Monday, March 29, 2010

Score one for Constance McMillen

It's just about the best outcome possible, given the overt victimization of a high school student by the adults in charge of her education. After the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi canceled the prom rather than let Constance McMillen and her girlfriend attend together, a federal court called out officials of the Itawamba County School District as a bunch of bigots in front of a national audience, pointedly affirming McMillen's claim that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

It's hard to imagine the mind-set of people who would rather cancel a school event than let a lesbian couple attend, but maybe Itawamba school officials are getting a bit of a reality check after the wave of national support for Constance and her girlfriend: over 421,000 supporters of "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!" on Facebook, invitations to proms around the country, media appearances and a $30,000 college scholarship. If the tidal wave of public support for Constance hasn't hammered the message home, the yet-to-be-determined settlement to Constance's ACLU-backed lawsuit in the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Mississippi might do the trick.

The prom is still off -- parents are reportedly organizing a private event at which Constance and companion will be welcome, so the public school won't be compelled to put the dance back on the schedule. Note that the court didn't order the organizers of the private dance to accommodate Constance. As private individuals using their own resources, they would have the right to be as bigoted and exclusionary as they please, unlike public officials who draw salaries and use resources partially funded by taxes extracted from Constance's family.

As it is, Constance's future is looking pretty promising -- and the petty educrats who sought to turn her into a pariah are on notice.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Forcing everybody into the same public schools is a good idea because ...?

All Constance McMillen wanted to do was to attend the high school prom with her girlfriend. Unfortunately for her, she lives in Fulton, Mississippi, a notch on the Bible Belt where the idea of two girls holding hands gives lots of people a bad case of the ickies. One thing led to another, the ACLU got involved, and officials at Itawamba County Agricultural High School (where girl-on-girl action is off limits, but the sheep are nervous) stomped off in a huff to cancel the prom rather than let ickiness prevail. Ridiculous as the situation is, it's all too common an outcome when disfavored minorities in public institutions come up against the preferences, prejudices and rank stupidity of the majority who run things.

Minorities and individuals believe nasty and stupid things, too, of course, but they are less likely to dominate political institutions. And make no mistake about it: public schools are political institutions that reflect the wishes of whatever faction controls the levers of power -- often representing majority whims, at least on hot-button issues, in democratic systems. In Tucson, Arizona, this means apartheid-ish racial and ethnic quotas for school discipline, in my stomping grounds it means a prevailing disdain for actual learning, and in Fulton, Mississippi, it means hating the gays.

You can't escape the prejudices of the people who run the show unless you can escape the institutions that they run.

This seems to be the strongest possible argument for decentralizing education and empowering families and students. If Constance McMillen attended a tolerant school chosen and supported by her family, the way they choose their grocery store and their housing, she'd be attending her prom instead of ... err ... being feted in Hollywood. So, OK, things aren't working out badly for her. But most put-upon teens don't end up with celebrity advocates -- even if they win, they battle for years and go through hell in the process.

Why should every kid have to joust with dragons -- and usually lose?

Every community includes minorities whose lifestyles, religious views and ideologies are sufficiently at odds with those of the majority that they can't be accomodated within institutions controlled by the majority without breeding conflict. Having to pay taxes to support those institutions not only adds insult to injury, but deprives people of the resources they might use to pay for alternatives. That leaves these minorities at the mercy of people who have completely incompatible values.

It's odd -- nobody suggests that we nationalize grocery stores and put them under the management of militant vegetarians or Atkins Diet fanatics, yet it's deemed OK to force gay and lesbian students to attend schools run by homophobes.

There's no reason to victimize Constance McMillen. She ought to be educated by people chosen by her family -- people who treat her with respect instead of disdain. Then she could attend her prom with her girlfriend without a moment's worry about other people's prejudices.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Soon, smooching the sergeant won't get you out of the draft

Following on President Barack Obama's comments on allowing gays to openly serve in the military, Tuesday's endorsement of the idea by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that the administration is moving beyond stroking its supporters on the issue and poised to actually implement the idea as policy. When the United States military finally allows gays and lesbians equality in uniform with their straight comrades, it will be following in the footsteps of countries like Canada and Australia, since most of America's allies have already taken this step.

Last week, in his state of the union address, President Obama promised, "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." That's no surprise coming from Obama, who promised on the campaign trail and soon after taking office to do away with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy implemented during the Clinton years. But promises made in speeches don't necessarily indicate immediate changes in rules and regulations.

But yesterday, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Mullen commented:
[I]t is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.
Of course, Mullen framed his commitment to loosening anti-gay and anti-lesbian policies in terms of how to "best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars." The admiral echoed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has established a working group to study the issue, take testimony and develop an approach for making the policy change. Speaking before the same committee, Gates acknowledged that "our approach may cause some to wonder why it will take the better part of the year to accomplish the task." That approach may raise fears that the issue will be committeed to death, with little accomplished in the end.

Then again, President Truman's racial desegregation of the military took two years to accomplish after his executive order to that effect was issued.

The United States is a latecomer to sexual integration of the military. According to the Palm Center at the University of California -- Santa Barbara, countries that allow gays and lesbians to serve in uniform (PDF) include:

Czech Republic
New Zealand
South Africa

While advocates of personal freedom will applaud a policy change that would bring the government closer to treating gays and straights equally, there is one potential downside. If -- or when -- the government next decides to force unwilling victims into uniform with a return to conscription, it will no longer be possible to escape the draft by claiming to be homosexual.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's 1969, all over again

Under siege by Atlanta's gay and lesbian community, as well as by supporters of social tolerance, the Georgia city's police department is scrambling to justify a violent raid on a popular bar that caters to a leather clientele. In a city that is not known for having solved all its problems with crimes against people and property, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington argues that the raid on the Atlanta Eagle was justified because ... well ... there was consensual sex among adults going on in the establishment.

Seriously. That's the police excuse for a raid by more than 20 officers, during which, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "62 patrons were ordered facedown on the bar’s floor, some for more than an hour. The customers were searched illegally and some were taunted with anti-gay slurs by some of the officers..."

Co-owner Robert Kelley told CBS, "The only thing they'd tell us is we need to sit down and shut the (expletive) up, and if we asked any questions, they'd bash us with a bar stool."

All this because of allegations of open sex on the premises, as well as the presence of illicit intoxicants.

Even when it comes to pursuing a full-court press against victimless "crimes," the police walked away empty-handed. Eight bar employees were ultimately arrested -- for permit infractions.

But even if there was sex on the premises, the police have raised no allegations that the conduct was anything but consensual, in an enclosed and seemingly safe environment. As for drugs ... I've written often enough about the pointlessness of trying to dictate to people just what intoxicants they may and may not use, as well as the individual rights violations inherent in any attempt to enforce such rules. The report of sixty-two people verbally abused while handcuffed face-down on the ground -- without the police even making arrests for violating those laws against sex and drugs -- amply illustrates that point.

Honestly, why should the police care how people are enjoying themselves in a place and with companions of their own choosing? And why should the police expend such resources on this raid in a city where the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate edged up, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 20.9 per 100,000 people in 2005, to 22.6 in 2006 to 25.9 in 2007? Admittedly, that's a vast improvement over the rate of a decade ago -- so are all crime statistics in Atlanta -- but it would seem the police still have plenty of real offenses against people and property to occupy their attention.

In the end, it's none of the government's business what consenting adults do with each other, on their own property or in an establishment owned by somebody who welcomes them.

Ironically, it was a raid much like this one, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, that launched the modern gay rights movement. At the Stonewall Inn, gays and lesbians fought back, defeated the police and claimed a little respect for the right to be left alone.

With the Atlanta Eagle raid following so closely on the police assault on the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth, Texas, maybe it's time for another Stonewall-style push-back.

Or maybe the authorities could just learn, finally, to mind their own business and tend to more important concerns.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Hamptons just got a little more interesting

The inhabitants of two well-heeled towns on New York's Long Island are reportedly shocked to discover that brothels have been operating in residential neighborhoods -- and enjoying a booming business in otherwise trying economic times. Given the large number of politicians who maintain vacation houses in the area, you'd think the good people of Westhampton and Southampton would be accustomed to their neighbors peddling favors from their homes. But if they really want to minimize the disruption caused by underground prostitution, they should learn a lesson already taken to heart elsewhere, and eliminate laws against the trade.

Prostitution, for example, is legal in much of Nevada. The ability to work in legal -- and heavily regulated -- brothels has cut down the need for sex workers to operate under the radar by selling their services in venues that might not always be perceived as appropriate (such as residential neighborhoods).

But Nevada's solution isn't ideal. That heavy regulation forces sex workers into brothels, limiting their independence and their negotiating power. Given that an imbalance of power is already an issue (the prostitutes in the Hamptons brothels kept only $15 of the $40 charge for each trick), something a little more liberating may be in order.

Which brings us to New Zealand. In 2003, that nation decriminalized prostitution, essentially returning the sex trade to legal, free-market status. The government enforces laws against force and fraud as it does for other above-ground industries, but otherwise generally stays out of the way.

Last year, a government reviewed the impact of the reform -- and liked what it saw. According to the conclusion of the Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.

The PRA has been in force for five years. During that time, the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.

In contrast with conditions where prostitution is illegal, only 4.3% of female sex workers (and half as many male prostitutes) in New Zealand have been coerced into the business. Employment conditions have dramatically improved now that sex workers have access to legal redress for mistreatment by employers and customers. They can also go to work on their own, without need of the "protection" of an established pimp.

Most importantly, the trade is now above-board, and doesn't need to pop up in odd locations, like rental houses in the Hamptons, in an effort to avoid the authorities.

Laws against prostitution don't do much but make life difficult for sex workers and the occasional unlucky customer -- just ask Eliot Spitzer, the last governor of New York, how deterred he felt by the laws he had enforced as attorney general. They also drive the trade into inconvenient locations through efforts to evade the police (and let's not forget the corrupting effect on public officials who take money or sex to look the other way).

So if residents of Westhampton, Southampton and points beyond want to get prostitutes out of their neighborhood, their best bet is to get rid of the laws against the sex trade.

As for getting politicians out of their neighborhood ... That's a tougher challenge.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Sex offender registries aren't just destructive, they're unreliable crap

Much has been written -- for good reason -- about the tragic cases of people whose lives have been ruined by being classified and registered as "sex offenders" for consensual youthful liaisons with partners just a few months younger than the law allows. But is this the price we pay for immunizing ourselves against the real predators: rapists and adults who stalk actual children? A recent federal report suggests that the answer is "no." As efficient as the system is at registering youthful lovers, it's just that inefficient at tracking actual criminals.

Genarlow Wilson famously served over two years of a ten-year sentence for having consensual oral sex with a girl two years his junior when he was 17. His sentence was ultimately overturned as cruel and unusual, but many people across the country still face registration and harsh restrictions for similar "transgressions." As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized:

But Wilson is not the only young offender caught in a maze of draconian sex laws. Many young people are trapped on the state sex offender registry for nonviolent and consensual sex acts as teens.

The registry is a prison sentence in its own right, fencing even low-risk offenders off from most of society. Georgia law bars offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks. Last year, the General Assembly added churches, swimming pools and school bus stops to the list, and, for the first time, placed limits on where offenders could work. Now, sex offenders can't hold jobs near schools, child care centers or churches.

Some states have now moved to pass "Romeo and Juliet" laws to ease the consequences for young people who fall afoul of arbitrary age cut-offs, but people still remain on sex offender registries, with all that entails, for petty reasons. The harsh, often life-long restrictions of the sex-offender registries are supposed to buy us some security, even if a few innocent people get ground up in the machinery from time to time. So, how much security are we getting from those registries?

Not so much, say the feds. According to a report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice:

We found that the registries that make up the national sex offender registration system – the FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) and the state public sex offender registries accessed through OJP’s National Sex Offender Public Registry Website (NSOPR) – are inaccurate and incomplete. As a result, neither law enforcement officials nor the public can rely on the registries for identifying registered sex offenders, particularly those who are fugitives.

Specifically, the states have not entered records on approximately 22 percent of their registered sex offenders into NSOR and have not identified sex offenders who have failed to maintain a current registration. We also found that states do not consistently enter information into NSOR such as social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and vehicle identification numbers.

The NSOR is a centralized federal database of sex offenders available for use by law-enforcement agencies, whilet he NSOPR is a publicly available portal that searches state databases. Separately maintained, they're equally unreliable.

The not-even-good-enough-for-government-work status of the sex offender registries as of the beginning of 2009 is especially relevant because the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act requires all U.S. states, territories and tribes to have functioning, accurate and accessible registries by July 27, 2009 -- just a few months away. The registries are to be used to track offenders and to prosecute people convicted of sex crimes who fail to register or to keep their registration current if they move from one state to another or even from one address to another within a state. Inaccurate registries mean a hobbled ability to track offenders.

It could also, potentially, mean legal liability for those who do comply with the law but whose records spiraled into some black hole in the system. Bureaucratic incompetence could end up resulting in prison time for people who have made every attempt to keep their noses clean and their registrations current. Some of those people will be "criminals" whose crimes consisted of sleeping, as teenagers, with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Others will be people who committed real crimes but are trying to get their lives together.

Either way, public safety isn't being enhanced in any obvious way by the sex-offender registration system.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rights aren't gifts, even on Human Rights Day

It's encouraging to see Human Rights Day this year become something of a celebration of the freedom of sexual minorities. The United Nations General Assembly will soon consider a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality -- an important move in a world where many gays and lesbians still face the prospect of prison time or even death as a legal penalty for just being who they are. In the U.S., many people are taking the day off from work for today's "Day Without a Gay" to remind people just how many of their co-workers and employees are affected by anti-gay discrimination. While the UN resolution might seem like the more momentous of the two developments, it's actually less impressive -- and a bit perilous -- when compared to the grassroots boycott effort.

When politicians join together to celebrate your rights, get ready for your freedom to be treated as a gift from on high. They debate a bit, they enjoy a few photo-ops with one another, and then, in front of television cameras, they tell us all why we should thank them for tweaking a few laws or, more likely, just issuing a few finely crafted words. Any small victories won come with a wink and a reminder to vote "the right way" at the next election.

Is Saudi Arabia going to cease being a lousy place for gays and lesbians to live because Nicolas Sarkozy and Jimmy Carter enjoyed a few glasses of taxpayer-purchased wine in front of a UN logo? Don't count on it.

Real change comes from the bottom up, when the people affected by bad laws don't just insist that the law should change -- they force it to happen, usually over the protests of politicians. The Americans behind "Day Without a Gay" haven't faced the threat of legal penalties for their sexual orientation since the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (and far longer than that, in most places), but that's because of their own efforts -- not a General Assembly resolution handed down from above. They fought back against arrest, changed the culture by being open and worked together to force the government to back off.

Beating the crap out of a few gay-bashing cops during the Stonewall riots accomplished more for the rights of gays and lesbians than the UN General assembly ever will.

That's not to say we shouldn't celebrate human rights on December 10. We absolutely should. But always be aware that the real protector of your liberty is you and your like-minded allies -- not some politician on a podium.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

What's the best approach for ending prohibitions?

After I wrote a piece favoring legalized prostitution last month, I received comments and emails from sex workers thanking me for the piece -- but, in one case, objecting to my call for legalization. The woman who contacted me said she preferred decriminalization over legalization.

Color me confused.

My experience with the difference between "legalize" and "decriminalize" comes from discussions of drug policy, in which legalization refers to removing all laws against a substance or activity and allowing it to be engaged in openly, while decriminalization has a somewhat vaguer definition, but basically refers to ending criminal penalties while maintaining civil sanctions -- fines -- against people who engage in still-discouraged conduct.

Why, I asked, would somebody prefer being fined over being free of legal penalties?

Well, it turns out that language is a bit tricky. Apparently, discussions of policy toward commercial sex have gone in a different direction than discussions of policy regarding drugs. In sex worker circles, I'm told, "legalization" refers to permitting prostitution within a rigidly structured and regulated framework that dictates how the trade will be conducted (usually in licensed brothels). "Decriminalization" refers to repealing laws against prostitution and allowing people to work out their own arrangements in a deregulated marketplace.

In the case of prostitution, Nevada is often held out as an example of legalization, while New Zealand is considered a model of decriminalization.

Nevada prostitution is fairly successful and relatively trouble-free -- certainly it is when compared to the trade as conducted in jurisdictions where it's forbidden. But Nevada prostitution is rigidly regulated and many sex workers don't like working under tjose rules. In particular, they don't like working for brothel owners. Many of them would rather freelance or make other arrangements more to their taste.

In New Zealand, as The Economist describes the trade:

[F]or liberals in search of success stories, New Zealand appears to provide more promising evidence. In 2003, that country decriminalised the sex trade with a boldness that exceeded that of the Dutch. Sex workers were allowed to ply their trade more or less freely, either at home, in brothels or on the street.

A study published by the government in May, measuring the impact of the new law, was encouraging. More than 60% of prostitutes felt they had more power to refuse clients than they did before. The report reckoned that only about 1% of women in the business were under the legal age of 18. And only 4% said they had been pressured into working by someone else.

The advantage to New Zealand's arrangement, the magazine continues is, "prostitutes can fend for themselves. As well as letting them keep all their earnings, this independence gives them freedom to reject nasty clients and unsafe practices."

The New Zealand Ministry of Justice report referenced by The Economist is available online. After assessing the impact of the Prostitution Reform Act, it concludes:

The PRA has been in force for five years. During that time, the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.

So, greater autonomy for sex workers, no fear of arrest, prosecution or fines, and apparently improved conditions. And that's without even getting into the fact that the New Zealand arrangement uniquely respects, to a great extent, the right of adults to use their bodies as they please and to engage in whatever consensual arrangements they like. Sounds good to me.

Let me be clear, in all cases, whether we're discussing prostitution, drugs, guns or any other arrangements among consenting adults, I favor entirely removing the government from the process. That means no laws against goods or services; it also means no mandated structures or regulations. People should be free to do as they please, so long as they don't violate anybody else's rights.

It's the right thing to do. And it works.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

How to peddle ass the right way

Laws against prostitution are generally portrayed by their advocates as necessary to save prostitutes from a sordid life of near-slavery, drug addiction and general abuse. Indeed, several current news stories capably illustrate the nasty side of the sex trade. Connecticut's Stamford Advocate describes three women charged with felonies after invading the home of their alleged pimp and stabbing him and other residents -- apparently because he failed to pay them for their work.

During an interview with detectives in July, Ramirez said she was working as a dancer in Mexico when she met Mora. He promised she could make $1,000 a week in the United States. In late February 2007, she began living on Charles Street with Mora.

He then allegedly told her she had to make money and persuaded her to become a prostitute. ...

"When he would pick me up, I would give him all the money. He told me that the passage had to be paid for. We got tired of working for him because he would not pay us," she said.

In Massachusetts, the Salem News tells the tale of Trevor Jones, who left behind the straight life to coerce women to provide sex for money.

Yesterday, he pleaded guilty to forcing at least two women, both of whom were desperate and drug-addicted, into prostitution. He demanded that each woman bring home at least $1,000 a night from street walking and from assignations at hotels up and down Route 1, a prosecutor said.

And the horrifying story of Shauna Newell's rape and descent into sex slavery during a sleepover at a new "friend's" house appears at MSNBC:

Newell said that her captor told her she had been sold on the Internet for $300,000 to a man in Texas. Fortunately, she was rescued before delivery could be made. During Newell’s ordeal in Florida, her captor took money from a number of men who raped her. When she screamed, he held a gun to her head and threatened to blow her brains out.

But wait ... Are these really morality tales about the evils of the sex-for-money trade? Or are they actually illustrations of what happens when you drive an industry into the shadows -- and the arms of violent criminals who thrive outside the law?

In Connecticut, Itzbel Ramirez, Nadia Gomez and Sheila Vargas face criminal charges after they engaged in violent self-help made necessary because they had no recourse to the law after their employer refused to pay them for their work. That's a desperate situation created by the illegal nature of the sex industry in that state. Operating underground, their pimp felt free to rip them off. Engaged in an illegal trade, the women were unable to go to the police or sure to get their money. In the end, blood flowed.

Trevor Jones of Massachusetts is another predator of the sort who prowls where the sun doesn't shine. He lured women with drugs and turned them into virtual slaves, knowing all the time that drug-using hookers were highly unlikely to risk their own freedom by complaining to the police.

Risk their own freedom? You bet. While Shauna Newell's story ends as well as such an ordeal can, it includes an important cautionary note.

Like Newell, many are treated by law enforcement authorities as runaways, said Marc Klaas, who founded the advocacy group KlaasKids after his own 12-year-old daughter was abducted, raped and killed. When they are forced into prostitution, the young people are the ones who are prosecuted, Klaas told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York.

“It turns upside down,” Klaas explained. “First of all, many of these kids are missing children. But what happens is when they’re trafficked, they’re turned into hookers; they’re turned into prostitutes. So we find this situation where we find these young victims, these young girls that all of a sudden are being treated and looked upon as criminals.”

The law then becomes a means of perpetuating the evils it's supposedly intended to stamp out.

But what if prostitution operated legally, the way it does in much of Nevada? Well, let's examine the story of Laraine Russo Harper, who took over a run-down brothel where employees were expected to sleep with the boss, dramatically improved the conditions, and turned it into a glitzy money-making machine for owners and workers alike. In the Pahrump Valley Times:

Big bucks followed the major upgrade. The specialty villas fetched customers paying $40,000 up to $90,000 for one night. One customer landed in a helicopter, paying a lady $80,000. ...

Many working girls made good money, Harper said. One prostitute who came to work at the brothel at age 21, made $10,000 per week on average. Another prostitute in five years owned a $3 million home in one state, a $2 million condominium in another and a $1 million loft in another state, retiring at 27 years old.

Is that typical? I doubt it. And while Harper no longer works in the trade, she certainly has an interest in portraying her experience positively. But there's no question that a sex trade that operates legally means workers for whom the police and the courts are potential allies rather than enemies. Had Laraine Russo Harper stiffer her employees, she would have been sued rather than stabbed, and drugging them would have meant a prison sentence rather than the book deal she has.

Legalizing prostitution is no more a cure-all for every abuse than legalizing the construction trade prevents framers from being injured on the job. But keeping the industry aboveboard and treating women and men who, as is their right, choose to offer consensual sex for money as full citizens rather than criminals is the best way to minimize the problems that do occur.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Phoenix has better things to worry about than prostitution

2004: 238
2005: 238
2006: 253
2007: 244

Sexual Assaults
2004: 824
2005: 824
2006: 796
2007: 772

Violent Crime Total
2004: 10,504
2005: 10,783
2006: 11,240
2007: 11,127

Phoenix, Arizona, is a growing city with big-city crime problems. These problems aren't out of control; homicides have been relatively steady in recent years, sexual assaults are down a tad, and overall, violent crimes have risen just a bit -- that's not too bad for a city growing as quickly as this one is. But there are real problems in Phoenix that could occupy police time and energy without the need for additional distractions to keep them from becoming bored.

So why are the cops bothering to devote resources to chasing after a business that engages in consensual sexual activity -- namely, prostitution and Internet adult entertainment?

Reports ABC 15:

Investigators said Nichta's organization was providing prostitutes through several websites with titles such as “Desert Divas”, “Az Confidential”, “Hips Tours”, and “Escorts in Action”.

More than 100 people, mostly prostitutes, are believed to be involved in the ring.

The organization filmed pornographic acts with the prostitutes, according to the investigators, and made them available for viewing through the Internet to hundreds of customers, or “johns”, who ordered the service through their various websites.

Charges so far in the case are: conspiracy to control an illegal enterprise, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, operating a house of prostitution, employee at a house of prostitution, pandering, receiving the earnings of a prostitute, use of a wire or electronic communication, and prostitution. Not only do none of the charges refer to acts of violence, as far as I can tell, none of them involve doing anything that I would consider wrong.

I say that because there are no rights violations involved in prostitution as such. It's simply the exchange of sexual services for money. You say that some prostitutes are held against their will? No doubt -- but that's a function of the industry operating underground, beyond the reach of open scrutiny and legal protections. Illegality is the culprit there, not the simple act of exchanging money for sex.

In fact, Barbara Brents and Kate Hausbeck of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have studied legalized prostitution in Nevada and concluded that legalization reduces interpersonal violence against prostitutes, violence against community order, and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. The researchers also emphasize the overwhelmingly consensual nature of the business: many sex workers choose that trade and don't need to be saved -- certainly not by the heavy hand of criminal prosecution.

With Phoenix's violent crime rates stagnant over the past few years, leaving prostitution alone -- or, better yet, legalizing it -- would seem to be an excellent way of getting crime statistics moving in the right direction.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Phoenix: Not so free, not so unfree

Phoenix isn't a terrible place when it comes to personal freedom. It's not so great either, despite Arizona's overstated Wild-West reputation.

Reason magazine's Radley Balko raised a fuss in Chicago with his column in the Chicago Tribune taking that city to task for "treating its citizens like children" with a variety of nanny-state interventions into everything from sex laws to booze restrictions to firearms regulations that are designed to turn local politicians' obsessions and bugaboos into punishable offenses.

The full article from which Balko drew, rating 35 cities according to semi-scientific rankings of the various city governments' treatment of personal freedom, is available on Reason's Website. The cities are assessed on the environment they provide for personal autonomy in the areas of: Sex, Tobacco, Alcohol, Guns, Movement, Drugs, Gambling and Food/Other.

Chicago came in dead last, setting itself up for its public excoriation. Las Vegas, with a generally laissez-faire attitude toward matters that draw political and legal attention elsewhere, ranked first.

I note that Phoenix, the metropolitan behemoth of Arizona, ranks a mediocre 14. With its middle-of-the-road status, the city doesn't even rate a full text analysis of its advantages and disadvantages. The magazine merely notes: "If harassment of suspected illegal immigrants were measured in this list, the stomping grounds of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would rank dead last."

I've written plenty about Sheriff Joe's shenanigans, so I can't disagree.

Reason's rankings are a welcome tool for assessing the livability of America's many and various jurisdictions by a variety of criteria. Measures of economic freedom are relatively easy to come by, but attempts to assess local openness to gays and lesbians, personal choice on smoking, drug laws, the ability to defend yourself within the law and other measures of the breathing room to live in a given area according to your own preferences are rare.

In fact, it's interesting to cross-reference, say, the Pacific Research Institute's U.S. Economic Freedom Index (full document here in PDF format) with Reason's rankings. Chicago's miserable last-place personal freedom ranking correlates depressingly with Illinois's overall 46 (out of 50) rank among the states for economic liberty.

Las Vegas, the top dog for personal-freedom, is located in pretty-good twelfth-ranked Nevada for economic liberty.

But the best bargain may be Denver, ranked third for personal freedom, and nestled comfortably in second-place Colorado, for economic liberty.

(Phoenix, ranked a mediocre 14 out of 35 for personal freedom, does a bit better on economics, given Arizona's slot at 11.)

Of course, rankings are only snapshots; you need to see what direction a jurisdiction is going, or you're at risk of moving to a garden of freedom just in time to watch it transform into a gulag. As David Harsanyi notes in Reason's write-up of Denver:
Often the relevant question isn’t where you are but where you’re headed. And Denver, alas, is moving in the same godforsaken direction as the rest of the country. Safety, economic and social “justice,” the children, the environment, the pets (unless we’re talking about pit bulls, a breed banned from city limits)—all of them trump individual freedom. ...

Denver is one of the freest cities in the country? That’s dreadful news for the rest of you suckers.

Oh well. Reason is going to have to repeat these rankings on a regular basis, so we have a better idea of how our homes, current and prospective, fare. It just might be better to stay in a town ranked at 14 that stays at 14 than it would be to move to a burg that starts off good and then slides, heartbreakingly, down the scale.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Don't ask, don't tell shoots blanks

The potential for man-on-man sex in the trenches apparently is no pressing threat to the fighting ability of the U.S. military, according to a new study (PDF). Prepared by a panel of former military officers, the report for the Michael D. Palm Center, part of the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds that the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy costs the military talented personnel and puts many commanders in a position in which they have to choose between obeying the law and maintaining the cohesion of their units. It points out that "[m]ilitary attitudes towards gays and lesbians are changing" and concludes that "[e]vidence shows that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline, or cohesion."

The officers who prepared the report, Brigadier General Hugh Aitken, USMC (Ret.), Lieutenant General Minter Alexander, USAF (Ret.), Lieutenant General Robert Gard, USA (Ret.) and Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, USN (Ret.) recommend that the military adopt "uniform standards that are neutral with respect to sexual orientation" and simply deal with inappropriate conduct as inappropriate conduct without worrying whether it's straight or gay.

Interestingly, the report notes that not a single expert who opposes allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military was willing to be interviewed by the panel preparing the report.

Overall, the report is a strong nudge in the direction of doing with gay and lesbian soldiers what the military did with black soldiers in 1948 (officially in 1954) -- treat them as full members of the armed forces and punish the folks who can't deal with that fact, not the blacks or gays. If Southerners (by which I mean residents of South Boston, of course) could be expected to work alongside African-American soldiers, even the straightest arrow can learn to not care who his or her fellow jarheads or GIs are dating.

Then we can move on to squabbling about important stuff -- like Wiccan chaplains.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shocker -- judge thinks sex is normal

I'm actually more sympathetic to Judge Alex Kozinski after this revelation:

A closely watched obscenity trial in Los Angeles federal court was suspended Wednesday after the judge acknowledged maintaining his own publicly accessible website featuring sexually explicit photos and videos.

Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, granted a 48-hour stay in the obscenity trial of a Hollywood adult filmmaker after the prosecutor requested time to explore "a potential conflict of interest concerning the court having a . . . sexually explicit website with similar material to what is on trial here."

In an interview Tuesday with The Times, Kozinski acknowledged posting sexual content on his website. Among the images on the site were a photo of naked women on all fours painted to look like cows and a video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal. He defended some of the adult content as "funny" but conceded that other postings were inappropriate.

Kozinski, 57, said that he thought the site was for his private storage and that he was not aware the images could be seen by the public, although he also said he had shared some material on the site with friends. After the interview Tuesday evening, he blocked public access to the site.

Kozinski is a libertarian-ish judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. I say "ish" because he's great on free speech, the right to bear arms and medical marijuana, but fully supported the Kelo decision and even went so far as to suggest that government should be able to seize private property for any purpose so long as it pays fair value.

Even with that "ish," though, he's head and shoulders above 99% of other federal judges as an advocate of individual rights. So it's a bit surprising that, as the Los Angeles Times says, he's "been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court." In the year of Obama vs. McCain, with a President Ron Paul off the table and a President Bob Barr highly unlikely, I'm not sure who would nominate him.

It's reassuring to know that a judge is open not only to keeping a somewhat off-base porn collection, but also to being largely unapologetic about it.

"Is it prurient? I don't know what to tell you," he said. "I think it's odd and interesting. It's part of life."

After all, Antonin Scalia probably has a massive collection of bondage magazines, but if ever caught perusing the material, he's the type who'd claim they belonged to his chauffeur before tearfully checking in to some kind of kink rehab. (And then there's Eliott Spitzer, who prosecuted prostitution rings while giving them his business.)

Sad to say, though, Kozinski is now probably off of the candidate list for the Supreme Court, if he was ever really on it. Unless Paul or Barr pull off a coup.

Update: Having now seen some of the images Kozinski kept, I'll add that many of them are a hoot. I've also already seen more than a few of them via the email grapevine.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kids returned as pogrom against FLDS fizzles

Members of the polygamous FLDS church are getting their kidnapped children back from the Texas authorities who swiped them in the wake of two court decisions, one from the Texas Supreme Court, saying that state officials overstepped their bounds by declaring that adherence to a specific religion inherently makes people unfit parents. As the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, "under the law in the United States, a culture cannot be indicted. Only the specific people who commit specific crimes against specific victims can be. Thank goodness."

Texas authorities are still free to pursue allegations of child abuse, but now they'll have to do it the American way: by building evidence of specific crimes and naming actual suspects instead of engaging in a pogrom. Yeah, that's a pain in the ass. Every now and then, though -- if only when folks are watching -- government employees have to do things by the rules.

Interestingly, this is at least the second time that a wildly over-the-top campaign by government officials against the FLDS church has turned the members of the odd little sect from outcasts with some unsavory practices into sympathetic victims of the state. In 1953, a massive raid by Arizona law-enforcers on Short Creek (now Colorado City), motivated by precisely the same concerns that inspired Texas's assault on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, had much the same results as the 2008 controversy. Wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2006:

By day’s end, families and crying children were separated in a scene that would haunt political leaders for years to come. In all, 36 men were arrested. Authorities loaded 86 women and 263 children aboard buses to Phoenix. ...

As sympathy built for the FLDS, [Arizona Gov. J. Howard] Pyle was denounced and ridiculed by newspaper editorials. The raid was called "Pyle’s Folly."

The Arizona Republic said the action would have made the Keystone Kops "green with envy" and resembled "too closely the hated police-state roundups of the Old World."

Religious leaders and political rivals accused him of using excessive force.

Democrats decried the action as "odious and un-American." A prominent Mormon leader denounced the "tyrannical methods" used.

The raid’s results were meager in court as well. Charges of statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were dropped. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate laws against bigamy, and open and notorious cohabitation. One-year suspended sentences were handed out. Many promptly returned to Short Creek with their families.

Pyle lost the subsequent election, and even he attributed his defeat to public reaction against the Short Creek raid.

It's too early yet to know whether there will be political fallout from the 2008 raid, but it's good to see that the courts are at least as protective of the individual rights of members of a despised subculture as they were in 1953. Once again, government officials took a step toward persecuting an entire community, and once again, they were slapped down hard.

The day those slaps stop coming will be the day it's open season on anybody who strays too far from the herd.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Texas court nixes mass roundup of kids

Icky beliefs are no grounds for staging pogroms.

Or, if you want more detail, the fact that a church's doctrine might, at some point in the future, lead lead some members to break the law and other members to act as willing victims is not, in and of itself, enough reason to kidnap hundreds of kids who are being raised in that church. Even if there is reason to believe that a few minors in a religious community have been abused, there is no justification for treating children in other families that just happen to be members of the same community as potential victims.

That, in a nutshell, is the decision of the Third Court of Appeals of Texas, based in Austin.
The Department did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty. Nor did the Department offer any evidence that any of Relators' pubescent female children were in physical danger other than that those children live at the ranch among a group of people who have a "pervasive system of belief" that condones polygamous marriage and underage females having children. (9) The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger. ...

The Department also failed to establish that the need for protection of the Relators' children was urgent and required immediate removal of the children. As previously noted, none of the identified minors who are or have been pregnant are children of Relators. There is no evidence that any of the five pregnant minors live in the same household as the Relators' children. (10) There is no evidence that Relators have allowed or are going to allow any of their minor female children to be subjected to any sexual or physical abuse. ...

[T]he district court abused its discretion in failing to return the Relators' children (13) to the Relators. The Relators' Petition for Writ of Mandamus is conditionally granted. The district court is directed to vacate its temporary orders granting sole managing conservatorship of the children of the Relators to the Department. The writ will issue only if the district court fails to comply with this opinion.

Note that the court didn't say that nothing inappropriate has occurred in the FLDS settlement at the Yearnings for Zion ranch. What it's saying is that religious doctrines that condone illegal activity aren't grounds for brute state intervention; there must be evidence of specific violations. Those violations must then be dealt with on an individual basis, not as an excuse for moving against everybody who espouses the church's belief system.

That seems like a remarkably wise decision, rooted as it is in the centuries-old American legal tradition. The children may still be taken from their parents, but only after something that bears a closer resemblance to due process.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas’ Child Protective Services hasn't yet decided whether to abide by the ruling and release the children, or to appeal. I'm betting on an appeal, if only as a matter of pride.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Abortion options expand in Arizona -- for now

The Arizona Daily Star reports that the Arizona State Board of Nursing will allow nurse practitioners to perform first-trimester abortions. The ruling apparently stands as a formal recognition of a de facto practice in the Tucson branch of Planned Parenthood.

From the perspective of expanding options for women, it's an important move. The Guttmacher Institute said in 2005 that Arizona has 19 abortion providers -- down from 21 in 2000. Allowing nurse practitioners to perform aspiration abortions will make it easier for women who want to terminate a pregnancy to find a medical practitioner willing to do so without traveling long distances. (Says Guttmacher: "In the West census region, where Arizona is located, 18% of women having abortions traveled at least 50 miles, and 5% traveled more than 100 miles.")

It's also, I might add, a small step toward deregulation in medicine, by expanding the range of procedures that NPs can perform. This increases competition, with all of the add-on benefits that entails, including the potential for reduced costs.

Of course, given the controversy over terminating pregnancies, there's a legislative move afoot, HB 2269, to reverse the Board's decision.

The next move, to cut the need for abortions, might involve teaching teenagers how to use a condom, a pill, a diaphragm or any other of the wonderful inventions the human race has developed for preventing unwanted reproduction. That has to start in the family, of course, and that involves breaking down cultural barriers against discussing the consequences of becoming sexually active with teenagers who are pretty clearly determined to do just that. At the moment, Arizona has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the country (though it's declining) -- 20% of which are terminated.

I'm sure that has nothing to do with the state's long focus on abstinence education to the exclusion of alternatives if the horny little monsters decide to climb on each other anyway. Governor Napolitano, in a wise break from extorting state industries to support her projects, has rejected federal funds linked to abstinence-only education. I'd rather the tax-supported schools not be the primary source of information about proper sexual practices -- and why in hell is the federal government getting involved? -- but they shouldn't be the source of unrealistic nonsense either.

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You mean you're not underage?

Y'know, when your justification for a violent raid on a ranch owned by an eccentric polygamous religious sect and the kidnapping of hundreds of that sect's children is a supposed crusade to save the sect's girls from being forced into underage unions with older men, it helps if you can find girls who have actually been forced into such relationships. It's not much help when many of the "underage" girls you claim to have rescued turn out to be at least 18 years of age.

Note that Texas's situation is even more complicated than the recent revelations suggest, since the state's age of consent is 17.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Texans can marry at 16 with their parents' consent. Sure, Texas doesn't recognize plural marriages, just as it doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, but we've now wandered into technical violation territory. If a relationship is illegal only because there are several wives rather than one wife, that hardly justifies armed assaults by the state, mass roundups of children and legal battles over custody.

More and more, it looks like the real crime of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is being different and ... well ... creepy. The FLDS has apparently been targeted for destruction because its tenets and practices rub America's increasingly intolerant soccer moms and suburban dads the wrong way.

We just can't let people live that way!

I'm as weirded out by the Persian-harem-via-How The West Was Won ambience that clings to the FLDS as the next guy, but I want allegations of abuse against the group to be (fancy this) based on actual evidence, and addressed on an individual basis, rather than as an excuse for a pogrom. That is, as weirded out as we all may be, you prosecute the actual abusers among the oddball minorities (as well as the bland majorities) and leave everybody else the hell alone.

As it is, we're well on the way to SWAT raids against any community that doesn't abide by the lifestyle script favored by local prosecutors and Children's Protective Services seat-warmers. If you think that's a good idea, just give me a crack at appointing the committee that decides whose doors get kicked in. Just for laughs, my nominees will all either wear leather chaps or pioneer garb.

Oh, and don't forget to review my argument for why traditional marriage, gay marriage and plural marriages should all be permitted -- as private arrangements.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Hard time for flirting

In Farmington, Utah, junior high and high school kids have been using the camera functions on their phones to take nude pictures of themselves that they then show to their friends. This perfect intersection of technology and the teenage sex drive will elicit little more than a sigh of resignation from anybody who remembers their own adolescence -- well, except for Davis County prosecutors, that is. Law enforcement authorities there have arrested the "offending" teens, charged them with misdemeanors and sent them into the juvenile justice system to face "fines, community service or behavior classes." For taking pictures of their own bodies.

Oh yeah -- and prosecutors are congratulating themselves on their leniency.

[Davis County Attorney Troy] Rawlings described the majority of the teens as good kids who do well in school and who aren’t the type to defy the law. Many didn’t realize that what they were doing is illegal, he said.

He explained that while the actions of the teens matched felony charges more closely than misdemeanors, his office wanted to send a message to not be unduly harsh. So they used “a bit of legal fiction” to match the acts to the crime of lewdness rather than the crime of distributing child pornography.

Well, I suppose that a legal minor showing a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend could constitute "distributing child pornography" -- if you're completely insane.

I know that it's entirely too late in the game to hope for anything resembling common sense and restraint to emerge from a prosecutor's office. But here's a small suggestion to those legal eagles standing between us and the villainous hordes who threaten decent society: Maybe flirtatious snapshots really shouldn't be a criminal matter.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Prostitutes are victims -- of the law

The titillating tale of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's downfall has had two beneficial results. One is the end of the self-righteous hypocrite's political career of course. The other is revival of interest in legalizing prostitution. The benefits are clear: stripped of outlaw status, the sex trade could operate in the open, enjoying all of the protections and benefits of a legal enterprise, without the dangerous baggage that attaches to any trade conducted in the shadows.

There's push-back, of course. San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Caille Millner claims to be "surprised" by the number of people she's encountered who don't think people should face fines and imprisonment if they exchange sex for money. It's hard to know what to say about somebody who is so easily shocked, or who insists that long-established arguments for legalization are "incoherent," except that she seems rather sheltered and just a bit closed to opinions that contradict her own.

Millner dismisses arguments that laws against prostitution are widely ignored, saying, "people also murder other people 'anyway,' and no one's clamoring to legalize that."

But that's the point, isn't it? Murder is held to be immoral and worthy of punishment by virtually everybody, which is why nobody wants it legalized. That's because murder has clear victims and perpetrators. Prostitution, on the other hand, has no victims in and of itself; there are providers and customers, but the participants are willing. Some people are forced into prostitution, but that act of slavery is the evil, and is an artifact of the illegal nature of the business. That most participants are willing is reflected by the fact that prostitutes are punished by law and that sex workers have organized to change the law.

The consensual nature of prostitution undermines Millner's claim that "our legal system isn't written simply for the purpose of expediency, it's also written to underline morality." It's hard to send a message about morality when there's widespread disagreement about whether the criminals or the law enforcers are the good guys. Laws against prostitution, as with other laws against victimless activities, then become nothing more than a temper tantrum by the majority, joined with blunt threats against the dissenting minority.

Millner argues, implausibly, that legalizing prostitution might, somehow, make it more dangerous for participants in the business. Right -- because access to courts, doctors and police is such a harbinger of doom. And finally, she asks: "Is this the kind of 'career route' you would want for your sister or your daughter?"

Not necessarily. But it's not really my place to make business decisions for my relatives. Besides, if my sister or daughter does choose to peddle her favors for money, I think I'd like her to be able to go about her business without fear of being rousted by the cops.

But why would a woman -- or man -- go into the sex trade? For the answer to that question, we turn to somebody who actually knows what she's talking about: anthropologist Patty Kelly, who spent a year studying workers at a legal Mexican brothel.

Here's what I learned: Most of the workers made some rational choice to be there, sometimes after a divorce, a bad breakup or an economic crisis, acute or chronic. Of the 140 women who worked at the Galactic Zone, as the brothel was called, only five had a pimp (and in each of those cases, they insisted the man was their boyfriend).

The women made their own hours, set their own rates and decided for themselves what sex acts they would perform. Some were happy with the job. (As Gabriela once told me: "You should have seen me before I started working here. I was so depressed.") Others would've preferred to be doing other work, though the employment available to these women in Mexico (servants, factory workers) pays far less for longer hours.

Hmmm ... no slaves here in a brothel operating in the open. And since the prostitutes Ms. Kelly studied worked in a legal business, the police were their allies, not their enemies.

Kelly doesn't pretend that the women she studies led idyllic lives -- the trade might be legal, but it's still stigmatized and has its own risks. But, as she adds:

[C]riminalization is worse. Sweden's 1998 criminalization of commercial sex -- a measure titled "The Protection of Women" -- appears not to protect them at all. A 2004 report by the Swedish Ministry of Justice and the police found that after it went into effect, prostitution, of course, continued. Meanwhile, prices for sexual services dropped, clients were fewer but more often violent, more wanted to pay for sex and not use a condom -- and sex workers had less time to assess the mental state of their clients because of the fear of getting caught.

That makes sense. The idea that you protect people by threatening them with legal consequences and denying them the resources available to legal workers is ludicrous. Any trade conducted in the shadows will have more risks than one conducted in the open.

Don't expect real-life experience to sway the Caille Millners of the world. They've concluded that trading sex for money is stained with immorality and that the law, no matter how counterproductive or ineffective, must send a message. Considering the people fined, jailed and victimized in the absence of legal recourse, that's an expensive telegram.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Perv police entrap suspects

Courtesy of Declan McCullagh at CNet's

The FBI has recently adopted a novel investigative technique: posting hyperlinks that purport to be illegal videos of minors having sex, and then raiding the homes of anyone willing to click on them.

You mean the feds can do that? They can crash through people's doors because they clicked on links that looked like they led to illegal material, but didn't?

Apparently so. CNet reviewed the law and found that courts have approved the technique. The feds can sit back, record the IP addresses of anybody who taps their mouse at the wrong moment, and then charge in with guns drawn.

McCullagh points out just where this sort of fishing expedition can lead (as if it hasn't led too far already):

The implications of the FBI's hyperlink-enticement technique are sweeping. Using the same logic and legal arguments, federal agents could send unsolicited e-mail messages to millions of Americans advertising illegal narcotics or child pornography--and raid people who click on the links embedded in the spam messages. The bureau could register the "" domain name and prosecute intentional visitors. And so on.

The judge presiding in one defendant's case even ruled that the possibility that one of his neighbors clicked on the link while connected to the Internet through his WiFi network "would not have negated a substantial basis for concluding that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of child pornography would be found on the premises to be searched."

That means that one surfer using a shared IP address over a network can bring down a world of trouble on anybody else using the same connection. That would seem to be a very common scenario, since many Internet providers use dynamic IP addresses (any of you techies tell me if I'm misinterpreting this scenario).

This is a bit reminiscent of last year's revelation that New York City police were planting purses in public view and arresting anybody who picked one up without immediately heading for the nearest cop -- with potential penalties of up to four years in prison.

It's obvious that we've reached a situation in which law-enforcement agencies feel perfectly justified in setting moral booby traps for the public at large -- and then raining damnation down on anybody who can be interpreted (even mistakenly) as making the wrong choice.

That's right -- life as a series of hidden tests, with prison time and humiliation the payoff for hesitation or a twitchy mouse finger.

Happy surfing. And be careful of what you pick up in public.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Eliot Spitzer sullies prostitutes with his presence

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy bigger prick.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer who, among his many crusades against mere mortals, enthusiastically prosecuted those engaged in the victimless crime of providing sex for money, has been named as a client of Emperors Club VIP, a high-price prostitution ring.

I personally have nothing against prostitution. As a consensual activity among adults, it's nobody's business but that of providers and clients. If Spitzer were a live-and-let live kind of guy, his patronage of prostitutes wouldn't matter worth a damn.

Alan Dershowitz tried to make that point on MSNBC a few minutes ago -- that this is a made-in-America scandal that wouldn't make the newspapers in Europe. He'd be right if Spitzer weren't such a sanctimonious creep who has made a career of taking the moral high ground in public while doing whatever he damned well pleases behind the scenes.

As governor of New York, Spitzer was caught using the state police to spy on state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, a political enemy of the ambitious Spitzer. Clearly, he considers himself above the rules that apply to the rest of us. So it comes as no surprise that he's capable of prosecuting some sex providers while paying cash for services rendered to their competitors.

Hmmm. That raises a possibility ... Was Spitzer doing favors for his favorite pimps and madams by engaging in a little selective prosecution?

Oh, what a wonderful scandal.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Strong minority opposes Arizona marriage amendment

I'm not surprised that more Arizonans support a proposed state constitutional amendment "that would define marriage as between one man and one woman" than don't. I am pleasantly surprised, however, that social conservatives enjoy a rather small advantage on the issue. According to the latest Cronkite-Eight poll, "[f]orty-nine percent favored the amendment, 40 percent opposed it and 11 percent said they were unsure how they felt." It's a bit trendy now to fret over the supposed gay threat to the oh-so-sacred rite of marriage, so it's nice to see that the Goldwateresque Arizona live-and-let live impulse still has a bit of life in it.

Actually, it's 40-percenters on the issue who are the traditionalists. As Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, wrote for the New York Times back in November 2007:

Why do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

So ... What's all this nonsense about asking the county for a license to get hitched? How did that get started?

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, "mulattos," Japanese, Chinese, Indians, "Mongolians," "Malays" or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a "mental defect." Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

Ah! So, you mean there's an unsavory origin to the government's intervention in what was previously a purely private matter? I never would have guessed.

Oddly, this means that the growing ranks of Americans living "in sin" (married couples now constitute a minority of households) are the ones harking back to the traditional concept of marriage by rejecting this newfangled idea about seeking state permission to lay their toothbrushes side-by-side.

Unfortunately, marriage has been turned into an administrative sub-unit of the state. Cohabiting couples may be perfectly happy with their arrangements, but they'll likely run into trouble when it comes to inheritance, making medical decisions for ill partners and collecting Social Security. That -- along with the fundamental respect to be found in being treated equally -- is why gay and lesbian couples have been so eager to gain the same access to marriage licenses as straight couples.

But easing paperwork for government officials seems like a poor reason for allowing the state to further expand its reach into our private lives. Surely, if neighbors, priests and judges found it possible for a thousand years to recognize privately constituted marriages as legitimate, Social Security administrators can eventually find their way to the same accomplishment.

Returning to privately arranged marriages could have the added benefit of allowing couples (or hell, any number of partners) to define the terms of their arrangements to their liking. Under state-defined marriage, government retains the power to redefine marriage in ways that may not please everybody concerned. As the Cato Institute's David Boaz wrote for Slate:

In the 20th century, however, government has intruded upon the marriage contract, among many others. Each state has tended to promulgate a standard, one-size-fits-all formula. Then, in the past generation, legislatures and courts have started unilaterally changing the terms of the marriage contract. Between 1969 and 1985 all the states provided for no-fault divorce. The new arrangements applied not just to couples embarking on matrimony but also to couples who had married under an earlier set of rules. Many people felt a sense of liberation; the changes allowed them to get out of unpleasant marriages without the often contrived allegations of fault previously required for divorce. But some people were hurt by the new rules, especially women who had understood marriage as a partnership in which one partner would earn money and the other would forsake a career in order to specialize in homemaking.

Returning to private rites, but with the very modern option of individually defining the terms of the marriage contract, would allow the conservative-minded to make arrangements under the authority of their religious institutions that please them, the experimental to customize something to their taste and would force nobody to believe that they were giving their imprimatur to relationships that offend their sensibilities.

Defining marriage "as between one man and one woman"? Well, that just wouldn't be an issue for political debate.

And wouldn't it be nice if matters of love and relationships weren't the subject of political debate?

Forty percent of Arizonans oppose an amendment defining the meaning of marriage? Let's move toward a solution that allows everybody to define their own marriage.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Texas gets freaky

Says the Associated Press:

A federal appeals court has overturned a statute outlawing sex toy sales in Texas, one of the last states — all in the South — to retain such a ban.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas law making it illegal to sell or promote obscene devices, punishable by as many as two years in jail, violated the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The state Attorney General's office has, apparently, not yet decided whether to appeal.


How is that even a debate at the AG's office? Why would state officials even contemplate spending time and money in an attempt to combat the dread scourge of dildos?

Oh, I know. It's because there's still a political constituency out there that thinks sex is bad, and joyless, anorgasmic bluenoses are prone to march to the polls and demand the death penalty for anybody sporting a certain "morning after" glow.

Ah, the wonders of democracy.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Technology and the abortion debate

Abortion isn't about to go away as a contentious issue any time soon, but the the controversial procedure is losing much of its vulnerability to public protests and political intervention because of long-anticipated changes in technology. Says the Washington Post:

The French abortion pill RU-486, on the market since 2000, has become an increasingly common alternative, making abortion less clinical and more private. At a time when the overall number of abortions has been steadily declining, RU-486-induced abortions have been rising by 22 percent a year and now account for 14 percent of the total -- and more than one in five early abortions performed by the ninth week of pregnancy.

Where once abortion meant identifiable providers and centralized clinics that could be targeted for protests and public shaming -- or more-violent reactions -- now the procedure increasingly involves discreetly obtaining a drug from a wider pool of physicians who don't need to acquire the specialized training and equipment required for performing a surgical procedure. As one patient quoted in the article reveals:

"It was something I could do at home and be with my husband," Gilbert said of taking the pill. "It was a decision we made together alone, and we were able to take care of it this way alone. It was just a much more private affair."

She added: "I wouldn't say it was easy -- it's never easy to terminate a pregnancy. But in the grand scheme of things, it was much more pleasant than a surgical procedure."

The shift in the way abortions are performed may just be starting, since, in some European countries, "more than 60 percent of abortions are performed with the drug."

None of this is likely to change the moral and political debate over abortion, of course, but it is an illustration of how advances in technology can help to make even the most controversial practices more accessible and less susceptible to public scorn and political shifts. Indeed, the easier abortions are to obtain without walking a gauntlet of protesters or traveling far distances, the more widespread they're likely to become.

Whatever your opinion on abortion itself, there's a lesson here on how to entrench any controversial practice or product by improving the ease with which it can be obtained and by dispersing the practice or product to a multitude of relatively unidentifiable sources.

Imagine, for example, what reducing the production of firearms to an easy and practically automated home workshop activity can/will do to the debate over gun control. To a certain extent, that has already happened, but advancing technology promises to put production in the hands of even the least skilled tinkerers.

Technology can't settle debates over right and wrong, but it can make those debates somewhat pointless.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fighting rape with porn

Over at Reason magazine, columnist Steve Chapman points to Clemson University Economics Professor Todd D. Kendall's much-discussed paper (PDF) concluding that the increased availability of pornography in the United States in recent years has helped to reduce the rate of sexual violence. As Chapman points out:

Since 1993, violent crime in America has dropped by 58 percent. But the progress in this one realm has been especially dramatic. Rape is down 72 percent and other sexual assaults have fallen by 68 percent.

How can that be? Isn't pornography supposed to awaken the beastly libido in poorly restrained men? Alternately, isn't rape a crime of violence, rather than sex -- and therefore one that should be disconnected from sexually explicit material?

Well, Kendall can't be absolutely certain, but he does have an interesting theory as to why the rate of sexual violence has plummeted even as the most explicit material has become easily available on millions of Websites.

The results above suggest that potential rapists perceive pornography as a substitute for rape. With the mass market introduction of the world wide web in the late-1990’s, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary prices for pornography fell. The associated decline in rape illustrated in the analysis here is consistent with a theory, such as that in Posner (1994), in which pornography is a complement for masturbation or consensual sex, which are themselves substitutes for rape, making pornography a net substitute for rape.

Kendall's paper isn't a substitute for a commitment to free speech as a matter of right, regardless of possible abuses of that right. But Kendall's findings do supply valuable ammunition for people looking for a pragmatic argument in favor of allowing adults to produce and exchange sexually explicit material -- because permitting such exercises of free speech can have socially beneficial effects.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A little love for Larry Craig

OK, so I had a little fun a couple of weeks ago with Larry Craig's uncomfortable situation. Now he's found new allies in the ranks of the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the sting that busted him for allegedly cruising for "dates" in an airport men's room is likely unconstitutional. Pundits have found a little irony in the notably anti-gay senator's representation by the ACLU in a gay sex scandal.

But, having already joined in the pile-on, let me back off a bit to give Sen. Craig his due. It was just a couple of years ago that he reportedly drew the wrath of President Bush for questioning the wisdom of the Patriot Act. In fact, according to Doug Thompson, of Capitol Hill Blue, "Bush referred to Craig as 'a goddamned traitor' and told the National Republican Senatorial Committee to start recruiting someone to run against the Idaho Senator in 2008."

Sen. Craig didn't outright try to kill the odious Patriot Act, but he did break with the White House and his own party's leadership to demand major revisions. That's an atypically courageous gesture--and the right move--for a sitting politician.

Larry Craig is no across-the-board civil libertarian--few members of Congress are--but he's one of the few Republicans in Congress who ever, however inconsistently, expressed concern about the rights of the individual.

Before we celebrate his downfall, let's just see who's likely to replace him.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

When government officials get down and dirty

Radley Balko has fascinating news about the ongoing persecution of bar owner David Ruttenberg in Manassas Park, Virginia. The story fulfills pretty much every paranoid nightmare about just how low government officials can go when they're out to screw private citizens.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007


This interesting turn of events from today's news:

A county judge struck down Iowa's decade-old gay marriage ban as unconstitutional Thursday and ordered local officials to process marriage licenses for six gay couples.

It's good news but ... Iowa? Really?


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The pleasure is all mine

I write this as I lounge on my sofa, sipping a glass of bourbon. There's a cool summer breeze wafting in through the window, and I just concluded an enjoyable evening with my wife (and child, at the beginning) of pasta, conversation and a little TV (a retrospective on the first five years of Saturday Night Live--the only years that matter). The important thread running through all of this, one too often given short shrift, is pleasure. The things I did tonight, at least in the way I did them, from creating a fancier supper than necessary to pouring myself an evening drink, have given me pleasure.

Pleasure is an oft-derided value in American life. I'm reminded of that fact as I peruse the latest hysterical headlines about Americans getting fatter and Sen. Larry Craig cruising for "dates" in men's rooms. Sen. Craig has speckled his career with a series of anti-gay votes while, apparently, personally nurturing a taste for beefcake. Americans as a whole are being driven into a panicked lather about expanding waistlines--an expansion fueled by their own relatively new-found (in historical terms) access to plentiful supplies of cheap and flavorful foods. In both cases, a failure to recognize pleasure as a value in and of itself is in play.

Assuming the charges against Sen. Craig are true--and let's not forget his guilty plea--he's on record supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage even as he engages in an almost two-dimensional stereotype of anonymous gay sex. But I think I'm on solid ground saying that the public fascination with Craig's case has little to do with his rank hypocrisy and everything to do with his pleasure-seeking behavior. As sexualized as our culture is, sex is still laden with all sorts of cultural baggage that renders it, in the eyes of the many, as something a bit shameful. We have trouble imagining public figures stripping down and slipping between the sheets--let alone getting freaky in public places. Trouble imagining it? Hell, we think it's a bit icky--better that they say their prayers and utter "good night" with a chaste peck on the cheek.

And what about obesity, that very visible demonstration that food is now plentiful and affordable? Of course eating is enjoyable; besides earth-shattering sex, is there anything more pleasurable than a plate of Pad Thai washed down with a cold beer? Well, a pulled-pork sandwich might do the job too. Why shouldn't people indulge in the gustatory delights denied to hundreds of generations of their ancestors through droughts, plagues of locusts and general crop failures? And if a Buddha belly isn't the healthiest shape for the human body, well then, neither is the skeletal definition of a bout of starvation--and starvation isn't half as much fun as pigging out at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

That's right, pleasure involves trade-offs--but so do all values and preferences. It's up to each of us to decide what's important to us--what will gain us the most enjoyment from life. For some, it's sexual abstinence and a diet of greens and tap water; for others, it's a turn greased up in the sling followed by a smorgasbord. One path may lead to a longer life, but the other may mean a more fulfilling one--depending on your tastes. Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between.

But pleasure is very definitely an important value, and one which we're all entitled to give the weight we, individually, believe it deserves. And if that means that our neighbors make choices that we wouldn't emulate ... Well, hell, let's just hope that they're having a good time.

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Heh heh

Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie takes Sen. Larry Craig to the woodshed--not for his fumbling men's-room come-ons, but for his hypocrisy on the issue.