If adult entertainment has so many customers, why is there so little outcry when these businesses are harassed, chased out of town, or closed? Why don't customers hold elected city councils, state assemblies, and local judges accountable? Why don't they challenge uninformed local churches, hostile civic groups, and biased media?
Adult entertainment is a textbook example of the limits of democracy, and the tyranny of the loud. Since local institutions do typically respond to pressure, a vocal minority can shut down what a majority won't speak up about. That's why it's so crucial that everyone agree on the basic rules of fair governance-an agreement that does not exist in America when it comes to sexuality. Certain rights are so fundamental that they must not be put up for a vote. A majority should not have the right to strip the minority of its rights, a danger that both Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill foresaw almost two centuries ago.
Most people aren't shy about revealing the kind of car they drive; if Toyotas were banned, satisfied Toyota owners would make a fuss. Similarly, most people will tell you their favorite food, and if it were suddenly subject to a huge tax or limits on availability, its devotees would squawk.
But despite the size of its audience, adult entertainment patrons are not eager to reveal their interests. We live in such a sex-negative environment that adult customers around the country are shamed and demonized; few Americans are willing to lose their job or marriage simply to keep the local strip club open. Since patronizing adult businesses is typically a hidden activity, no one can support it in the normal open way that true democracy requires. Customers won't write letters to the editor, complain to their city councilman, educate their clergy. And so realistically, supporting the rights of adult entertainment can only be done 1) in principle, and 2) by outside organizations. Opponents of adult businesses exploit this by claiming they speak for the community, pretending that they don't know that the community is full of customers and supporters who feel intimidated about speaking out-upstanding taxpayers and parents like us.
Opponents of adult entertainment typically focus on denying a business's right to function, to "just make money" and "degrade" sexuality. They rarely mention their neighbors' rights to consume this entertainment. Citizens for Community Values, for example, says adult businesses "prey upon unsuspecting towns, cities, and counties that don't have [preventive] legislation in place, in order to open their 'sex-for-sale' establishments." You'd think these businesses were kidnapping unwilling townspeople and forcing them to watch the "sex for sale." This is the same manipulative strategy that focuses on denying "pornographers'" rights without discussing consumers' rights, and attempting to limit broadcasters' rights without discussing viewers' rights.
A naïf might imagine that if only the consumers of adult material would reach a critical mass, they would become a political force; but if that were true, it would have happened already. Millions of Americans already go to swing clubs, and tens of millions more patronize strip clubs, massage parlors, adult bookstores, nude beaches, home sex toy parties, X-rated DVDs and other forms of adult entertainment. But the social sanction against such activities is so strong that almost no one will stand up and defend what he or she does, much less assert its wholesomeness.
Democracy isn't working, because one side (anti-pluralism and pro-censorship) represents cultural (although not behavioral) normativity, while the other side (consumers of adult materials) suffers with cultural dystonia (typically involving shame, guilt, and silence). In an environment so ambivalent and negative about sexuality, the typical individual will deny and fear his or her eroticism. So when the civic subject is in any way related to sexuality, any pro-sex voice dies in the throat. This civic paralysis means that sex-positive individuals will always be dramatically marginalized. It will be almost impossible to gather the momentum needed to reach the threshold of political influence--of civic visibility.
And so one group, the Parents Television Council, can generate over 98 percent of all indecency complaints to the FCC over the past two years (and via a mechanical email blaster, at that). As the Cato Institute's Adam Thierer notes, the PTC is quickly acquiring a "heckler's veto" over programming in America, as many of the shows they complain about receive significant fines or are even driven off the air.
But virtually no one writes to the FCC outraged that same-gender kissing is forbidden on network television 24 hours per day; no one complains when shows are tortured with bleeps and electronic gauze. The FCC received very few complaints that the Rolling Stones were muzzled on their 2006 Super Bowl halftime performance-exactly as they had been on the Ed Sullivan Show forty years ago. And when something with sexual integrity sneaks in--Chris Rock on Comedy Central, a condom machine in a nightclub bathroom, the cleavage parade on Oscar night, a pharmacy that carries Emergency Contraception without a fuss--sex-positive people are pleased to remain invisible, rather than enjoying a moment out of the closet and telling someone, "Yes, this works for me. I like living in this world. Thank you."
Seventy years after its founding, America was torn by the bloodiest civil war the world had ever seen. Both sides fought like they understood it was a war for the soul of the nation. One hundred forty years after that, we again face a profound conflict about the soul of our nation. Will it be a secular, pluralist democracy as the Founders envisioned, or a theocratic, authoritarian one like the land they left behind?
Those who war on sex often remind us that the Founders wanted everyone to worship as he or she desired. They leave out a crucial detail--the Founders wanted no institution forcing or shaping that worship. Today's War on Sex is a struggle over whether or not institutions will have the right to force Americans to worship--to conform to a single vision of "morality," "chastity," "decency," "family values," even "faith."
When the Civil War ended in 1865, boys and men from each side wearily embraced and shared what little food there was. They stopped to worship their common God, and talked about planting their common crops. In years to come these former enemies would come together on the Gettysburg battlefield and embrace again, marveling at how they had changed each others' lives forever.
I don't see us doing this for many generations, if ever. Those who war on sex mistrust my vision of individual autonomy, sexual integrity, faith in pluralism, and tolerance of differences. They hate what they perceive as our arrogance, narcissism, hubris, and dependence on reason rather than fear. They particularly resent living in a world that will not let them completely run away from their sexual impulses and crippling guilt.
Democracy, secularism, and pluralism are messy, scary, and inefficient--unlike theocracy or totalitarianism. This radical system requires people to accept being periodically uncomfortable as the price for the benefits they get from it (benefits that start with one's own choices being tolerated by everyone else). When people are no longer willing to manage their discomfort about others' choices, the entire system breaks down.
We are looking at the early stages of this in America today--where some people don't believe they have to accept their own discomfort about others' choices. They frame their rejection of this civic requirement as their religious obligation, but they are breaking the democratic covenant. And we're all in trouble as a result.
What then will be the basis for public policy: fact, science, and personal autonomy, or faith, a single morality, and anxiety reduction? This is the central question in world politics today. The fact that the vehicle for America's internal discourse is sexuality shouldn't lull us into thinking we're dealing with something trivial.
© 2012 Marty Klein, Ph.D. - All Rights Reserved