Sex Summit Interview Series: Judith Levine
1) There are many different ways that sex is regulated or limited, whether through legal limits, religious guidelines, or social rules. While some of them are easier to see, others are more subtle. What are some that are more difficult to recognize that you’ve seen?
At the moment in America, there is actually very little limit on sex—except one kind: sex between minors and legal adults. Restrictions on such sex can fall on adults or on minors themselves, from statutory rape laws that punish consensual sex even between minors partners to penalties for the possession (not just production) of child pornography that exceed penalties for real rape. The very legal definition of child porn, which can include virtually any representation of a child who is naked or partially naked, is an emblem of the fear of such sex and the illusion that we are protecting children by imposing such penalties.
The subtle, invisible part is this: Setting what I would call clear-cut sexual abuse (e.g., intercourse between an adult and a pre-pubescent child) such relations are so broadly believed to be exploitive, ipso facto, that such sex, even fantasies about it, cannot rationally be spoken about. And it appears that no punishment, even of talking or fantasizing about sex with a minor, is cruel or unusual enough for any legislature or court to deem it so. This may be because, as the cultural critic Jim Kincaid so brilliantly explained it, the child’s body is erotic to all of us, and this is so contrary to our ideas of childhood innocence that we must protect our intolerable desires outward, onto some sexual monster, the pedophile. The irony, as legal scholar Amy Adler notes, is that child pornography laws, for instance, recruit all of us to judge all representations of children as pornographic or not: we are all recruited to look at the world through a “pedophilic gaze.”
Another less-known but increasingly common form of punishment of sex is the criminalization of the transmission of HIV. Such laws are being implemented around the world, but the U.S. and Canada lead in prosecutions. A person can be charged and convicted for transmission even if the person did not know his or her sero-status, or if the partners used condoms or had consensual unprotected sex—in some cases, even if the partner did not become infected. Anti-transmission laws are being used by spurned lovers just as accusations of child abuse became a common weapon in divorce and custody disputes beginning in the 1980s. Critics call the laws the criminalization of “sex while HIV positive.”
2) For all of the talk in US society about sex, why do we still hold onto these restrictions? What can we do about that?
The main reason we hold onto, and expand, the legal restrictions is that there is zero political capital in opposing them, much less rolling them back, and no easier way to way to win votes than to stick it to a perv in some new and more torturous way. I think sex radicals have to stop paying so much attention to their rights to express our own “deviant” desires, the lion’s share of which are rarely if ever abridged, and start standing up for sex offenders—even those who actually did their crimes. The most unjust criminal “justice” system in our country is the sex offender registry. SORs are modern banishment: they condemn former offenders to perpetual social exile, excluding them from decent work, housing, travel, worship, active parenthood, and normal life of any kind.
3) If some of these rules were applied to other facets of our lives (food, money, work, etc.), they would seem ridiculous. Why do you think we view sex differently?
Sex is considered a separate category of human life—different from love, work, art, commerce, politics, parenthood, eating, sports, anything—and its experience, either good or bad, more consequential. Sex is supposed to bring you more wellbeing than any other thing; if it’s unimportant to you, you are considered sick. The harms of even minor sexual trauma are assumed to be more serious and longer lasting than any other negative experience. Why is this? That’s too complicated to go into here.
4) What are you looking forward to most about the Sex Summit? What’s one thing you’d like to see come out of the event?
I’m looking forward to seeing & catching up with friends and comrades (and being in San Francisco!). I hope that we can commit ourselves to defending more than our own pleasures and instead to doing the dangerous work of standing up for the most oppressed sexual pariahs.
5) Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects? How can people find out more about you?
I’m not quite ready to disclose what I’m working on now. But people can go to my website & blog, read my column, “Poli Psy,” at sevendaysvt.com, or my books, which are listed on the site. They can also learn about the organization that engages most of my political energy, the National Center for Reason and Justice. NCRJ helps people falsely accused or convicted of crimes against children (mostly sex crimes); we educate people about the sex panics that produced the current cultural and legal climate, and we work for rational, just laws and practices that truly protect children.
Are you coming to the Sex Summit? We’re hosting a one-day conference, full of amazing speakers, fascinating panel discussions, and more! Plus, your ticket gets you a seat at the Quickies, our erotic short film competition on October 26 at the Castro Theater, and the post-Summit cocktail party. Get your ticket before they sell out!