Monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #116

Danger, Sexual and Otherwise:
Juggling Fear, Safety and Freedom

At one level, it seems reasonable enough -- what Bush and Ashcroft have asked for, what Congress has granted them: Given the extraordinary nature of the attacks of September 11, given the extraordinary need of the nation to protect itself from the possibility of additional outside attacks, given the fact that we now see ourselves as a nation at war, a certain cutback in our civil liberties will be required.

Nothing like a gross suspension of the Constitution, mind you -- just the ability of the government to detain foreign nationals in the U.S.; a broadening of the government's right and ability to eavesdrop on our mail, telephone calls, and email; the possibility of having our homes and businesses searched without prior notification, without the rigorous procedures of a court-issued search warrant.

These things are required, we are told, in the name of public safety. The issue is as simple as protecting the good guys from the bad guys. And, make no mistake about it, people do want to be safe, especially in times of confusion and uncertainty. In a time of national trauma, no one wants to be held accountable for any potential surprises. The "USA Act of 2001" passed the U.S. Senate by a margin of 96 to 1, and the House by 337 to 79.

Fear is perhaps the easiest of human emotions to manipulate. People are extraordinarily impressionable when they are afraid, when the world as they know it stops making sense to them. In times of fear, people are easy to confuse, easy to control, easy to enlist in the name of almost any agenda -- agendas that often have precious little connection to whatever it is that people really fear. Even in calmer times, huge amounts of money, time, and effort are invested daily in the business of encouraging, amplifying, and directing people's fears -- by everyone from ad agencies to political spin doctors. People say that sex sells, but fear sells even more than sex -- sells everything from newspapers to deodorant to expensive cars to health insurance to private schools to political candidates. The more diffuse the fear, the greater its potential for manipulation and intimidation.

In this culture, one of the most potent and widespread arenas for control and manipulation of large numbers of people has been anything that has to do with sex. If both sex and fear sell, sexual fear sells the most of all. And there is certainly plenty of sexual fear to be put to economic and political use by those in the fear-management game. There is fear of the power of sex itself, fear of other people's non-traditional sexual desires and acts, fear of our own non-traditional desires and acts, fear of being sexually undesirable, fear of being sexually too desirable, fear of wanting sex too much, fear of not wanting sex enough, fear of being sexually ignorant, fear of being sexually incompetent.

Most of all, in the arena of public policy and pronouncement, there is an almost primal fear of publicly available, sexual entertainment (pornography), fear of unwanted pregnancy, and fear of sexual disease.

If we want to understand the processes by which fear is inflated and then used to undermine people's ability to lead free, joyous, fulfilling lives, it's worth looking at how sexual fear has been turned into a commodity. The specific issues have varied from year to year, decade to decade, but the general process remains remarkably the same, time and time again.

The sexual fear game starts as soon as some sexual phenomenon that makes people nervous comes to public attention. Maybe it's a new sexually transmitted disease -- like herpes or HIV. Maybe it's increased public awareness of some "unconventional" sexual desire or practice -- maybe homosexuality, bisexuality, teenage sex, premarital sex, extramarital sex, or s/m. Maybe it's public awareness of the availability of some socially unacceptable form of sexual entertainment -- like child pornography, violent pornography, or (in some people's minds) pornography in any form whatsoever.

Once sexual fear raises its head, the first step in the manipulation process is magnifying any genuine danger far beyond its actual dimension or scope. This is one of the prime functions of the mass media, often with tacit or public support from various agencies of government. Thus, when herpes, a common but (for most people) quite easily managed viral ailment became part of the national sexual landscape, it was immediately distorted into some kind of horrible, incurable, life-altering, sex-related epidemic -- taking over the cover of Time magazine and the like. Similarly, over the past decades, the real dangers of HIV (which require simple prudence and the awareness of how to have hot, safe sex) have been inflated to the level of national panic as if AIDS, a disease that is remarkably difficult to contract, is likely to infect and kill anyone who ever engages in any form of sex that is not absolutely, 100% clinically safe.

Similarly, fearful awareness of homosexuality as a widespread sexual preference has been misrepresented as being connected to a mythical, sinister, "homosexual agenda," as if gay people had nothing better to do than conspire to subvert heterosexual America into mass perversion and childlessness. Child pornography is imagined to be a major social danger, as if a prime worry of the children of America was uncertainty of how to fend off the flood of strangers who approach them with the idea of wanting to film them having sex.

All of these issues are real, of course, and some of them reasonably require some degree of social attention and concern. But in all these cases and more, the level of socially generated sexual fear is far, far greater than anything related to sensible caution and restraint.

Once people's fears have been properly enflamed, measures are proposed that are specifically designed to restrict people's sexual options, to reduce and contain the importance and prevalence of some kind of sex in their lives. The justification for the restriction is what has come to be seen, inaccurately, as some fundamental threat to public safety and welfare. Ironically, the restrictions that are proffered in such a climate of exaggerated fear often actually increase any real danger rather than effectively reducing it. In response to concern about unwanted teen pregnancy, for example, students' ability to obtain sex education and condoms at school has, in many, many school districts, been taken away because both of these programs are seen as encouraging teenagers to have sex -- presumably a bad thing for schools to do. As a result, teen pregnancy rates, of course, increase. (the programs that are favored by the erotophobes -- campaigning for sexual abstinence before marriage -- have been shown to have no statistical effect on teen pregnancy at all.) Similar fears of encouraging behavior that some people consider questionable, sexual and otherwise, often makes effective public programs to combat the spread of HIV, such as free needle distribution and informed safe sex education, politically impossible.

The list of examples of how sexual fear has been used to promote political agendas that have nothing to do with the supposed matters of concern goes on and on. In the supposed interest of protecting children from harm in the production of child pornography, sexual fantasy material that neither uses nor harms real children has been made illegal to produce or to own. In the name of protecting the public from the imagined onslaught of seductive homosexual propagandists, gay people and couples have been explicitly denied many of the basic legal and financial rights that are taken for granted by people in heterosexual relationships everywhere.

These are exactly the same processes now being used to manipulate people's fears in the non-sexual arena of terrorist attack in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings. First the fear was blown out of proportion to any threat that exists in the real world. And now the amplified fear is being used to justify restrictions on civil liberties and social behavior that would otherwise be completely contrary to freedom-loving public sensibilities.

What are the real risks in this post-September 11 world? Certainly not where most people, and media hysterics, have been putting their endlessly sensational attention. Statistically speaking, for example, the danger of contracting anthrax is completely insignificant, certainly not worth even a moment of worry. You are more likely to be struck by lightning walking down the street, and far more likely to be killed sometime this week in a car accident, than you are to get anthrax at any point during your lifetime. Are you going to stop taking neighborhood walks, and stop driving to work, for fear of some real, but extremely remote, danger? Of course not. Yet, according to a Newsweek poll, as a result of 13 confirmed cases of anthrax, 40% of the American people now believe that they, or someone they know intimately, is likely to contract the disease. Tens of thousands of people are about to get inoculated against anthrax, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. This is not an effective way of responding to danger. It is nothing less than a display of social hysteria.

The same goes for the supposed risk of having one's airplane flight hijacked.. Americans are staying out of the air in such numbers that, as a result, the entire transportation industry is begging for government handouts. But, even if you knew in advance that a plane was going to be hijacked at the very moment you planned to fly to Minneapolis to visit your Aunt Jean, you would be statistically wise to go about your business unperturbed. At the moment that planes were being flown into the World Trade Center, there were no fewer than 200,000 Americans in the air, all but a handful entirely safe. Since September 11, hundreds of millions of people have flown without any hijack ill-effects whatsoever, except for the annoyance of dealing with long lines and delays -- the products not of some hijackers, but of the nation's need to maintain a level of safety that the rest of the world would consider neither important nor even desirable.

The problem with absolute safety is that it requires rather severe restriction of some of the very aspects of life that are most commonly identified with the American national spirit -- spontaneity, adventure, a love and appreciation of freedom and diversity. If there is a positive lesson to be learned from the events of September 11, it might be that we must now accept and appreciate that uncertainty and unpredictability are basic -- and not primarily negative -- aspects of being vividly alive. But to do this we need to be able to quantify our various fears so we can effectively decide which fears to take seriously and which to ignore because they are simply too remote to waste our time.

There is a real risk that you and I face in the aftermath of September 11, but it is a risk of a different order entirely. The real way that your life and my life are statistically likely to be adversely affected by September 11 is from the people who, since September 12, have been thinking about how to use our new fear and confusion against our real interests, to use the uncertainty we are all experiencing as excuses for radical new intrusions into the freedom and privacy of our daily lives.

We are told that in the name of national expediency, national safety, and what is being called a war against terrorism, we must now think of civil liberties in a new, more limited way. Individuals and organizations must be subject to scrutiny and regulation that would have been un-American previously. The lists start, of course, with the [people presumed to be most closely related to the events of September 11 -- Osama bin Laden and the worldwide al Quaeda militants. But, less than two months into this New New World Order, the breadth of potentially terror-related activity that is to be subjected to new extraordinary surveillance is already being expanded far beyond the likes of bin Laden, al Quaeda, and the Taliban. Hamas, the
Palestinian organization claiming responsibility for much anti-Israeli violence, was recently added to the list of organizations that Bush wants brought under international quarantine. More ominously, anti-governmental organizations and individuals in Latin America, clearly unrelated to the events of September 11, were also added to the regulatory list. The potential for abuse of lists such as these is enormous. People associated not only with terrorist acts, but with organizations that, even in part, support, finance, justify, or eve condone such acts are being called into question more each day. People contributing money to charitable organizations that support poor Muslims around the world, some of whose money might possibly have fallen into the hands of violent activists are having their names published in newspapers and being called upon to defend their financial contributions. Over time, the distinction between real terrorism and other forms of behavior not completely friendly to U.S. interests is likely to become increasingly blurred.

If we're concerned about real danger, the greatest real threat we now face to what we might call the American Way of Life comes from Bush, not bin Laden, from Ashcroft, not anthrax. Long after Afghanistan has joined Vietnam in the dustbin of discarded wars, long after people with Middle Eastern names and faces have been forgotten as threats to the American Way, the wiretapping, information sharing, and search and seizure provisions of The USA Act of 2001 will still be around -- tools to be quietly used by federal, state, and local governments to keep watch on what people they don't like do and say. Without a doubt, sex, as always, will be high on the list of suspect activities and sexual enthusiasts, particularly sexual enthusiasts of non-mainstream persuasions, will be singled out for special scrutiny.

Dangerous times? You bet.

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