Comes Naturally #44 (April 6, 1996):
Censorship on the Internet; The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution

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Spectator Magazine - April 6, 1996
(c) David Steinberg

Censorship on the Internet; The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution

Return of The Incurable Optimist

I know I'm developing a reputation around here as an incurably naive optimist -- a person who whistles his way through dark and dangerous times with innocence verging on stupidity. But I have to say that, aside from all the dire commentary on the ridiculous Communications Decency Act, things are not as bad as people think and, indeed, I see a positive side to all this off-the-wall brouhaha as well.

Sure it's scary to hear the walls of Congress resound with fervent and self-righteous declarations of horror at the spread of supposed indecency into every home with access to a computer. But this bill is so patently unconstitutional in its scope that it has truly overreached itself. People tend to forget (though more and more people are beginning to notice) that the Christian Coalition does not represent the majority of Americans. It does not run the country. Those in Congress who have mistaken the vocal, well-organized and well-financed far right as an expression of the feelings of the real majority of Americans are making a tremendous miscalculation. They are about to find this out when the voters speak again in November, and the smarter of the new zealots are already beginning to run scared.

Congress, in moments of ill-conceived panic, can pass whatever idiocy it wants, but it seems clear that the Supreme Court will strike down the censoring provisions of the CDA outright. For all its real conservatism on issues like crime control, the Court has in fact been fairly vigilant about protecting the first amendment to date. In the first federal court skirmish over CDA, a lower court has already struck down much of the bill. So yes, bills like this are to be watched carefully, and work has to be done to make people speak out in defense of free speech, but it's also important not to go running under the couch every time Jesse Helms says boo.

Secondly, and much more significantly, it helps to notice that this particular assault on the simple ability to express oneself freely via computers, e-mail, and so on, has brought the issue of censorship into the homes of millions and millions of people who never before felt that government restriction of their expression and desire was a significant part of their day-to-day lives. Just recently the issue of censorship of sexual material was really a rather marginal call to arms coming essentially from commercial pornographers and a small group of their supporters. (I mean "pornographer" in the most amicable sense possible -- designated "pornographers" are many of my truest and closest friends and comrades after all, and my own publishing of sexual explicit material is called pornography more than occasionally.) Now the issue of sexual free expression claims front page headlines in all major newspapers in the country, and becomes the basis for strong affirmation, from most editorial sources, of getting the government out of people's bedrooms. For the first time since the federal government's attack on Jock Sturges -- when it, then as now, misread how the public would respond to this issue -- the subject that is being defended from government intrusion is sex. Not Marxism or anti-Semitism, but sex.

By attacking free sexual expression on the fundamentally anarchistic Internet, the erotophobes have succeeded in politicizing a whole new generation of young Americans. All the computer-reared, 25- and 30- year-olds, people who take widespread availability of sexual information and pornography, as well as relatively unimpeded sexual activity, completely for granted, are dumbfounded when they find themselves faceto -face with the patently archaic notion that there is something evil and dangerous about everyday sexual reality. It is, without doubt, yet another generational rift, this one comprising both sexual attitude and attitude toward technology. When hopelessly aging lawmakers express their confusion and misunderstanding about what is truly the new world technological (and sexual) order, they are being ridiculous and foolish. Once again (as in the 60s), when they look at their elders, the young people know full well that the emperors have no clothes.

Back in the days when I was sniffing my way into puberty, all that was available to the average young person in terms of sexually titillating (no one even thought of sexually explicit) material were the pocketsized movie magazines that showed racy pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield in tight sweaters, or dresses with necklines cut low enough to offer a glimpse of their substantial cleavage. This was the visual material I first masturbated to, and I dare say it was as exciting to me then as totally explicit sex videos are to the pubescent boys and girls who get their hot hands on these materials today. This was the mid-1950s, before it was legal in this country to so much as publish a passionless photo of a husband and wife fucking in a sex education textbook. (It was Paul Johnson, veteran Bay Area sex photographer, who took the pictures that went all the way to the Supreme Court to establish the legality, under what would now seem ridiculously restricted contexts, of publishing sexual photos at all.) This was when Henry Miller's novels could not be legally published, imported, or sold in the U.S.

The existence and later the prevalence of sexually stimulating -- and later sexually explicit -- magazines, badly-made film loops, and eventually more skillfully produced full-length films, came in stages that coincided with my developing sexuality, and each new vista was something a little bit amazing, in contrast to the sexual vacuum that had existed previously. I remember well, the first time I came to San Francisco, wandering around North Beach and being totally blown away to find a store that had literally hundreds of magazines filled with sexier pictures than anything I had ever seen before -- racks and racks and racks of them. I was like a desert nomad who had stumbled onto the ocean. The abundance was overwhelming.

I had a similar feeling of amazement and wonder the first time I discovered (in Washington, D.C., as it happens) that there were storefront businesses completely devoted to providing private cubicles in which a person could watch and masturbate to (black and white) films of women masturbating at ten cents a pop. Likewise the first time I saw actual fucking -- stilted, and badly photographed though it was -- on film. Likewise the first time I wandered into the O'Farrell Theater and had a beautiful naked woman who danced under the name of Nurse Precious come off the stage, sit on my lap, and let me play with her body in return for a one dollar tip which even I, on my near-subsistence freeschool -teacher's income, could afford.

It was the late 60s and the early 70s, and sex was growing everywhere, green and vibrant, through the cracks in American antisexualism that was crumbling before the onslaught of cheap and convenient birth control, feminism, marijuana, psychedelics, and the devotion to pleasure that became the hippie revolution. Sex, sensuality, and general affirmation of the pleasure principle was everywhere. I was -- I think everyone was -- amazed, astounded, delighted, and grateful to be living in such burgeoning times. Sexual openness was a treasure, a treat, a newfound freedom, an exotic privilege, a gift, a witness to unexpected magic and possibility.

Not so for young people in the 90s, the people who are the majority of those who inhabit the Internet. To them, ubiquitous sexual material is taken for granted almost as much as water and air -- sexy pictures of women, of men, of couples, of couples representing all sexual orientations; explicit pictures of people being graphically sexual in a wide variety of ways, from vanilla to arcane. Everyone who wants to has access to still pictures, videos, and now images on their computer screens of people having intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, sex with multiple partners, with dildoes, with vibrators, sex between the genders, within the genders, and with people whose gender identities bend traditional minds, sex within specific ethnic groups and between ethnic groups, sex within and between generations, sex with elaborate costumes of almost unlimited variation, sex play with whips, paddles, straps and canes -- not to mention (for those willing to expend a little more effort) images of people whose sex play involves pee, shit, breast milk, blood, animals, and yes (although not nearly as commonly as the fear peddlers would have us believe) even children.

What not very long ago would have been seemed totally implausible is now taken entirely for granted, so when the dinosaurs and throwbacks break into sweats and shivers and start their ohmigawd rantings and ravings about how sexual exposure is tantamount to the end of the world, the young moderns are decidedly unimpressed. Moreover, from commentary that is now all over the Internet, they are also decidedly annoyed. The idea that anyone would have the arrogance to dictate to other people what is good and not good for them to see and know is not, in this explosively growing subculture, not an issue open for debate; it is, instead, quite simply incomprehensible and absurd.

Once upon a time an earlier generation had its civics-class, status-quoconserving, mentality -- "the policeman is your friend," "government serves the people," "America is a democracy," etc. -- shattered forever as soon as police began beating formerly respectful citizens over the head for something as simple as protesting an illegal and immoral war, or challenging the most flagrant manifestations of this country's racial caste system. Today, in much the same way, a new postgraduate/undergraduate generation, many of whose minions have been depressingly inclined to become good Republicans, is discovering that something is rotten in the state of Denmark when government presumes to force its way into the privacy of the bedroom, to rule both sexual body and sexual mind, to decide what is and is not good for people to see, to do, to desire, when it comes to sex.

This Internet posting, fervent if not polished, is typical of the kind of reaction that is seen everywhere these days. I stumbled upon it more or less by chance:

The Thought Police Are Coming ... [poem]

Date: Wed, 27 Dec 1995 14:30:01 -0500

Subject: Telecommunications Deregulation Bill


The thought police are coming,
they're coming to take me away.
It seems that Congress doesn't like
what I had to say.

They read my mail and scanned my files
and watched where I had been.
They crawled the web and peered within, they said my speech was sin.

It all began with a simple request,
"Do you like sex as much as I?"
Big Brother smiled his knowing smile
and he began to spy.

They knew my every thought,
they knew my every desire.
It seems my crime from their point of view was sending it over the wire.

You cannot fight a monster
that is more powerful than you,
so even if you want to
don't ask someone to screw.

The thought police are coming,
they're coming to take me away.
The thought police are coming,
they didn't like what I had to say.

In 1964, a group of people led by Allard Lowenstein, organized the Mississippi Summer Project as a way of exposing large numbers of college students to the harsh realities of racial violence in Mississippi, violence that was going unacknowledged because it was directed at disenfranchised, poor black people, rather than the privileged white middle class. While in Mississippi, three students -- Michael Shwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman -- were murdered. You'd better believe the nation noticed. Outrage was everywhere, and before long the Civil Rights Act of 1965 became the law of the land and an era of American racial history was brought to a close. The Communications Decency Act has done something similar -- brought awareness of a harsh injustice to an entire class of people whose privilege usually protects them from having to bother with or worry about such unpleasantries. On February 29th, some two million very much enfranchised and resource-rich people sent a piece of e-mail to President Clinton, who had just signed the Communications Decency Act into law. The e-mail was simply the Bill of Rights accompanied by a one-line caption that read: "Dear Mr. President, Remember this?"

Political organization -- much of it of a distinctly anarchic, libertarian bent -- is blossoming all over the Internet, and grows stronger with each misdirected censorial attempt at regulation. In just 17 days, the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition organized 25,300 people to become co-plaintiffs in its legal challenge to the Communications Decency Act. Call me naive if you want but, all in all, I think the CDA is going to do more good than bad.

Not Your Average City Commission

I have had a chance to read through the draft report of The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution and, while I'm told that I can't yet quote from the report verbatim, I can tell you that it's one more reason that this boy continues to be a proud and patriotic San Francisco loyalist.

The Prostitution Task Force was established by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1993 "to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on legislation and policy reform as related to the city's prostitution laws and policies." Noting straightforwardly that "the issue of prostitution is complex and involves social [and] economic [as well as] legal factors," the legislation that creates the Task Force affirms that it is "the criminal nature of prostitution [that] has led to widespread beatings and the victimization of prostitutes and has attracted crimes including robberies, drug use and violence to San Francisco streets and neighborhoods," and takes the position that "it is incumbent upon local government to explore alternatives [to traditional arrest and prosecution strategies] to deal with prostitution as it affects San Francisco's economy, the public health and safety of its residents, and the city's overall quality of life."

Members of the Task Force include longtime prostitution rights advocates such as Carol Leigh (representing the Commission on the Status of Women) and Margo St. James (representing COYOTE), as well as Teri Goodson of NOW, Celia McGuinness of the progressive National Lawyers Guild, Gloria Lockett of Cal-PEP (California Prostitutes' Education Project?), as well as representatives of the Mayor's office, the office of the District Attorney, the office of the Public Defender, the police, the AIDS office of the Department of Public Health, the Chamber of Commerce, and various associations from San Francisco neighborhoods affected by prostitution.

What other U.S. city would be so sensible as to invite prostitutes and prostitute rights advocates to be part of a task force dealing with prostitution issues? What other U.S. city would specifically mandate that such a commission include "a broad cross section of San Francisco with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, age, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation" including, more specifically, "one transgender representative," and "one member representing gay male prostitutes" and "two members representing AIDS/HIV prevention and education service providers?"

While the report of the Task Force stops short of advocating actual decriminalization of prostitution, it does recommend that the city adopt a policy of de-escalating street arrests of prostitutes, and of redirecting police concern from whether or not a person is a prostitute to whether a person is being problematic in other ways, such as making undo noise, littering, or creating a nuisance unrelated to the act of prostitution itself. Task Force member Carol Leigh is hopeful that the report, together with the November election as District Attorney of Terence Hallinan, a strong supporter of prostitution law reform, will result in greatly increased communication and cooperation between prostitutes with regard to controlling police harassment of prostitutes and the designation of zones in the city where prostitutes are more or less allowed to do their work. According to Leigh, there were some 5200 outdoor arrests of prostitutes last year, compared to as few as 40 arrests for prostitution conducted indoors. While she does not predict that there will necessarily be fewer arrests of prostitutes in the future, she does hope that there will be as much as a 50% reduction in time served in jail by prostitutes after they have been arrested. As the Task Force report documents, the amount of money spent by the City of San Francisco to monitor, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate prostitutes is huge. Adopting a less punitive approach to prostitution could actually save the good taxpayers of the city quite a bundle. Watch for more on this issue in the future, both in the mainstream news media and in this column, and be sure to make your views known to your local government reps.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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