I wonder what tomorrow has in mind for me,
Or am I even in its mind at all?
Perhaps I’ll get a chance to look ahead and see,
Soon as I find myself a crystal ball. – Tommy Shaw
Yesterday I pointed out, as I have in a number of previous essays, that our culture has descended into the general fear of sex, vice and new ideas that was prevalent at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Then, as now, new means of mass communication (telephone and radio then, internet now) promoted the rapid dissemination of ideas by individuals, weakening the monopoly on such communication previously held by governments and multinational organizations such as religions. Furthermore, both eras saw dramatic increases in international migration, driven partly by cheaper travel and partly by rapid shifts in borders and governments; such migration tends to horrify racists and xenophobes, resulting in a moral panic. In the United States and United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent Europe), public discourse in both eras was largely dominated by vocal, strident and well-funded coalitions of conservative Christians and prudish middle-class women who imagined themselves to be “progressive” (due to their support for women’s rights) but were in fact purely moralistic; these groups bullied the majority with “social problem” and “for the children” rhetoric and purchased sufficient numbers of politicians to inflict their anti-sex, anti-fun “temperance” agenda on both their own countries and any others they politically or economically dominated.
As those of us born before 1980 remember, the first movement died out for quite some time; with the exception of a few burps, retrograde periods and other discontinuities, Western society’s views on personal morality have become progressively more liberal since about 1920 and did not start to dry up again until the 1980s. In place of Prohibition we got the War on Drugs; fundamentalist Christians and the decaying remnants of second-wave feminism mounted a joint campaign against sex just as fundamentalist Christians and the decaying remnants of first-wave feminism had a century before, and the disintegration of the Soviet Empire released waves of new migrants to give the isolationists nightmares. In the United States, these forces all coalesced in the months after September 11th, 2001; the average American was convinced that the world was falling apart and that it was time to “do something” against whatever target he could get his hands on…which, as it so often turns out, meant nonconformist women. A reader recently asked me if I had a crystal ball which might reveal where all this is going. Unfortunately I don’t, but I think we can make some educated guesses based on the way things happened the last time around. In order to do that, I must first point out that there are actually two intertwined but separate issues here: the specific “sex trafficking” moral panic which has served as a Trojan horse for so much anti-prostitute activity, and the general trend toward social conservatism and xenophobia which forms the soil in which these revolting fungi grow.
First, the good news: major moral panics only tend to last about 20 years at the outside. Some of them are very much shorter, but most of the big ones endure for about the time it takes a generation to grow from infancy to adulthood (during which time a lot of the “leaders” who enable such panics die off or at least retire, and young liberals who reject their elders’ crusades on general principle come into power). Even in the days when societies changed more slowly this two-decade limit held; for example, though witch hunts periodically racked Europe for almost 300 years (from the late 15th – mid 18th centuries), any individual witch panic in a given place usually lasted only 2-20 years (as typified by the most recent period of literal witch-hunting, the “Satanic Panic”, which began in the early 1980s and subsided by the late 1990s). Given this pattern, the “human trafficking” hysteria should be dead by the end of this decade; though there were a few alarmists spreading the propaganda (which if one treats it skeptically reads an awful lot like the “Satanic abuse” literature with sex and profit replacing “Satanism” as the supposed motivator) by the mid-‘90s, official designation of it as a “world-wide problem” occurred in 2000 and the genuine hysteria did not begin until about 2003. As Emi Koyama pointed out in a recent article, “A quick search on a news database shows that there were only three references to ‘human trafficking’ or ‘trafficking in humans’ before 2000. It was mentioned 9 times in 2000, 41 times in 2001, and broke 100 mentions for the first time in 2005. In 2010, there were more than 500 references.”
If things run according to form, we can predict that over the next three years skepticism about “trafficking” (especially in regard to its conflation with sex work) will slowly increase, and by about 2015 it will be possible for a major media outlet to publish articles critical of both the statistics and the very concept. By 2017 public funding for anti-sex worker hate groups will begin to dry up, and by 2019 or 2020 we should expect it to virtually disappear from public discourse except for a wave of books and documentaries by “experts” who couldn’t be bothered to speak out against it while it was going on but are happy to make a quick buck from it after it’s safely over. Sometime soon after this there may be a pro-sex work backlash against the hysteria, just as public atheism became much more palatable to general audiences after the death of the “Satanic Panic”. I suspect that at this point the ACLU will finally deign to take up a challenge to prostitution law, and sometime in the late 2020s the SCOTUS will issue a landmark decision overturning prostitution laws on civil rights grounds just as Roe vs. Wade overturned abortion laws and Lawrence vs. Texas overturned sodomy laws.
The comparison with these cases is instructive; though Roe was decided 39 years ago this January 22nd, abortion law is still highly controversial in the United States, and thus it will be with prostitution. The court’s decision will only invalidate criminalization of the act of prostitution itself, leaving the various states free to enact their own patchwork of legalization schemes. Some will no doubt adopt models similar to that of Canada and the U.K., criminalizing everything about the business; others may enact something like the Swedish Model (in whatever form it has assumed by that time, which I guarantee won’t be what it looks like today); still others may employ a Nevada-style model and a few may use liberal legalization schemata like that of Germany, establish red-light districts or even wholly decriminalize like New Zealand. The controversy will become another “abortion” or “gay marriage”, providing a shibboleth with which small-minded people can denote membership in “liberal” or “conservative” groups and a convenient prepackaged position for politicians to employ in marketing themselves to such groups.
Larger cultural trends don’t usually die as quickly or abruptly as do moral panics; in some circles Victorian prudery was already on its way out by the Mauve Decade (AKA the “Gay Nineties”), but in the culture at large it still maintained its hold until wiped away by the First World War and the consequent upheavals in the social order it produced. Since Europe was affected earlier and far more severely by the war than was the US, the change came earlier there; indeed, it could be argued that isolationism driven by fear of embroilment in European conflicts actually intensified the social crusade in the United States (as demonstrated by passage of the Mann Act in 1910 and the Volstead Act in 1919). But by the mid-1920s even the United States was changing, and by the late 1930s the old moralism seemed quaint and even ludicrous. Here, then, is a likely predictor of the course of the current outbreak of Puritanism; it started in the early 1980s just as the last outbreak started in the 1880s, and a large minority is already thoroughly sick of it. All we’re now waiting for is a catalyst, some huge social upheaval such as a major war, revolution or economic collapse (given what we’re seeing on the news these days, it may have already started) which will give people something real to worry about. And when that’s over, the current sickness will be swept away as the old busybodies die off; by the late 2030s it will be regarded as a subject for mockery, and though I’ll be too old then (the high side of 70) to be able to fully enjoy the change, it will nonetheless bring me tremendous satisfaction.
One Year Ago Today
“January Second” examines the complicated relationship I’ve always had with this particular date.