Shall We Cover Miss Liberty’s Eyes With A G-String?

The Phoenix, AZ City Council recently decided to eliminate sex clubs for adults. Do you feel safer now?

The Council says that government has a right to protect public morals, and that having sex in front of (consenting) others is by definition immoral. They don’t need proof that nude dancing leads to harm, they said; it’s enough that the majority of its citizens allegedly “knows” it’s wrong. They also claim that sex clubs spread “disease,” although no legislator, public safety officer, or public health professional could produce any evidence to support this.

This is exactly the problem with the government giving itself the right to protect our “morals.” It’s simply an exercise in the arbitrary use of power to tell people how to live. Our Founders not only rebelled against a king wielding such power, they also worked hard to protect each of us from our neighbors, acting as a majority, wielding it.

If morality is the capacity to make decisions that respect others, the Council itself has shown just the opposite in this judgment. Will the Council next prohibit wrestling on TV? What about interracial marriage? Saying that government should make us better people sounds nice. But as long as there is less than 100% agreement on what “better people” means, any attempt to do so will destroy the rights of those who disagree. And that undermines the unique social contract that makes this country special: you will not be bullied by other, more powerful people just because they don’t like what you do or think.

The Council scoffed at the idea that adults over 18 should have the right to decide what to pay to do or see in private–that is, to run their own lives. No, said the Council, watching other consenting adults making love is not like eating too many cupcakes, which only hurts the consumer; Mary and John watching Sue and Tom have sex on the west side of town creates danger on the east side of town.

At least the Council understands that sex is pretty powerful stuff. But the Council is apparently too impressed with the power of eroticism to allow citizens to enjoy it for simple entertainment. Rather, the Council sees something beyond the wholesomeness of human eroticism–its sees something evil and destructive.

The Council’s idea that sexuality per se is dangerous is frightening. Government enforcement of that belief is immoral.

The Phoenix City Council says it believes that sex club patrons are getting ideas or feeling emotions that are bad for the community. This says much more about Councilmembers than it does about sex. Nevertheless, the Council should recall that the Constitution specifically protects the expression of ideas and emotions, particularly in private. And it doesn’t just protect the ideas that a community likes; it specifically protects the ideas that people in power dislike or fear.

The Council says it doesn’t just want to suppress eroticism, but also public nuisances and disease. Since the rate of both STDs and violence among swingers is far lower than the general public’s, what exactly is the Council attempting to control? Not problems–non-standard erotic behavior. If this isn’t true, the Council should describe exactly what it is trying to accomplish.

And once the Council establishes the level of eroticism it feels local citizens can handle, will that exclude wet T-shirt contests? Next year, will it exclude string bikinis (which are already banned in one of America’s best known resorts)? Why not? For once the Council decides there’s good eroticism and bad eroticism, they surely have the right–nay, the obligation–to decide what to put in each category.

Eight years ago, Supreme Court Justice Souter wrote that nude dancing should be banned–not because it is immoral, but because it creates undesirable behavior. This is a common belief–without any evidence to support it. Germany, Sweden, and Holland, for example, report very different experiences with activities that are criminalized in most of the U.S. But if we want to discourage all activities associated with, say, gambling, drug use, prostitution, and staying out late, the City Council should consider going after Arizona Cardinal football games, Arizona State University fraternity parties, and sales conventions in downtown Phoenix hotels. The police admit that, unlike sex clubs, all of them are associated with these behaviors.

The only logical reason for the Council singling out the consenting adult behavior of sex clubs is its discomfort with sexuality. That’s what upsets some people–patrons go there, deliberately getting turned on and turning on others. They value sexual arousal and satisfaction so much, they’re paying for it, making it a conscious part of their lives–in many cases, a part of their marriage. While I sympathize with some people’s discomfort with sexuality, those feelings must not be the basis for public policy decisions.

In 1991, the Supreme Court acknowledged that when behavior is banned, other rights are sometimes sacrificed. And it suggested that protecting sexually explicit expression “may be of lesser societal importance than the protection of other forms of expression.”

In a society half-crazed with fear about child molestation and rape, isn’t it crucial to nurture comfort with sexuality rather than repressing it? That would be socially valuable. Besides, who set up this hierarchy that makes our rights of consenting sexual expression less important than other rights? Obviously, those to whom eroticism is either unimportant or, worse, frightening. We who value our sexuality must reject this public policy hierarchy.

People like columnist Cal Thomas trivialize the issue of eroticism and sexual self-expression, taking sex seriously only when it leads to problems. “The Constitution will survive,” he assures us snidely. This country’s Constitution is designed to protect people when they’re not actually harming others. The Constitution may be surviving, but it’s doing so in a crippled condition.

The right to watch or be watched by another naked couple is admittedly something that most people do not wish to take advantage of. But the Council’s decision is about far more than this, which is why it should concern everyone. This recent political decision is about our rights as erotic adults–rights as critical and fundamental as any other. And it’s about our right to be safe from others’ definition of “morality.”

I’m religious about sexuality, too: God protect me from people who want to save me from myself. God help those who are so repressed, frightened, or angry that they believe a naked vulva is dangerous. And God save a country that thinks it needs to control how people get turned on in order to protect itself from immorality.