern would have been to assert his own straightness in front of the peer audience. But now, he takes the offensive and critiques heterosexism!
Another example that impressed me occurred in the context of a school art project for which students chose the theme of taboos. There was a fair amount of art about gay/lesbian relationships, but one of the most intriguing paintings showed what looked like a man in his twenties and a man in his sixties embracing, The young Latino artist, who as far as I know is straight, definitely wanted to provoke reactions and sought out feedback. It really blew me away that he was challenging two stigmas by portraying, in a compassionate way, both gay male sexuality, and the need of older people to express their sexuality (which is often is often a big yuck factor for teens!).
May 29 2008
Fascinating post on porn, sexuality, and Miley Cyrus
Writer Molly Lambert wrote a remarkable essay about pornography, sexuality, and the sexualization of young girls over at the mp3 blog This Recording.
It is not (and never has been) shocking that people sexualize children, especially girls. It is not the pictures that rob these girls of their agency, it is the discussion around them. When an actually shocking story like the Austrian guy with the incest dungeon breaks, the public’s repulsion is matched only by their lust for sordid details. The flip side of disgust is fascination.
The internet is a Pandora’s Box for pornography, and shutting down provocative preteen modeling sites like Lil’ Amber will not stop pederasty or the sexual exploitation of minors any more than banning Lolita would have. Shows like To Catch A Predator play on the desire that morally outrageous crimes be stopped, and encourages the public to think that modern society and its evils are somehow responsible for outbreaks of sin.
But none of these problems are new. They occur behind closed doors in purposely antiquated settings like the FLDS, and reading any of the true crime records widely available online (or The Bible, for that matter) makes it obvious that most transgressions, no matter how hideous, have been happening for thousands for years. Which is not the same as deeming them acceptable.
The whole thing is worth reading (and talking about, if anyone cares to).
May 06 2008
Fight For Your Right…. To Orgasm
I caught this little ditty over at the Broadsheet section at Salon.
An Ecuadorian politician recently set off a monsoon of machismo by reportedly attempting to write a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction into the state’s constitution. Maria Soledad Vela’s pro-pleasure argument was called “ridiculous” and an attempt to “decree orgasm by law” by male lawmakers. A local newspaper spoke with a man who actually likened the legislation to “life in prison.” (Surely, he’s a bunch of fun in bed.) But, all she’s asking for is required public health education that acknowledges women aren’t unfeeling breeding machines. (¡Qué horrible!) Soledad Vela says she isn’t demanding the right to an orgasm, but, as the BBC puts it, “merely the right to enjoy sex in a free, fair and more open society” — and if that means greater orgasms, which it probably does, then so be it.
In conservative Ecuador, that’s a dangerous political platform; and that’s why, even though I realize it’s only Monday, I’m nominating Maria Soledad Vela as Broadsheet’s woman of the week
My question: why don’t American politicians ever have the innovative ideas any more?
I double dog dare a leading politician here in the land of the free to propose that kind of amendment.
Meanwhile…. Joan Walsh gives an eye rolling summary of a soon to appear Michael Wolff piece in Vanity Fair. You can read it here.
Nov 11 2007
A disease of the soul.
One of my favorite concise summations of what’s wrong with this country came from film director Philip Kaufman, in a 1990 article in Time Magazine. Kaufman’s film Henry and June had been slapped with an X rating for excessive eroticism, despite the fact that said eroticism was a fundamental part of the story, about the writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and Miller’s wife, June. Ironically, of course, Miller’s books had also been censored by the officious false morality of Puritanical America. But Kaufman understood that something larger, and more insidious, was at play:
“You can cut off a breast,” says Kaufman, “but you can’t caress it. The violent majority is dictating to a tender minority.”