Suzanne

As promised a couple of weeks ago. But first, a shout-out to my old friend Max on this one, since it was really his idea.

Guitar_neckBack in college, a bunch of us were hanging out, and I was playing “Suzanne” on the guitar (non-ironically, even — was I ever so young?), and Max started ad-libbing this incredibly mean-spirited, very funny parody of it. I can’t remember any of the words to it anymore, but the spirit has lived on in my brain ever since, and I finally stopped trying to remember his words and just came up with my own. (The last line of the chorus is actually Max’s — it’s the only one of his I could remember.) I wrote the first verse and the chorus years ago; I wrote the final verse last month.

So here it is: my mean-spirited, hopefully funny song parody of “Suzanne.” FYI, I’m skipping the second verse. Yes, I know it’s the one about, “And Jesus was a sailor/When he walked upon the water,” and it would seem ripe for my evil tongue/ pen/ laptop. But I think song parody is a dish best served in small portions, and two verses plus a chorus seems like oodles already. Enjoy!

Suzanne

Ravi_shankarSuzanne takes you down
To her place in the Village
You can listen to Bob Dylan
And that goddamn Ravi Shankar
And her Indian print bedspread
Catches dust and makes you sneezy
And she feeds you tea and oatcakes
That come all the way from Brooklyn
And she’ll drive you to distraction
With her half-assed Eastern wisdom
And you think she’s really batty
But she makes you really horny
And you know you’ll get some off her

Chorus:
And you want to shake some sense into
That ditzy spaced-out brainpan
And you think she’s really batty
But still you’re very sexually attracted to her

Tie_dyeSuzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to her bedroom
She is wearing tie-dye headbands
From this little shop in Chelsea
And her tea tastes just like seaweed
From the stinky New York Harbor
And she shows you all her pottery
From when she went to Hampshire
There are vases shaped like Buddha
There are bongs with little peace signs
She is asking if you like them
And you make your lie convincing
‘Cuz you know you’ll get some off her.

Other posts in this series:
Joe Hill
Super Geek

“Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters: The Blowfish Blog

Question_marksvg_2I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the question of how we define sex… and why that question has serious, real-world consequences. It’s titled, Does (X) Count?” What Sex Is, And Why The Question Matters, and here’s the teaser:

It was a letter to Scarleteen, the “sex advice for teenagers” website. It’s a longish letter, and a longer response (both are well worth reading in their entirety), but the title will immediately tell you what’s going on and why I think it’s important.

The title:

“We’re abstinent, but we had anal sex and are scared to death.”

?

The story is almost exactly what you probably think it is. Two teenagers, who have decided to be abstinent until marriage, are playing an extended game of “everything but,” avoiding penis- in- vagina intercourse but otherwise engaging in activities that would make Larry Flynt blush. Including, as you may have guessed from the title of the letter, anal sex.

But because they’re not having what they consider Sex — namely, penis- in- vagina intercourse — they’re not taking responsibility for the fact that they’re in a sexual relationship. They’re not practicing safer sex, and the things they’re doing could easily result in the passing on of sexually transmitted diseases, and even pregnancy. (As the Scarleteen advisor points out, unprotected anal intercourse can result in pregnancy, since semen isn’t very good about staying put.)

To find out more about this notion of the One True Sex and how it screws up people’s sex lives, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

They Said Yes!

AisleThey said yes!

The California Supreme Court said yes.

Ingrid and I can get married now. Legally. (Or we can in 30 days, when the ruling takes effect.)

I kind of don’t know what to say about this. I’m still processing it. And it still could be overturned: it looks like there’s going to be a ballot initiative in November to amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, and it could pass. And of course, all of this is going to affect the Presidential election, and I have no idea how that’s going to play out. So part of me is freaking the fuck out.

But the other part of me is so thrilled I can’t speak. We’ve been waiting for this for so long. And — how shall I put this? — we’ve been not waiting for this for so long. When I first came out (over 20 years ago now), same-sex marriage wasn’t even on the table. It never even occurred to me that it would be an option.

I don’t yet know what to say. I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming days, weeks, and months. But I know I want to say this now:

Things change. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that things don’t change.

Sexual Perspective, Or, How Can You Eat That?

Please note: This piece discusses some aspects of my personal sex life — not in a lot of detail, but it may be a bit too much information for family members and others who don’t want to read about my sex life. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Sex_work“Nobody in their right mind would want to do that. You’d have to be desperate/ damaged/ strung out on drugs to do that.”

This argument gets used a lot by people who are against porn, prostitution, other kinds of sex work. And those of us who have actually been in sex work and not loathed it (or who know people who have) tend to counter simply by offering counter-examples: raising our hands, pointing to ourselves and each other, saying, “Me. Over here. Did sex work. Liked it (or didn’t hate it). Not a basket case. Case closed.”

But I think there’s a core assumption underlying the argument, one that makes it hard to argue against merely by offering boring old evidence. And it’s an assumption that doesn’t just apply to sex work. It’s an assumption that gets applied to all kinds of sexual variation… and not with very happy results.

The assumption is this:

“Everyone must like — and dislike — the same sexual things I do.”

Lucy_needs_a_firm_hand“If other people do sexual things that I don’t enjoy,” the thinking goes, “they must not be enjoying it either. And there must be something dreadfully wrong with them for them to do sexual things that are so obviously not enjoyable. They must be troubled, crazy, under coercion.”

(And let’s not forget the parallel notion: If other people don’t enjoy things that I do enjoy, there must be something wrong with them as well. They must be repressed, uptight, out of touch with their bodies. The sex-positive world can fall prey to these assumptions, too. I certainly have. “Everyone is basically bisexual, if they would just be honest with themselves”… Loki in Heaven, was I ever really that young?)

Ultimate_guide_to_anal_sex_for_womeI don’t think this is always a conscious assumption. But I think it’s a common one. And it’s led to a lot of trouble: misunderstanding and conflict at best, outright hostility and oppression at worst. I think it’s at the core of the “women don’t really like anal sex/ giving blowjobs/ getting spanked/ whatever, and if they do it it’s because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy” argument that’s so deeply enriched the lives of so many sex-loving women. And more seriously, I think it was a major factor behind decades of putting homosexuals in psychiatric wards. “I find the idea of sucking another man’s cock repulsive… therefore, any man who likes to suck another man’s cock must have something horribly wrong with him.”

It’s a terrible argument. Stupid, illogical, harmful.

But I actually have more sympathy for it than you might imagine.

BroccoliI think it’s always hard to really, truly grasp that other people’s tastes are different from your own. Especially when it comes to strong, emotional, visceral experiences. Myself, I am utterly baffled by the fact that anyone on this earth would voluntarily eat broccoli. The stuff tastes like concentrated essence of vileness to me, and the thought of people voluntarily putting it in their mouths makes me recoil.

Food, music, sex: all of these are powerful, visceral, intensely personal, even overwhelming experiences. And it’s very hard to step back from them and have perspective on how other people might feel about them. Our own feelings about them can be so intense, so all-encompassing, that it makes perspective difficult, even counter-intuitive.

But when it comes to food and music, we have years of experience to teach us perspective. People talk about their musical and culinary tastes loudly, proudly, in great detail and at great length. You often can’t get people to shut up about it. We’re exposed to a wide variety of musical and culinary tastes almost every day of our lives.

Wagner_ring_cdSo unless you’re pathologically stubborn, you eventually learn perspective. You figure out that, as much as you may personally dislike broccoli or blue cheese, Wagner or Western Swing, people who eat it/ listen to it are not mentally deranged. (Or the reverse: that as much as you may personally enjoy these delights, people who don’t like them are not pathologically cut off from the one true source of pleasure and meaning.) People still do sometimes make personal judgments about others based on their tastes in food and music; but those judgments don’t usually result in people being sent to the county jail or the loony bin.

But when it comes to sex, most of us don’t get that kind of training. People don’t come back to work on Mondays and chat about how they tried spanking over the weekend, they way they’ll chat about how they tried a new Moroccan restaurant or went to see a German funk band their brother told them about. They don’t go to parties and share a funny story about the new buttplug they just bought, the way they’ll tell a funny story about trying to make a salmon souffle for their in-laws or the weird harpist who opened for Radiohead. (Well, they sometimes do at my parties… but you know what I mean.) Most of us haven’t been regaled with myriad and varied stories about exactly what kinds of sex other people like, and why exactly they like it.

Good_vibrations_guide_to_sexIt’s better now than it once was, by a long shot. The amount of sexual information that’s easily available today far surpasses anything I had when I was young. But most of us still don’t get exposed to a widely varied range of sexual tastes… not the way we get exposed to a barrage of different tastes in music and food, simply as part of everyday life.

And I think that casual barrage is exactly what we need to break through the intensely personal, intensely visceral nature of our sensual experience and give us perspective on it. It’s what we need to teach us that other people really and truly feel differently about sex than we do.

What’s more, it’s what we need to teach us this, not just with one or two specific examples, but as a general principle. People will often get it about one particular sexual variation, without getting it about sexual variation in general. I mean, plenty of straight people genuinely understand that gay people actually do enjoy their gay sex… but still have to start from scratch when it comes to SM or blowjobs or sex work.

Paying_for_itWhich brings me back to sex work, and the counter-examples, and the sex workers raising our hands all over the world and saying, “I’m actually pretty okay with this.”

Because while offering “Don’t tell me what I like! I do so like that!” counter-examples may not work in any particular argument over any particular sexual variation, I think that in the long run, it’s exactly what we need to make these arguments eventually go away. I think if we want a world where people have perspective on their own sexual likes and dislikes, a world where we treat varied tastes in sex the way we treat varied tastes in music or food, we need to talk more about what we do and don’t like in bed. We need to give each other counter-examples, and plenty of ‘em. We need to give each other a world where the basic fact of sexual variation is commonplace, familiar… and unsurprising.

Blog Carnivals!

CarnivalBlog carnival roundup!

First, there’s a nifty new blog carnival in town: Carnival of Sex and Sexuality #1, at Homo Academicus. Read it, link to it, send in your sex-related blog posts to the second edition. Let’s keep this thing going!

Also:

Carnival of the Godless #91 at State of Protest.

Skeptic’s Circle #86 at Skepbitch.

Carnival of the Liberals #64 at Sir Robin Rides Away. (BTW, the next Carnival of the Liberals has an — optional — theme of skepticism and critical thinking in American politics. Skeptical bloggers, be sure to get in on this one!)

Carnival of Feminists #58 at Be a Good Human.

And finally, always my favorite blog carnival: Humanist Symposium #19 at Letters from a Broad.

Happy reading, everybody!

The Harm Reduction Model of Life

Harm_reductionDue to both chance and temperament, I have a lot of friends who work (or have worked) in public health. (Including, of course, my darling wife.) As a result, I hear a lot about the concept of harm reduction. And once I started learning about harm reduction, I found that it isn’t just a useful model for public health and public policy. It’s an unbelievably useful model for life in general.

It’s a concept that I think a lot of people would be interested in. Humanists especially, but not just them. So I thought I’d take a moment and gas on about it for a bit.

Let’s talk about public health for a moment first. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s the basic idea. When dealing with a public health problem, the harm reduction model says that you don’t necessarily have to completely solve or eliminate the problem in order to make important improvements. It’s a worthwhile goal to simply reduce the degree of the problem, reduce the harm done by the problem, and improve the quality of life for people experiencing the problem.

Teenage_dope_slavesIn fact, harm reduction proponents often don’t see “problems” the way society as a whole typically does. Rather than making moral judgments about drugs or sex or whatever, the harm reduction model accepts these things as basic human behaviors that have been part of life for as long as we’ve been around. It doesn’t see these things as problems per se, but as elements of human life that can sometimes cause problems. And rather than passing judgement on where people need to be in their lives before they can use or deserve help, it aims to “meet people where they are” — whether that’s regarding drug use, sex, or whatever — and to give everyone who wants them the tools they need to reduce harm in their lives.

(It’s essentially the opposite of a “zero tolerance” or “abstinence-based” model. If you’re curious, the Harm Reduction Coalition has a more detailed explanation — as it relates to drug use, which is where the concept originated, but the principles can be applied to many other public health and public policy issues.)

In other words, you don’t have to make problems disappear. You just have to make them better. (And in some cases, trying to make problems disappear can actually do more harm than good.)

Needle_exchange_suppliesThe classic example of harm reduction is needle exchange. Needle exchange programs are a response to the high rate of HIV transmission among injection drug users: they give clean needles to users in exchange for used ones, so users aren’t sharing dirty needles. Now, a “zero tolerance” policy would say that illegal drugs are, well, illegal, and bad, harmful to the users and to society, and society can’t condone their use in any way — including giving clean needles to users.

Harm reduction, on the other hand, says that:

a) it’s good to reduce HIV transmission in injection drug users, since that will reduce HIV transmission in the general population;

b) it’s good to reduce HIV transmission in injection drug users, so that more of them can have healthy lives when and if they do get sober (“you can’t get clean if you’re dead” is a classic needle-exchange saying);

c) it’s good to reduce HIV transmission in injection drug users, because they’re, you know, human beings. Their lives have value. The fact that they’re injection drug users doesn’t change that. It is worth helping them stay alive and stay as healthy and happy as possible… as much as it is for anybody.

Its_perfectly_normalAnother example is sex education. Zero tolerance says that underaged sex is an unequivocal evil that cannot be tolerated by society, and the only appropriate response is to try to stop it entirely. The harm reduction model says that, even if you don’t love the fact that minors are having sex, you not loving it is not going to stop it from happening… and we therefore need to find the most effective ways to stop its harmful effects, such as teenage pregnancy and STIs. (Abstinence- only sex education is a zero- tolerance approach… and it’s a classic example of zero-tolerance not only being ineffective but actually doing harm.)

Take a wild guess which model I support.

Okay. Enough with the public health. What do I mean by the harm reduction model of life in general?

What I mean is this: Even if you can’t completely solve a problem or make it go away, it is still worthwhile to work on making it better. Sometimes better is enough.

VoteVoting, I think, is a good example. And the coming Presidential election is an excellent one. We don’t have to elect a perfect candidate, or even one we’re wildly enthusiastic about. We just have to elect a President who’s a whole lot better than the current one. It won’t make things perfect… but it’ll make things better.

Ten_minute_activistAnd the harm reduction model can be applied to all sorts of political and social problems. Can you personally solve the global warming crisis? No — but you can help reduce its effects (driving less, buying energy-efficient appliances, voting for candidates who support strong environmental policies, etc.). Can you personally stop the waste and poor health caused by industrialized food production? No — but you can buy more of your food from local sources, and push for the same in your schools and restaurants. Can you personally eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia? No — but you can try to be conscious of it in your own life, and speak out against it when you see it, and pay attention to it when you vote. Can you personally halt the spread of obscene American consumerism? No — but you can cut back on the amount of pointless crap you buy. Etc., etc., etc.

And if enough people take enough of these steps, it’ll make these problems better. It won’t eliminate them, but it’ll reduce their harmful effects. And it may even help change the culture that cultivates them. Especially if you apply the harm reduction model, not just in your personal life, but in political and cultural action.

But the harm reduction model doesn’t just apply to politics and social change. It can be applied to almost any area of life.

StrawberriesDiet, for instance. I have long ago given up on trying to have a perfect diet, or to lose a significant amount of weight. Instead, I’m focusing on having a better diet, a good enough diet, a diet that most of the time consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins with minimal animal products. I’m trying to have a diet that keeps me reasonably healthy and still lets me relax and enjoy life. And instead of trying to lose weight, I am instead trying to not gain weight… and to stay as healthy as I can at the weight that I am.

Ditto exercise. I don’t need to get the ideal recommended amount of exercise in order to feel obvious improvements in my life and health. I just need to get more exercise than I’d been getting before I started working out.

Or take housecleaning. Savings and money management. Not reading enough. Watching too much TV. If there’s an area of your life that you’re not happy with, you don’t necessarily need to completely re-structure your life so that you can perform the task in question to your complete satisfaction. You just need to moderately re-structure it, so you can do more of what you like and think is important, and less of what you don’t.

So that’s the idea.

And here’s the thing I really like about the harm reduction model of life, the thing that transforms it from a helpful hint into a defining philosophy:

It lets you be both an optimist and a realist.

Half_full_glass_of_waterI hate the idea that optimism is somehow a form of delusion, and that pessimism and cynicism are somehow equivalent to realism. And I don’t just hate it because I enjoy being an optimist. I hate it because I think it’s bullshit. I think pessimism and cynicism are often just a weak-ass rationalization for being lazy or cowardly, irresponsible or selfish. Realism doesn’t just mean being aware of problems and limitations and obstacles. It also means being aware of what can and cannot be done about problems and limitations and obstacles.

Happy_face_ballAnd that’s where the harm reduction model of life comes in. It gives us room to be positive about life and hopeful about the future, without being deluded or willfully ignorant about limitations and harsh realities. It transforms the Sisyphian experiences of life, the rocks that get constantly pushed up the hill only to roll back down again: it keeps them from feeling frustrating and pointless, and instead lets us see them as positive accomplishments. It doesn’t let us off the hook about doing what we can for ourselves and for others — IMO, it does the exact opposite — but it lets us feel okay about not doing it perfectly.

Realism doesn’t give us an excuse for irresponsibility and inaction. It gives us the moral obligation to be responsible, and to take whatever action is possible. And the harm reduction model gives us a model for doing exactly that. It gives us a framework for dealing with problems that seem appalling, enormous, and fundamentally unsolvable… without succumbing to apathy, cynicism, or despair.

CadillacescaladeesvNow, the big downside of the harm reduction model of life is that it can easily become an excuse for doing a half-assed job. It can act as a justification for doing the least you can do; for taking only those actions that don’t inconvenience you; for making token gestures towards personal improvement or social responsibility while still being fundamentally lazy and selfish. “Hey, I changed all my lightbulbs to fluorescents — I don’t have to get rid of my SUV!”

And believe me, I speak from personal experience here. I’ve spent fifteen minutes picking up the tornado of books scattered all over our living room and piling them into neat little piles, as a “half-assed harm- reduction” form of housecleaning. I’ve given twenty bucks to political causes or candidates as a “half-assed harm- reduction” form of political action, when I was too busy or lazy to write letters and make phone calls and go to demonstrations. And more seriously, I’ve used the fact that I recycle and use fluorescent lightbulbs as a “half-assed harm- reduction” rationalization for the fact that I don’t really do that much about global warming, even though I think it’s by far the single most pressing problem facing our generation.

CompactflourescentbulbBut as my friend Laura Upstairs (one of my many friends in public health and public policy) pointed out, one of the whole points of the harm reduction model is that a half-assed job is often better than none. Piling the books into neat squares isn’t a very good form of housekeeping… but it’s better than leaving them lying around everywhere. Donating twenty bucks to candidates or causes isn’t the most powerful form of political activism in the world… but it’s better than taking no action at all. Using fluorescent lightbulbs isn’t really a sufficient response to global warming… but it’s a better response than not using them.

And in my experience at least, a half-assed job is often a step towards a more completely-assed job. It can get you started with good habits — habits of thinking, as well as habits of action — that can eventually get you doing more than you’d ever imagined.

Biceps_curlHere’s what I mean. Going to the gym once a week may not improve your health that much… but it can get you into the habit of paying attention to exercise and health, and can be a step on the way to eating better, and being more active in your everyday life, and eventually going to the gym two or three times a week. Recycling may not make a huge dent in our planet’s diminishing resources… but it can get you into the habit of thinking about waste and conservation and what the planet can and can’t sustain, and thus inspire you to drive less, and not buy as much disposable crap, and vote for funding for solar power and public transportation. Etc., etc., etc. Yes, a harm reduction approach to life can get you feeling complacent and smug when you’re not actually doing very much… but it can also nudge you in the direction of doing more.

Dr_nick_rivieraThe harm reduction model isn’t always appropriate. There are, for instance, times when perfectionism is exactly what you want. I don’t want a brain surgeon who thinks, “Oh, we got most of the tumor, I’m sure that’s good enough.” I don’t want an air traffic controller who thinks, “Well, one crash a week is better than five crashes a week.” And when it comes to major public issues like global warming, it is well worth asking whether moderate harm-reduction steps are actually going to make a significant dent: whether they actually will reduce harm enough to keep disaster at bay, or are really just a way of making ourselves feel useful while we collectively walk off a cliff.

So the harm reduction model of life isn’t a cure-all. But I’ve found it to be a singularly useful philosophy. It’s given me a way to reconcile my native optimism with my native hard-assed realism, without sending me into a cognitive- dissonance headspin. It lets me be optimistic without being deluded; it lets me be realistic without being a buzz-kill. And it’s given me a way to not feel overwhelmed by enormous, seemingly impossible tasks, both personal and political. It lets me do the small amount that I can do in this world, without feeling like it’s pointless.

And that rocks.

(Thanks to Ingrid and to Laura Upstairs, for their help with the explanation of the public health stuff. If I made any mistakes, it’s my fault, not theirs.)

Multiple Marriage and the Texas Polygamy Case: The Blowfish Blog

Poliamory_pride_in_san_francisco_20I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog, about the Texas polygamy case. At first I didn’t think I was going to write about it, since I didn’t think I had anything original to say about it. (Pretty much what I had to say about it was, “Oh, my god, that is so awful.”) But then someone asked me what I thought of the question of legalizing multiple marriage — in general, as well as in light of the polygamy cults — and I decided to write this piece. It’s called, somewhat unimaginatively, Multiple Marriage and the Texas Polygamy Case, and here’s the teaser:

One of the main objections to legalizing multiple marriage is that, in the world as it is today, multiple marriages tend to be abusive. Groovy polyamorous triads aren’t the norm, the argument goes. The norm for multiple marriage, in this country and around the world, is coercive and abusive religious cults that effectively imprison women and children. And if we don’t have laws against multiple marriage, these abusive cults will be legitimized, and there will no protection for their victims.

I’m not sure whether that’s true or not. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a good, careful study on the frequency of multiple relationships, either in this country or around the world, to see if the coerced cult variety really does outnumber the consensual free-adult variety. If there has been such a study, I haven’t seen it.

But here’s the point I want to make.

When the Texas polygamy compound got raided and arrests were made, nobody was charged with bigamy.

The charges so far have all been related to child abuse. And the case seems to be largely in the hands of Child Protective Services.

So how does the illegality of multiple marriage help the victims of these situations?

To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Big Cheese

My brother Rick, a.k.a. Preacher Jenkins (no, he’s not a preacher — it’s a long story, if you get me and my brother drunk enough sometime we’ll tell you the story, or at least make one up that’s reasonably entertaining, and did we ever tell you about the time that…)

Where was I?

Oh, yes. My brother Rick, a.k.a. Preacher Jenkins, has gotten into filmmaking as a fairly serious hobby, and has finally put a couple of his films on YouTube. This is my favorite of his so far, The Big Cheese. Obviously I’m biased, but I think it’s very cool in a non-linear sort of way.

Video after the jump. Or you can watch it full-sized on YouTube itself.

[Read more…]

The Texas Dildo Massacre, Or, Reason Number 2,767 Why Gay Rights Matter To Everyone

The Federal court decision that inspired this post happened a couple of months ago, when I first wrote it. But the issues it addresses are very much current and pertinent… not to mention a rare bit of good sex news in this crappy decade. So I’m reprinting it anyway. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Hitachi_magic_wand_2As you’ve probably heard, the Texas law banning the sale of sex toys has been overturned.

This is excellent news, for all the obvious reasons. Most obviously, Texans can now buy and sell sex toys. People can now open sex toy stores in Texas, run fuckerware parties in Texas, sell sex toys to Texans through the mail without fear of entering murky legal waters. Woo-hoo! Go, Texans! (Good articles about it in the Austin-American Statesman, and in Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

But I want to talk about one of the less obvious reasons why this is astoundingly, excitingly, kick-ass good news.

(Please note: I’m not a legal expert, and I’m definitely not an expert on constitutional law. These are simply the opinions of a smart lay person who’s been paying attention to this issue for a long time, informed by the opinions of people who are legal experts.)

Pink_trianglesvgThe primary reason for the Texas sex toy ruling — the main precedent cited — was the 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws and legalized gay sex across the country. Now, Lawrence was important for sexual civil rights for a whole lot of reasons. Most obviously, it meant that nobody in the United States could be considered a criminal simply for having gay sex. And that has huge implications for things like custody rights, housing rights, employment rights, etc. Before Lawrence, gay people could be — and were — denied all sorts of basic rights… because, technically, they were criminals. Lawrence upended all that, and it was hugely important for that reason alone.

Silicon_dildoBut this latest case — the Texas sex toy case, Reliable Consultants and PHE v. Texas — makes it clear that Lawrence has even broader implications… for everyone. Gay, straight, everyone.

The Texas sex toy case makes it clear that the Lawrence v. Texas ruling established a constitutional right to sexual privacy in the United States.

And that, people, is HUGE.

Before the Texas sex toy case, we didn’t have that. You might have had it in the particular state you lived in — we’ve had it in California since 1975, when the consenting adults law got passed — but United States citizens did not have any constitutionally guaranteed right to sexual privacy until February 12, 2008.

And we have it now. Yes, the Federal courts have now said that you have a constitutional right to use a vibrator or a dildo. But so much more than that: the Federal courts have now said… well, let me quote briefly from the decision.

Just as in Lawrence, the State here wants to use its laws to enforce a public moral code by restricting private intimate conduct. The case is not about public sex. It is not about controlling commerce in sex. It is about controlling what people do in the privacy of their own homes because the State is morally opposed to a certain type of consensual private intimate conduct. This is an insufficient justification for the statute after Lawrence. (Emphasis mine.)

FeetThe Lawrence case didn’t just say that gay sex couldn’t be criminalized. It said that people — all people — have the right to engage in any consensual intimate conduct in their home, free from government intrusion. It said that people’s sex lives are not their neighbors’ business, not society’s business, and most emphatically not the government’s business. It said that the fact that the State doesn’t happen to like a particular kind of sex doesn’t mean they have a right to ban it, or indeed to have any say in it at all.

This case says, “Yup. That’s what Lawrence meant, all right.”

And that has enormous implications. (Assuming it gets upheld, of course; the decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court, and I haven’t read anything yet saying whether or not it will be.)

Cuffed_ankles_and_toesIt has implications for sadomasochists. Fetishists. Swingers. Any other sexual minority you can think of. If you’re any of those things… you now have a legal right to it, anywhere in the country. And that’s pretty darned important for all those custody rights and housing rights and employment rights and whatnot that we were talking about. It may wind up having implications for porn laws; if we our right to sexual privacy means we can have vibrators, it should mean we have a right to dirty movies as well. (It should have implications for the legalization of sex work, too; but alas, the rulings in both Lawrence and this case made a point of saying that the rulings don’t apply to prostitution. Mistakenly, in my opinion.)

So here’s the lesson for today. Apart from just, “Hooray for sex toys!” and “Hooray for the right to sexual privacy!”

The lesson for today: Gay rights are human rights.

Gay rights are everyone’s rights.

And straight people have a personal vested interest in fighting for gay rights.

This is a point that sex advice writer Dan Savage has made on several occasions. He’s pointed out that the right-wing homophobes who want to stop things like same-sex marriage are the exact same right-wing sex-phobes who want to stop things like birth control and sex education and abortion. Gay sexual rights are often on the cutting edge of sexual liberation… and they’re often the first on the chopping block when right-wingers try to turn back the clock.

Double_dildo_simple_end_01So I want all the straight people reading this to say a big, heartfelt “Thank You” to the people in the gay rights movement who fought so hard for so many years to get the Lawrence verdict. They are the people who, last week, gave you the right to own a dildo or a vibrator in every state in the country.

And I want you to promise to treat the fight for gay rights as if it were the fight for your own.

Because it is.

BTW, does anyone know the current status of this case? Is it being appealed, or is it standing? I Googled it, but couldn’t find anything except on the original decision.

*****

Addendum: Important correction to the legal effects of this ruling in Jon Berger’s comment below.

Is Religious Faith Irrational?

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3At the end of yesterday’s post, I posed the question, “Is religious faith irrational?”

Well, okay. I didn’t so much pose it as answer it. “Yes,” I said. I argued that religious faith is irrational, by definition, in a way that secular faith isn’t. I argued that religious faith means maintaining one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise to contradict it; in fact, that it means asserting ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever undermine your faith. In other words, it means asserting that your faith trumps reality. I said that religious faith answers the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” with the answer, “Nothing — I have faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Thanks to Ebonmuse for this, for about the fiftieth time.)

And yes, I said: I think that’s irrational. Secular faith (and the leaps thereof) often has instances of being irrational: but it isn’t irrational by definition. I think religious faith is.

Brain_lobesNow, there are many religious believers who would hotly dispute this. There are many believers who think religious faith is entirely rational, that it’s based on evidence as much as anything else in life, that faith and reason co-exist nicely and even depend on one another. They write apologetics; come up with complex and elegant defenses for their beliefs; get into debates in atheist blogs. (There are also believers who embrace the irrational and even paradoxical nature of faith… but I’m not talking about them right now.)

But to the believers who insist that their faith is rational, I would ask them to consider this question, the question posed by Ebonmuse and cited at length in my previous post: What would convince you that your faith was mistaken? What conceivable evidence would make you change your mind and decide that God didn’t exist after all? Again, if the answer is, “Nothing could change my mind, that’s what it means to have faith” — well, that pretty much proves my point. (If the answer is something other than “Nothing,” don’t just argue your case here — be sure to tell Ebon about it. I’m sure he’d be interested to hear it.)

AngelheartAnd I’ve noticed a pattern among religious believers defending the rationality of their faith. They enter into the debate full of logic and counter-arguments; but almost inevitably, they end up the debate by saying things like, “Well, that’s just how I feel,” or “I feel it in my heart, and that’s enough for me.”

I applaud these believers’ desire to see their faith as rational. I think the desire to have your beliefs be rooted in reality — or to not have them be preemptively defiant of it, at least — is a good instinct, a noble and worthwhile yearning. But when it comes to religious faith, I just don’t think it’s happening. Again, while secular faith has instances of irrationality — many of them, even — it isn’t irrational by its very nature. I think religious faith is.

But —

and this is very important —

I don’t think religious believers are.

Not all of them, at any rate. Not by definition.

Here’s the thing I think atheists need to remember. It is entirely possible to be an overall sane, rational, functional person, and nevertheless have one particular area of irrational belief. Or even more than one.

In fact, it’s not just possible. It’s damn near universal. To atheists, as well as to believers.

Chicago_cubs_logoWe’ve all held irrational beliefs, and held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have. Belief in lovers who didn’t deserve it; belief in political ideologies that didn’t hold up; belief in leaders or role models who let us down time and time again. Belief that all those months you spent perfecting your suntan would be worth it. Belief that taking LSD really helps your pool game. Belief that your mother died of cancer because she was angry about you leaving home. Belief that you can write 90% of your senior thesis the week before it’s due. (This one turned out to be correct, but it was an extremely close call.) Belief that those bounced checks must have been your bank’s fault. Belief that you can work just fine with the TV on. Belief that getting married would fix your fucked-up relationship, simply by deepening your commitment to it. Belief that you can argue people out of their religious beliefs, if you just make your arguments good enough. Belief that this will finally be the Cubs’ year.

MarijuanaOkay, maybe I should use some examples that aren’t from my own life. How about these: Belief that nobody will notice that you’re totally wasted. Belief that your car can run for another ten miles when the gas gauge says “Empty.” Belief that you can’t get pregnant the first time. Belief that you’ll never regret that Grateful Dead tattoo. Belief that you’ll never regret taking physics instead of philosophy… or vice versa. Belief that a new outfit, a new haircut, a new car, will radically change your life. Belief that he/she will come back to you when they realize how much they miss you. Belief that if everyone smoked marijuana, there would be no more war.

Do any of these sound familiar? From your life, or from the lives of anyone you know? If not, I’m sure you can come up with some of your own, from your past, or maybe even from your present.

And none of these beliefs make us fundamentally irrational people. It is entirely possible to have certain irrational beliefs — even significant beliefs, even stubbornly held ones — and still be a basically rational person in most other areas of our lives. It’s not just possible. It’s universal. We all do it. In fact, hanging on to mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them seems to be a basic part of how our minds work. And despite that, we’re still generally rational people, able to process information and analyze it effectively and make appropriate decisions about how to act on it… most of the time.

Light_switchIt’s not like people are either rational or not. It’s not like rationality is an either/or quality, an On/Off switch that gets flipped one way in some people and the other in others. It’s a spectrum, indeed several spectra, with some of us being less rational in some areas and more rational in others.

Look. I think religious leaps of faith are very different from secular ones, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. I think religious faith is inherently irrational, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. But the fact that religious believers hold one irrational belief that atheists don’t hold doesn’t make them fundamentally less-rational human beings than us. And we shouldn’t pretend that it does.