Meet Hooligan Sparrow. Her real name is Ye Haiyan and she has been raising hell in China. Known mostly as a blogger and feminist activist, Ye has created quite a stir in her country of origin because of her outspoken and controversial grassroots tactics. Last year, she worked in a brothel where sexual intercourse costs under $3 US dollars, but Ye chose to do it for free. Why? In her own words:
“Beginning now, I am providing free sexual services for rural migrant workers. First of all, this is to prevent them from being caught and legally robbed by police. Secondly, this is to serve the sexual needs of the grassroots and help relieve social pressure. Thirdly, I want to create a sharp contrast between my love for the grassroots and the cruelty of the government. I hope that they will be touched by my action, which will end tomorrow.”
Ye Haiyan’s activism includes sex worker rights but it is much broader than that. In addition to working to increase HIV/AIDS awareness, she also works to protect girls and women from sexual abuse. Her most recent activism involved protesting an elementary school in Wanning City which is located in the Hainan Province of China, where six girls were raped by the school principal and one other government employee.
Ms. Ye’s protests have led to her arrest more than once but she seems committed to defending sexual freedom as well as freedom from sexual abuse, regardless of the price. In her blog, she states ” this fight is against the persecution of sex!” I find her words quite compelling because I believe laws which outlaw adult, consensual sex, create a culture of sexual shame and which can lead to many forms of sexual abuse.
However, the prevailing conversation about sex seems split between protection from sex or its unfettered expression. Those who see sexual freedom as a slippery slope leading to a lack of protections for the vulnerable lobby for more laws in defense of the innocent. They tend to dominate discourse in the US. On the other side of the argument are a few rebellious souls striving to secure sex as a right which the state cannot infringe upon.
But must we envision the sexual landscape so polarized and divided? Isn’t it possible that freedom from sexual abuse and a sexual bill of rights might not only co-exist but inform and enhance each other?
In fact, I don’t think we can have one without the other. As long as these two agendas militate against each other, neither objective is achieved. Instead, we need to find our balance between sexual freedoms and protections just as we do with any other topic pertaining to rights and responsibilities. It would seem a sensible approach might be defined as permitting anything which is adult, consensual behavior.
This month has seen several major wins for sexual freedom and protections. I invite you to celebrate these with me as each one applies to you personally even if it seems unlikely to impact your personal life at first blush. The fact is that sexual freedoms and protections impact all of us in ways which may not be readily apparent.
For instance, June marks the ten year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Ruling, Lawrence versus Texas which, in the words of Lambda Legal’s Jon W. Davidson, ” declared laws criminalizing oral and anal sex between consenting adults to be unconstitutional and flung open the doors to equality for LGBT people around the nation.” Lawrence versus Texas has been cited approximately 700 times by our nation’s courts and it was a critical factor in repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as well as reversing DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.
In addition to striking down DOMA, on June 26th the Supreme Court also refused to rule on a case pertaining to California’s Proposition 8 which effectively made same-sex marriage legal in that state. California’s Governor Jerry Brown has ordered all counties to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples immediately. This weekend, cities like San Francisco are not only celebrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride, they are celebrating legal recognition of their love and their lives.
Most likely, even if you are straight, someone you know is gay or lesbian. Perhaps it is a neighbor, co-worker, friend, relative or loved one? Maybe they have no desire to become legally married, but laws which permit same-sex marriage still affect their life in a positive way by paving the way for equal treatment in other sectors of society. Just as Lawrence versus Texas, a ruling which only pertained to oral and anal sex, has played a vital role in changing laws about gays in the military as well as same-sex marriage, so too will this month’s Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage lead to other important gains for people who happen to love differently than the majority does.
The Supreme Court made another critical ruling about sex this month, when it decided that PEPFAR’s (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) requirement that private groups receiving federal funds adopt policies opposing prostitution, is unconstitutional and violates First Amendment Rights. The Obama administration argued that both prostitution and trafficking spread AIDS so the anti-prostitution pledge was reasonable, but as the Brazilian government so aptly illustrated when it declined $40 million in U.S. funds, working to stop the spread of AIDS without the cooperation of prostitutes doesn’t make sense. Brazil’s AIDS commissioner Pedro Chequer stated the obvious: “Sex workers are part of implementing our AIDS policy and deciding how to promote it. They are our partners. How could we ask prostitutes to take a position against themselves?”
Similarly, another illogical and counter-productive practice on the part of law enforcement is being challenged in New York’s state legislature. Known as the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill, A2736 passed the state Assembly and is on its way to the state Senate. Currently, New York police confiscate condoms during the equally controversial “stop and frisk” procedure where anyone a police officer suspects of a crime can be stopped and searched. Not only are condoms confiscated, thereby preventing the person carrying the condom to use it to prevent the spread of disease, but the condoms are being used as evidence of the intent to commit an act of prostitution. Of course plenty of people carry condoms who are not prostitutes, but it seems the health benefits of condoms are being ignored in the rush to effect convictions.
Unfortunately, New York is not the only state using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. But activists in a variety of fields including AIDS prevention, LGBT outreach and sex worker rights organizations are celebrating this small victory in New York with hopes that the health implications will become more apparent to both politicians and the voting public throughout the nation.
The repercussions of creating barriers of any kind to the use of condoms should be obvious. Sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies effect society as a whole and negatively impact our individual lives by driving up health care and public assistance costs.
But the long-term negative effects of legislated “morality” elude some otherwise intelligent people. For instance, Texas is doing its darnedest to outlaw abortion. Despite the fact that the current government in that state will no doubt succeed in that endeavor, one brave soul waged a one-woman war against the forces of repression when Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis held her 13-hour filibuster derailing anti-choice legislation which was otherwise slated to pass the Texas Senate. In some respects, this may be a temporary victory, but given the level of acclaim and support her efforts have met with, it would seem that the reason and compassion contained in honoring a woman’s right to choose will eventually win out even in the state of Texas.
Which brings us to Ireland. I know that may seem like an unlikely segue. But June was also the month when $45 million was awarded to the approximately 770 survivors of the Magdalene Laundries. You might wonder what slave labor in a Catholic nunnery has to do with sexual freedoms and responsibilities. And I admit it will take a little explaining on my part. You see, the girls and women who found themselves confined within the walls of the Magdalene Laundries as slaves, were labeled “fallen women” for a variety of reasons including flirting with boys, losing their virginity, getting pregnant out of wedlock and sometimes, for working as prostitutes.
You might think such barbaric treatment would have been outlawed a long, long time ago. But the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland was closed as recently as 1996. Ireland’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter made a formal and public apology to the women who survived forced silence, slave labor and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of these monstrous Catholic-run institutions. And he affirmed Ireland’s “commitment to respecting [their] dignity and human rights as full, equal members of our nation.”
That of course will do nothing to bring back the one in ten girls and women who died while incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry. In fact, the reason this travesty came to light a couple of decades ago, was that a construction crew which was rebuilding on the former site of a laundry, uncovered a mass grave where “fallen girls and women” were buried like so much unclaimed garbage. The youngest girl to die in a laundry was just fifteen.
In the absence of any sexual bill of rights and steeped in sexual shame, human history is littered with the broken bodies and spirits of those who have failed to conform to a heterosexual, married, monogamous ideal. Often, even a hint of impropriety has justified the most egregious insults to dignity and decency. In the name of curtailing “sexual perversions,” all manner of ethical and moral perversions have been perpetrated against those whose only crime was what should have been considered the province of adult, consensual activities.
In the end, it really does not matter what your personal values pertaining to sex might be and how they might differ from those around you. What is key is that we find a way to live together respectfully. Whether you are gay or straight, conservative or liberal, monogamous or polyamorous, kinky or vanilla or somewhere in between these polar opposites, the rights we hold dear as members of the human community must apply equally to each and every one of us. If they don’t, we all lose.