Nobody wants to be a prude. It is one of our culture’s most stinging epithets. While not as bad as “bigot” and “hypocrite,” by suggesting judgment and repression it implies both of these.
The fear of prudishness, however, can result in the repression of prudent judgment about evils in our midst. We tell ourselves polite fictions about “consenting adults” even as all the warning signs of exploitation are there baldly, boldly in front of us.
This is how strip clubs and other “adult businesses” thrive and proliferate.
The desire to avoid prudishness properly understood is salutary—in a healthy sexual culture. In a culture with reasonably drawn boundaries between licit and illicit sexual acts, prudishness devolves into a gnostic squeamishness with our embodied selves. It fails to distinguish between the licit and illicit and thus threatens to become contempt for the body itself.
But now, when the line between licit and illicit sex is all but washed away, the popular understanding of prudishness has expanded to include discomfort with nearly any sexual activity whatsoever. Don’t like near-nudity at the beach? Prude. Don’t like strip clubs? Prude. Don’t appreciate explicit simulated sex scenes? Prude. Don’t watch violent pornography? Prude. Don’t fornicate? Prude.
And so our judgment is paralyzed when faced with anything except obvious, violent misconduct. (This explains the unexpected skepticism about the current panic over college campus sexual assault. We don’t want to pass judgment unless we have incontrovertible evidence something illegal occurred—evidence that in most cases never surfaces.) We might suspect that something untoward is happening in “adult” businesses, and we might suspect that it will escalate to something far worse, but we are unwilling to speak out because the risk of prudishly trampling on (what is perceived to be) harmless fun is just too high to bear.
Thus, while my posture toward adult businesses has never been laissez-faire, I also wasn’t terribly interested in going to the trouble to curtail them, either. They struck me as an unfortunate fact of life, a sad symptom of a sad culture, or at least of sad subcultures. I hated them from a distance, in the way one deplores televised religious hucksters as harmful, but not harmful enough to go to any serious trouble to stop.
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And so when I read a draft bill to regulate Pennsylvania adult businesses much more strictly than they had been in order to curtail sex trafficking, I was initially skeptical. Banning alcohol; eliminating dark and private spaces; establishing several-foot buffers between performers and patrons: These all seemed like perfectly reasonable regulations, but nothing important enough to spend political capital on—because that would be prudish, and prudes risk lasting stigma. The connection to trafficking, while intuitively sensible, seemed more a rationalization than a reason.
Even while hating strip clubs, I had still, in at least a limited way, bought into the polite fiction that we tell ourselves because what we suspect—intimidation, violence, rape—is just too unseemly.
And so it was at once validating and horrifying to read through An Assessment of the Adult Entertainment Industry in Texas, a report commissioned by the legislature of that state and prepared at the University of Texas for the attorney general. The report is an example of government work at its best: dry, to be sure, but measured in tone and comprehensive in scope, with an extensive, authoritative bibliography.
The report confirms even the most extravagant suspicions of adult businesses.
There were the common sense things we put out of mind: Coercion often occurs in dark and private spaces (“VIP rooms”); physical and sexual violence is commonplace; alcohol accentuates the gendered power gradient between the male patrons and the nude female entertainment.
Then there were the statistics that were worse than I could have imagined: 23 percent of female performers are raped in the club environment, though the figure is likely higher considering rape is chronically underreported. And then there were facts I had never even considered: Performers are rarely paid wages; in fact, they are usually charged a fee to dance at a club. They subsist on tips, a system which necessarily places them in intimate contact with patrons to “earn” those tips, laying the foundation for exploitation.
There is much more, including information on sex trafficking in adult businesses. (The FBI calls strip clubs “havens for prostitutes forced into sex trafficking.”) I came away from the report thinking, “If everyone knew the information in this document they would not only support strict regulations on adult businesses, but would likely drive those establishments out of their communities.”
Of course polite lies, not to mention the fear of prudishness, are not so easily vanquished. It is through these lies that we shield ourselves from responsibility for our society’s most perverse evils.
We are happy to confront outrageous evil mediated through our televisions; popular programs like Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU thrive by conjuring the most bizarre perversities imaginable to entertain us. Having gotten our fill of shocking wickedness on TV, we are loathe to admit that such wickedness as institutionalized rape is lurking behind the ostentatious façade of respectability of the neighborhood “gentlemen’s club”—especially when we can easily resort to vacuous and callous libertarian bromides about women choosing to become dancers, so it’s no business of ours what happens behind closed doors.
Polite lies, of course, are never told for the benefit of the powerless. (Nor, of course, are libertarian bromides ever spoken to the benefit of the powerless.) The whole point of the polite lie is to shield the powerful from responsibility for their treatment of the powerless. Whether in the Church vis-à-vis sex abuse or at Planned Parenthood vis-à-vis abortion, the polite lie is all about ensuring that victims remain voiceless and perpetrators remain pure. It only works because the powerless don’t have the platform to reveal the truth.
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Thus far attempts to bring the truth to the public have often been met with silence, hand-waving, or even contempt. A radio interview I did with a Philadelphia conservative-libertarian host ended with his bemoaning that my remarks played into a (false, to his mind) men-victimizing-women narrative. Most appalling of all—though representative—is the comment left on an article by my friend Elizabeth Echevarria, who runs a safe house for trafficking victims and who related in her op-ed that she knows women who have been trafficked in strip clubs: “Where are the victims? Where is the crime? These folks all joined this industry of their own free will. The government needs to butt out of this.” However, one state politics reporter did follow up his glib initial story with an interview with me that he wrote up fairly.
As long as we are more committed to the polite lie than to confronting evil—more committed, that is, to the image of justice than its reality—then grotesqueness will not only survive but flourish in the shadows. Information, even authoritative information, only moves people if they are willing to internalize it and to permit it to upend their previous commitments. Light—even the brightest light of truth, as shown in the Texas report—only chases away the darkness if we are willing to deploy it, and to respond meaningfully to whatever we find.