There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,–whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,–no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame. – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Chapter 2)
I sometimes wish I could be as optimistic as Gene Roddenberry was. The creator of Star Trek truly believed that as Man’s technology evolved, so would his nature. But even though I’ve been a Trekkie since the first time I watched the show, I find the premise of a galaxy filled with humanoid races far more believable than I do the idea that human nature will change in anything shorter than many millennia, if ever. My experiences, reading and studies have done nothing to convince me that the average human being of today is any different from the average human of medieval times, ancient Sumer or the Aurignacian period. Our technology has advanced, our social systems have become more complex and our ability to communicate with one another is vastly greater than ever before, but if a human infant of today were swapped via time machine for one of ancient Catal Huyuk like some science-fictional changeling, I doubt either set of parents would ever know the difference. Take away the synthetic clothes, the modern hygiene and the lifelong indoctrination and the modern man is no different from his 300x great-grandfather squatting in front of a campfire and imagining monsters out there in the dark.
One ancient behavior which is still clearly evident in humans is tribalism; there is a deep need to separate everyone into “us” and “them”, and to treat “them” as subhuman, monstrous, and unworthy of even the most basic sympathy one would give to a stray dog. Though many of us strive to treat those we perceive as “other” with tolerance, many others react like the villagers in old Universal horror movies, hunting the “other” down with torches, pitchforks and baying dogs. And if the outsider isn’t killed outright he is driven from society, forced to live on the outskirts of civilization, and often branded so that any stranger he encounters will shun him just as violently as his original tormenters do. The only thing which has changed is the basis for the determination of “otherness”; the most widespread criteria were until recently race, national origin or religion, but for the past two generations people have been conditioned against such prejudices so they are much less common than they once were and those who openly display such feelings risk social censure themselves. In modern American society, the major acceptable and state-encouraged criterion for “otherness” is violation of sex laws, and perhaps it’s because there are so few other socially acceptable targets for hatred that the rhetoric against whores and “sex offenders” has become so incredibly violent in the last two decades.
“Sex offender” registration was originally justified on the premise that “everybody knows” the rate of recidivism among child molesters is very high; need I remind you that “everybody knows” the vast majority of prostitutes are pimped, drug-addicted streetwalkers? As it turns out, the recidivism rate among sex offenders is only 3-5%, which is actually lower than the rate for most crimes. But as with so many government actions inspired by moral panics, the facts don’t matter and once such registries were established they took on lives of their own and soon these modern pariahs were not only labeled, but forbidden to live virtually anywhere in populated areas. The list of crimes which result in “sex offender” status has of course grown; in Louisiana it includes some forms of prostitution as we’ve discussed before, and in states flirting with the “Swedish model” it could soon include men caught in prostitution “stings”.
Even in states without such laws, men thus entrapped may have their names and faces illegally displayed on billboards, sentenced to public censure without due process because they have not been convicted of any crime, merely accused of a misdemeanor which isn’t even illegal in civilized countries. Likewise, women accused of misdemeanor prostitution have their names and (always unflattering) pictures featured in news stories as though they were convicted murderers. I can’t think of another misdemeanor which is even considered newsworthy; we don’t see feature articles on people accused of public drunkenness, trespassing or littering. But bring sex into it, and suddenly the accused becomes the “other” despite the fact that the hypocrites condemning him are very likely to be guilty of some version of the same “offense,” and probably real evils as well. Kelly Michaels recently told me that when a friend of hers was arrested for prostitution at her home (after the big heroic police bravely tricked her), she had to endure being publicly dragged to the car in handcuffs while jeering neighbors taunted her and vowed to expel her from the neighborhood (a so-called “gated community”) via petition. Are these the actions of evolved minds? They might as well be wearing white hoods and threatening to tar and feather her, or perhaps to burn her at the stake.