People against Bad Things


In 1933, Judge William Washington Callahan of the Alabama Supreme Court was appointed to retry a young man, Haywood Patterson, who had already been sentenced to death for participating in an alleged gang rape in a freight train in 1931. Judge Callahan had this to say:

“Where the woman charged to have been raped is white, there is a strong presumption under the law that she will not and did not yield voluntarily to intercourse with the defendant, a Negro.” The judge went on: “And this is true whatever the station in life the prosecutrix may occupy, whether she be the most despised, ignorant and abandoned woman of the community, or the spotless virgin and daughter of a prominent home of luxury and learning.”*

Short version: White chicks don’t date black dudes at all, ever. This includes all white chicks, from the slums to the most exclusive neighborhoods.

The legal case under discussion was so complicated that I can’t do justice to it (so to speak) in this column. Suffice it to say that the two women who claimed to have been raped (the legal term of the time) gave inconsistent testimony, the alleged perpetrators were all teenagers at the time but were first tried as adults in an atmosphere of mob hysteria in Alabama, and there were numerous retrials on appeal. The general population of Depression-era America became polarized over this case.

Eventually, one of the white women, Ruby Bates, recanted her testimony and explained that she and the other alleged victim, Victoria Price, wanted to avoid being jailed for “vagrancy,” a term that made it illegal to ride the rails in search of paid work. It seems likely that Price also wanted to dodge an arrest for prostitution, which was and still is illegal in most U.S. states. Those who tried to bring up Price’s sleazy reputation in court were generally more interested in discrediting her in order to save the lives of the terrified young defendants than in asking why any woman would sell sex. (For survival in a time of economic crisis, maybe?)

This case dramatized every kind of prejudice which was part of 1930s American culture: classism, racism (including the demonization of African-American males of all ages), the stereotyping of women, Christian prudery, and the regional hostility that both caused and resulted from the American Civil War of the 1860s. This included Northern contempt for Southern feudalism and misguided chivalry (although Northerners were often racist and sexist in subtler style) and Southern contempt for fast-talking “Jew lawyers from New York City,” provided by the Communist Party to defend the defendants.

Thank the Deity of one’s choice that world culture has changed since then! Right?

Judge Callahan’s claim that white women rarely or never “yield voluntarily to intercourse” with “Negroes” is now good for a laugh, especially from anyone who keeps up with current Hollywood gossip or television talk shows. But is the demonization of black males a relic of the past? You be the judge.

During my brief marriage in Canada (1975-78), my Nigerian husband was outraged by the demonization of black men in contemporary American (and Canadian, to a lesser extent) crime reports.

Without showing any sense of irony, he was also outraged by the fledgling “gay rights” movement. My husband believed that homosexuality was (and should remain) illegal in every nation on earth. He promised to protect me from my own foolish liberalism, as well as from those who might take advantage of it. He was sure that legalizing sex between men or between women would pave the way for an epidemic of same-sex rapes, since no “normal” person would “yield voluntarily” to sex with a real homosexual, and he assumed that such freaks wouldn’t hesitate to use force.

Janis Joplin’s famous late-1960s prescription for keeping fit (“sex and drugs and rock-and-roll”) was still alarming the parents of teenagers. Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose in 1970 seemed to confirm the worst fears of many. (See that? Drugs kill. Bad music kills. Sex kills.)

In the 1980s, when I was hired by the local women’s centre to work on a writing project on sexual assault/abuse, a staff member told me that incest (sex between family members, including relatives by marriage or adoption) always involves a lack of consent, because “no one would agree to that.”

For those who weren’t there, the 1980s were the decade of the “feminist sex wars,” said to have burst into public awareness at a university-sponsored feminist conference on sexuality in 1982. BDSM or leathersex among women was especially controversial in lesbian-feminist circles. Claims were made that the mere sight of a leather garment or accoutrement was harmful to women and should therefore be banned from “womynspace.”

In 1990, when I was taking the training to become a volunteer counselor on the sexual assault line, one of my fellow-trainees told me that any “child” under age eighteen who has sex is clearly a victim of assault. She suggested that even masturbation fits into this theory, since no young person would think of doing that unless s/he had been molested or abused earlier.

In 1994, U.S. Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). When asked whether young people should be encouraged to masturbate instead of indulging in riskier sexual behaviour, Elders replied: “I think that is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” In the resulting public uproar, she was fired from her job by U.S. President Clinton, who was known for his liberalism. Apparently that kind of talk was just too liberal for America on the brink of the millennium.

In 2005 or thereabouts, a young male student in one of my university English classes wrote an essay on the harmful effects of sex in the media; he claimed that it leads to adultery and rape. He had moved to Canada from China to attend university, and he claimed that none of these things occurred in his own country.

What does all this disapproval have in common? It all conflates “abnormal” sex (variously defined) with other Bad Things, especially with sexual assault, or a lack of consent on one side. Under the law, sex between an adult and a person under the “age of consent” (which varies by time-period and legal jurisdiction) is defined as assault because those under a certain developmental stage are assumed to be incapable of giving meaningful consent. There are always critics (such as my fellow-trainee, mentioned above) who want the age of consent in their area to be raised.

Fear tends to be irrational. The more extreme the fear is, the less likely it is that a fearful person will listen to reason. Sex has been a subject of religious and social taboos for much longer than anyone now living has been alive. Therefore anything that currently arouses fear or disapproval seems to be associated with sexual harm, in much the same way that chewing gum sticks to any other object in its path.

A widespread belief that every Bad Thing somehow involves tragic sexual damage would be amusing if it didn’t have such drastic consequences for relatively harmless human beings. Some associated fears (the 1950s combined dread of Communism, Perversion and Juvenile Delinquency, for instance) just seem goofy once the general fear begins to subside. (The theories of Marx and Engels as juicy reading-matter? Homosexuality as a contagious disease? Who knew?)

Neither the lynching of scapegoats, the passing of new laws, house arrest for certain populations, nor the banning of anything can keep anyone safe from their own sexual impulses. Only sexual assault is sexual assault. Every consensual sexual activity is something else, regardless of who finds it offensive.

Everyone I’ve ever met seems to know these things in theory, and yet common sense seems as easy to lose now as it was in the 1930s. I never cease to be amazed at the double-think I hear expressed in person, on television and on-line. The few history-geeks who still discuss the case of the “Scottsboro boys” find it as weirdly disturbing as the “Burning Times” of the Christian Inquisition, and yet sexual myths continue to thrive, and monsters under the bed seem real to many. That conceptions of sexual harm can include the “abuse” of oneself suggests that absolutely no one can be trusted. And a belief that sex leads to death can always become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Those who want to join a moral campaign have a variety of legitimate causes available to them: the potential spread of oil in the Gulf of Mexico to all the waterways on earth, climate change literally scorching the earth, genocidal wars in too many places, police brutality against peaceful protestors.

Oil on the water. Now there’s a scary reminder of the wages of sin.

~*Douglas Linder, Without Fear or Favor: Judge James Edwin Horton and the Trial of the “Scottsboro Boys” (University of Missouri at Kansas City, School of Law 2008) (SSRN: Also see the Wikipedia article on the “Scottsboro Boys.”

Jean Roberta
August 2010

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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