On sex work and demand.

On sex work and demand.

I have only occasionally paid for sex work. 

At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits.  At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s.  After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films.  While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.

For the massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy thong underwear.  Then a trained professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females – rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our muscles.  There wasn’t the sort of rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.

Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started.  Whoops.

Although, after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his childhood.  His parents were Indian, and massage was a totally normal part of their culture.  And so, during a family vacation to Mexico when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of the tents near their beach. 

Midway through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly pumped back and forth.  My friend was alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop.  So he assumed that the easiest way to get through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than England.

The masseuse cleaned off his belly.  He sheepishly exited the tent.  His mother asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”

He averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”  Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.

She would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker. 

Sex work is a slippery concept, though.  In the process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I failed.  You could reasonably argue that all massage therapists are sex workers.  Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.

A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with.  In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm.  After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva.  A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image.  An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.

A writer who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too.  The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can certainly reach orgasm.

In practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex work.  Because the term “prostitution” is so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.

Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law.  Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them.  Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough?  And, he’s a pillar of his community!  We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!

From Bloomberg.

Instead, we punish people who are already marginalized.  Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our prosecutors.  Go ahead and lock them up.  Fine them.  Deport them.

Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work.  On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):

The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’.  In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.

Vague and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice.  Police officers haven’t been raiding the apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates; instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.

It should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have such difficulty even discussing this topic.  We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking; for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights as they travel and work. 

The solutions we propose are equally divergent.  Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law, giving more power to the police.  For sex workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.

Mac and Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex work.  But there is a danger – if we are too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem. 

Most sex workers don’t like their jobs.  They sell sex because they need money.

When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.

We are not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that any client has a ‘right’ to sex.  We are not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex itself, is intrinsically good or bad.  Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe.

In the sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex industry abolitionists’.  As the English Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’

[Anti-prostitution feminists] position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable.  Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work. 

It’s not work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again.  One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’  Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.

Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we weren’t being paid.  Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free. 

Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London.  In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.

Work may be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the conversation, like high-profile journalists.  However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or workers in general (or even many journalists). 

Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free.  Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious.  This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.

Mac and Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell sex.  Barring that, they would like to see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy suggestions that would help.  Their proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.

Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police.  There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.

From the Economist.

But, even if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex workers.  If any person involved in a transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous.  Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.

Similarly, U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused worldwide harm.  Mac and Smith write that:

SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished.  SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could. 

One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get.  Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’

[Note: clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac and Smith.]

It could seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation, instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent.  But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and makes workers more vulnerable.

When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.  When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.

We’re doing the wrong things.

Politicians are targeting the wrong sort of demand.

In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic.  Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary.  When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.

Supply and demand.  In this sort of crude approximation, elastic demand would be represented by a relatively horizontal line (quantity changes significantly if the price changes) and inelastic demand by a relatively vertical line (quantity stays the same no matter the cost). Image from GrokInFullness.
What happens to demand when the effective price goes up because of a risk of punishment. Note that the intersection point between the red & dotted lines is lower than the original intersection point. Even though sex workers aren’t being directly punished, they’re now earning less money. Image from GrokInFullness.

By way of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or medicine are all inelastic.  When you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.  That’s why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living conditions in people’s home countries.

Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe.  Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world.  We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.

I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:

To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on.  If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.

Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book.  It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.

I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack.  Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?

Misogyny dies hard.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years.  We’ve been using cocaine even longer.  Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience.  Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

Not all drug use is good, obviously.  Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost.  Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught.  I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time.  I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me.  I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking.  I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”

Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose.  When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.

In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter.  Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”

DADDY WAKE UP

Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled.  Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use.  Possession is a felony.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising.  Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments.  Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.

In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters.  Prohibition was mediated through racism.

It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound.  But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey.  Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.

Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative.  Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that

No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.

And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests.  I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience.  I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests. 

For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.

That idea is true enough, as far as things go.  Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin.  Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence.  But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.

And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs.  For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin.  The drug can hurt someone who uses it.  But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain.  Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery.  Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views. 

Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink.  Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended.  But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.

Or consider antibiotics.  Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse.  With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.

And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs.  If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all.  But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.

In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die.  Any infection could turn septic and kill you.

In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me.  Or kill my children.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them.  We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse.  Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.

Is that reasonable?

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories.  Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are.  And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness is a nebulous concept, however.  There’s no external metric that indicates what we should do.  For instance: if we are subject to an injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?

There are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …

Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.

A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order.  Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence.  (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)

Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

But punishment invites further punishment.  Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.

Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies.  On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal.  The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.

But forgiveness is hard.  Sometimes people do terrible things.  After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people.  (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

#

Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation.  Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was thrust upon him.  The creature was ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated him.  Victor Frankenstein abandoned him in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased him away.

Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring of the creature’s rage.

In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance.  The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts.  But what if many stray pieces were collected?  An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s.  The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from.  And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look!  Here is a body, victim of the attacks.  Here is a dead man we can honor properly.

In truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out.  Once he completes the corpse, he realizes that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all the empty coffins.

And then the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its component parts.  In the creature’s words (as translated by Jonathan Wright):

“My list of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end.

“Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

“But the killing had only begun.  At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

Soon, the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead victims that he is composed of.  He can chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead allies.  The chain of causality is so tangled that no one is clearly responsible.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a small group of Afghani terrorists.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame.  But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death?  The man who assaulted her?  That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach.  But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.

Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?

Do I blame myself?  As a citizen of this country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others.  Even when I loathe the way this nation acts, by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task.  Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”  This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue.  He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original components.  This was the realization that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim.  The victim proportion in some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.

“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On overdose.

A few years ago, Max helped me write a poem:

DOPE TO THE CUT

Dealers too have mouths

& hungry, hungry arms;

must we begrudge these impacted men

their modicum of profit?

And there is honor among thieves –

my buddy Moses could move meth

only by loathing meth-heads –

nobody’s hurt by laxative-

laced white lady,

and why not a trace

of fentanyl in the H?

Both wash pain.

A dealer’s gotta eat.

But now the cartels start with the cut,

disguise it with dope

& wonder why

their customers

die.


I wanted to share this along with a recommendation that you read this heartbreaking story from The Washington Post.  Right now, our nation has begun reckoning with the fact that people who are addicted to drugs are sick and need help.  Incarceration isn’t curing them.  Sympathetic articles profile working class white people who are trapped in a spiral of despair.

But deaths have skyrocketed among another population, a group of people that most major news outlets have blithely ignored.  Older black users – who were anonymously demonized from the beginning – are being killed when dangerous synthetic chemicals are disguised as the same heroin that they’ve safely used for decades.

People who aren’t in severe pain shouldn’t use opiates.  These drugs sap away life.  Over time, they make pain worse, because opiates make long-term users much more susceptible to discomfort and stress.

But our laws against these drugs are making opiates lethal.  If we want people not to use certain chemicals, our best bet is to provide accurate information.  Banning drugs hasn’t helped: patients seeking legitimate verified doses have a harder time getting their medicines, but opiates are easy to come by on the streets.  We’ve only succeeded in making them edgy, transgressive, and deadly.

On gateway drugs.

On gateway drugs.

bruce.pngIn jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.”  I gave a brief introduction:

“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War.  What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen.  In this poem, he’s been drinking.  Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”

Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:

I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars

A bearded dude near the back shook his head.

“I been there,” he said.  “Can’t never fall asleep.  Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court.  Said I was too violent.  But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served?  None of them saw combat!  I was the only one who’d fought!  But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  And it’s true, I am.  A lot of the people in prison and jail have done awful things, but there are often reasons why their lives went awry, and the way we treat people inside often makes matters worse.

“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst.  Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them.  I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”

harm.JPG
From The Economist.

“But what about pot?”  Somebody always asks.  In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.

“I dunno … pretty far down.  I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”

“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”

Well, sure.  But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?

“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”

“I believe that,” said an older guy.  “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”

“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”

“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”

“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”

I disagreed.

“No way.  My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning.  Around and around in circles till they’re staggering.  Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling.  Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness.  Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs.  A lot of other animals will use them too.  And we start young.  Little duders love to spin.”

5053031336_57b348cb08_z.jpg
Image by guilherme jofili.

The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered.  Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal.  I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.

Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence.  But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal.  Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.

(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)

It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs.  Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex.  Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.

“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital.  But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time.  I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever.  And they told me, ‘See these people?  They’re like this because they used drugs.’  And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”

Lying to people is a gateway to disaster.