2015 was a complicated year for sex. Americans won rights, lost rights, gained some products, lost (even more of) their innocence about internet privacy, found new ways to be entertained, and were horrified more than once.
As I wrote about these and other stories, my heart rose, and fell, just like yours. I was glad to have you along for the ride. I'll be here throughout 2016, too—promise. You can also follow my 3-times-per-week tweets at @DrMartyKlein.
Famous athlete Bruce Jenner became famous transgender role model Caitlin Jenner. And now it seems like every third person is transgender, queer, or demanding new personal pronouns, like hir and zir. But reality-show nonsense aside, the new visibility of transgenderism is historically important for the 99% of us who aren't.
I Am Charlie Hebdo
New Year's Day hangovers were barely a memory when the War on Civilization came to Paris. The office of a little-known provocative (and often tasteless) journal was attacked by adults unhappy about a cartoon of their oh-so-wise, oh-so-peaceful inspiration. So they killed people. News outlets around the world reacted with outrage—and cowardice in refusing to run the images that many Muslims found so distressing that they supported these murders. Even today, American universities are duplicating this tragic, self-censoring mistake.
Free expression is all connected. The right to watch The Vagina Monologues or the Book of Mormon is absolutely bound up with the right to watch Butt Busters III or to draw a picture of Mohammed fingering Moses. As Lenny Bruce once said, "If you can't say fuck, you can't say fuck the government."
"Pink Viagra": Not Pink, Not Viagra
The FDA approved Flibanserin, a drug that helps a small number of women feel a little more sexual desire. The manufacturer had lobbied the government shamelessly, even inventing an allegedly feminist argument that women "deserved" it, given how Viagra had made sex so easy for men (yeah, right). Those lobbying against the drug promoted the myth that female sexuality is more complicated than male sexuality, and that women had a right to feel low desire.
In the end, neither ridiculous argument was persuasive. Money was.
Ashley Madison Hacked—Were You?
Millions of people—mostly men, apparently—found themselves deceived by the Ashley Madison website. Instead of lots of lusty married people ready to meet and have sex, the website's members found unethical business practices and poor internet security instead.
Is everyone on a dating or hookup website actually looking for sex? No.
Other big sex stories in 2015:
* Twenty-six year-old Laci Green became the world's most popular sex educator (after the Bible). Her YouTube videos receive millions of hits per month—earning her an invitation to the White House and death threats from both transgender activists and insecure men.
* Several hundred new state laws limited the rights of Americans to get abortions. No new laws limited our rights to get unintentionally pregnant. No new laws required cities or states to take better care of newborn babies or their mothers. And it is now dramatically easier to buy a gun in America than to get an abortion.
* Playboy magazine announced it will no longer publish nude photographs, since the internet now provides more nudity and pornography than anyone could possibly have imagined even just a decade ago.
Few Americans alive today remember the magazine's launch in 1953, or the revolutionary way it challenged the conformist, suburban, only-barely-sexual dream of the 1950s. Hugh Heffner was one of the first people to say out loud that middle-class people were interested in sex—with the courage to bet his life savings on it. Heffner also donated millions of dollars to unpopular anti-censorship causes. The grandchildren of his first readers will scoff and even spit when he dies—without ever understanding what they owe him.
* Same-gender marriage finally became legal. So far heterosexual marriage has not been destroyed, and no one has demanded the right to marry their horse, their mother, or their potted palm.
If you asked 1,000 people, "what's the defining thing about you?" some might say "my sexuality," but most would not.
Norway is holding classes for African and Middle Eastern immigrants whose fundamental values clash with those of Norwegian—that is, Western—culture. And on what aspect of Western culture are classes focusing on?
Norway's values about sexuality.
The classes emphasize the equality of women, their autonomy, and their right to say no to sex—even to their own husbands. Attendees learn about local customs—the kinds of things women wear, the fact that they walk around unescorted, and that when they talk or smile with strangers it implies absolutely no sexual agenda. Put another way, the classes teach that no one has a right to have sex with anyone else, no matter what another person says or does.
The classes are necessary because of a continuing flood of immigrants from Libya, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, and other places with dramatically different values. Countries like these maintain lifelong gender separation of adults, making it easy for men to imagine women as "other." Considering their widespread cultural agreement that men own women—which women teach their daughters and sons as much as men do—someone migrating to Europe is probably in for a shock.
I recall that some eighteen years ago I taught at a medical school in Morocco. During the break a group of students asked me why American men disrespect women so much. When I asked what they meant, they said that we "let" our women walk around with bare arms and legs, associating with whomever they wish, laughing and talking right out on the street.
I replied that Americans' idea of "respect" is different than Moroccans': we respect women by assuming their full autonomy, empowered to dress, socialize, work, and speak as they please. It was a moment of complete cultural non-empathy—on this issue, my students and I simply couldn't relate to each other's reality.
Today's Norwegian classes also emphasize that although Norway has been largely Christian for many centuries, religion is NOT what determines their laws. And everyone must follow those laws regardless of his or her religion.
These days, many Europeans fear that the enormous influx of immigrants with different values is leading to an epidemic of sexual assault. Data on this are mixed. The immigrants are largely young men, which is the group most likely to commit crimes in every society around the world. Many of these young men come to Europe without families and are unemployed, which further exacerbates the statistical odds.
Additionally, many immigrants suffer from the results of their own journey to Europe. Often involving violence, fear, and betrayal, many could be diagnosed as having PTSD, instilling a sense of desperation and powerlessness—and paradoxically, an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
Not all crime is the same. Most Westerners would say that rape is a worse violation than robbery, and that rape represents a far more dramatic breakdown of individual morality than robbery. Anyone who violates another's body needs to be held accountable.
That said, if a young man has spent his whole life learning that women are of little or no value and have little or no autonomy, accepting that man into a society that values women and grants them complete freedom creates problems for both. In Europe's current situation, it's the immigrant men who are far more likely to strike out against the local women rather than vice versa.
Where does that leave Westerners as we attempt to honor all cultures while protecting our own?
For one thing, immigrants and refugees are guests in their new countries. They don't have an unlimited right to practice their culture insofar as it conflicts with the culture of their new home. When I have traveled to places like India, Japan, and Burma, I have been expected—and often required—to behave in ways that were foreign and even uncomfortable to me. One never sees a Western woman bareheaded in Iran.
For another thing, people have a right to live as they wish in their own home. Norway is home to millions of people who share a cultural consensus about gender, sex, and social relations. As long as Norway doesn't go to Syria and try to impose its values there, Norwegians have a right to live as they choose.
Third, we should remember that ANY religion that preaches its ultimate unity with the civil state is a problem, regardless of the content of the religion. This profound civilizational issue took over two centuries of warfare to settle in Christian Europe (frighteningly, many American Christians want to resume this struggle here). The Muslim world has not yet settled this state-vs-religion issue in a way that can possibly lead to progressive, modern values like the equality of women, freedom of speech, or education that encourages questions.
In today's common idea of an Islamic state, no one within its borders is exempt from its rules. Blasphemy and apostasy are crimes equivalent to treason (and punishable as such). There is a huge difference between the morals police in Iran and the police department of Dallas; there is a huge difference between the Saudi government preventing every woman from driving, and religious missionaries like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses inviting others to live as they do.
When religion runs a state, the results are NEVER benign. Over a billion people live under law derived from TODAY'S Islam requiring women to cover up, sanctioning honor killings, allowing child marriage, controlling women's movements, and permitting them to work in only the narrowest circumstances. Islam is not alone in these ideas, but it's currently the main forum for religion that controls government.
If Western Europe is going to open itself to several million immigrants whose goal is to sustain homogeneous, separate communities within whatever nations they enter, Europe must find a way to establish clear rules about sex and gender. Ghettos for Muslims within Europe are NOT the answer (although Muslims communities in Paris and Marseilles are trying to create and maintain them).
Therefore, there must be a consensus on how all of a country's residents are expected to treat each other. A government that invites people of dramatically different ideas into the country without clear plans for developing such a consensus is cruelly betraying its residents. It's also setting up the immigrants themselves as scapegoats whenever anything goes wrong, whether it involves them or not.
Sex education is the key to creating safer lives for both Europeans and their new immigrant neighbors. In addition to specific facts and expectations, it's also the most powerful way to announce "It's different here." Sexuality, it turns out, IS one of the defining dimensions of Western culture.
And that's why there's so much conflict about it here in the US. Norms, beliefs, even facts (or untrue myths) about sexuality are at the core of who we are. Anti-sex ed, anti-choice, and anti-porn activists know that they're fighting for America's soul. Their liberal, progressive, humanist opponents need to understand that just as deeply.
You may have heard that several porn actresses have accused porn actor James Deen of sexual assault. In response, various production companies have terminated their contracts with him.
Yeah, there's bad people everywhere, even in the porn industry. If he raped anyone I hope he's locked up for a thousand years.
The case reminded me of a symposium I attended at Stanford University Law School a few weeks ago on the possible connection between sex work and trafficking, and America's legal response to each. Panelists included a prosecutor, a sociologist, an anti-trafficking activist, and Maxine Doogan of ESPLERP (Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, & Research Project).
The topic is especially hot in California right now as ESPLERP is working its lawsuit through U.S. District Court challenging California's criminalization of prostitution. The attorneys for the case include Louis Sirkin, who successfully handled the world-famous Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial in Cincinnati some years ago.
Well-informed and articulate as always, panelist Doogan challenged the tired old myths that prostitutes and other sex workers are primarily damaged people coerced into their work. The other panelists kept using pejorative expressions like "women selling themselves" and "men buying women" when referring to adults purchasing sexual services from willing sellers.
The whole idea that sex work dehumanizes adult, consenting sex workers in some special way is particularly egregious. It overlooks the common idea that we pay to consume LeBron James' body, pay to consume Meryl Streep's body, and really don't care about either human being beyond their performances. We may like to gossip about each, but that's a far cry from caring about them.
While many of us have paid to consume Kobe Bryant's physical performances for years, we will all forget about him minutes after this season ends. And we'll have no concern whatsoever about any back or leg pain he'll suffer for the rest of his life. Anyone care much about Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, David Beckham, or Shaquille O'Neill? Or Dionne Warwick, Judy Collins, or Linda Ronstadt now that they've lost their voices? Dehumanization is the foundation of capitalism, particularly in the various service industries. Every adult is free to sell their services in the marketplace, and to decide what the price for their dehumanization is.
Back at the Stanford panel, both the prosecutor and the activist insisted it was necessary to keep sex work illegal in order to discourage new entrants into the business, to pursue bad guys coercing people into it, and to protect the sex workers themselves.
But think about the James Deen case. The women pursuing their rape cases against him are able to do so because they are legally employed. They each have the option of going to their employer, the police, or both. What if they were raped while acting as prostitutes? They'd have no employer. They couldn't go to the police, because they'd be arrested themselves. Or, as many prostitutes can attest, they'd be extorted for sex by the police in exchange for not being arrested.
Suggesting it was a progressive idea, the activist talked about the current Scandinavian model, wherein sex workers aren't arrested—their customers are. This is exchanging one bad arrangement for another. Whenever economic activity is criminalized, it goes underground, denying legal protections that other industries enjoy. And denying adults the right to buy and sell the services they choose isn't progressive. It's arbitrary, unfair, and coercive.
As for the idea that sex workers provide a product so irresistible that consumers need to be protected from themselves, America already has a system for dealing with products like that. We regulate alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and prescription drugs. If we want to restrict the products of sex workers to consumers over, say, 18 (or 21), we can do that (it works in Nevada). If we want to restrict sex work jobs to those over, say, 18 (or 21), we can do that (it works in the porn industry). If we want to require that sex workers get regular medical certifications, we can do that (it works in Germany).
The best way to protect sex workers is to see them as WORKERS, and provide them with all the legal protections (and responsibilities, like paying taxes) of other workers. If people are really serious about eliminating sex trafficking, they'll get way more serious about demanding and using legitimate statistics: saying there are 300,000 youth "at risk" of being trafficked is meaningless; conflating world statistics with U.S. statistics is pathetic. Decriminalizing sex work also helps reduce illicit trafficking by enabling sex workers to report suspicious-looking arrangements without putting themselves in jeopardy.
While anti-sex workers rights activists are self-righteously talking about protecting sex workers, it's ironic that many American jurisdictions allow police to treat possession of condoms as evidence of sex work. This put sex workers in a double bind—use condoms to reduce the risk of HIV but increase the risk of prosecution, or don't use condoms and increase the risk of HIV for themselves and their clients in order to reduce the risk of prosecution.
In the months to come, you'll probably hear more about the ESPLERP lawsuit. Do consider supporting it financially, or following them via their website or at #DecriminalizeSexWork.