I don't know about you, but I want to personally extend my own heartfelt thanks to Dallas city councilpersons Monica Alonzo, Mark Clayton, Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Lee Kleinman and Adam Medrano for voting this week to defend the First Amendment. I know it wasn’t easy.
It never is. That damned First Amendment. It’s always the hardest one to defend. You never get to defend a person’s right to express gratitude at Thanksgiving Day dinner. It’s always Exxxotica.
On Wednesday those seven voted and were narrowly defeated in their attempt to stop a ban on a sexual expo that wanted to appear at the city’s convention center. The vote came after the council was told that the city had no legal authority to ban the event.
Medrano put it succinctly: “I cannot vote against the First Amendment.”
A slim eight-vote majority of the council had no trouble voting against the First Amendment, and so the event, which took place here last year without incident, has been banned. After the vote, Ray Hunt, a billionaire oilman who owns land around the convention center, gave a congratulatory handshake to Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former Texas Senator whose name is on the convention center, both of whom were sitting in the audience keeping close eyes on the council.
A lawsuit will ensue. The city will lose the lawsuit as it has lost First Amendment lawsuits in the past. The seven council members and the mayor who voted for the ban made it clear they didn’t care about lawsuits. They wanted to make a statement about sex.
That’s the most complicated part of this. We say it’s about free speech and people’s right to express themselves, but it’s also about no speech. About shutting the hell up. Privacy. I don’t know if I have a right not to hear what the mayor thinks about sexual intercourse, but I know I have a very strong desire not to. Wednesday was a great case study in why.
Mayor Mike Rawlings set the disturbing tone. Two years after the 100-million-selling mommy-porn book Fifty Shades of Gray and the ensuing film of the same name taught the world that sado-masochism can be banal and boring, the 61-year-old Rawlings spoke of S&M as if he were a 13-year-old Mennonite runaway learning of it for the first time:
“And then I find out on the website,” he said in a stage whisper, “there’s a place called 'The Dungeon,' where women are tied up and whipped. And I just said, ‘You’ve crossed the line. You’ve crossed the line.’ I can’t be for that.”
When I die, if there’s a guy standing on the cloud sending people into one of two lines, and if I get sent to the bad line, it will be to spend eternity listening to Mike Rawlings whispering to me from the Dallas City Council dais about S&M.
My position would be that if he doesn’t want to go to the sex dungeon, he should not go to the sex dungeon, but I don’t want to hear about him and the sex dungeon, not at all, not one bit, and certainly not in a hoarse whisper. Somebody tries that speech standing next to me at a urinal some day and they’re going to get a swift kick in the head.
The mayor is not in favor of the sex dungeon. Some people are. We all know that. As long as all parties are willing and they don’t break the law, as long as they don’t force anybody to watch, then it’s nobody else’s business. It’s called people’s private lives. As the impresario of the banned event kept saying, people who don’t like it don’t have to buy a ticket.
The people seeking a ban came to the council meeting with what they thought was a big legal argument: that the event last year caused a crime and prostitution crime wave and therefore it could be banned from the convention center this year under existing city ordinances.
In response to a series of questions from council member Kingston, Dallas police Chief David Brown performed a kind of wonderful one-syllable aria: Did he have undercover agents at the event last year? Yes. Did they find any crime? No. Was he ever informed by the state police that a spike in crime occurred concurrent with the event? No. Would the state police have told him? Yes.
The city attorney gave a similar performance when Kingston asked him if city ordinances governing the location of sexually oriented businesses applied to the event. No.
Some sexually oriented businesses, like bad strip clubs, do cause ancillary harm over time to nearby neighborhoods by attracting the kind of clientele that pulls in other bad activities with it — drug sales, street prostitution and violence. The better run strip clubs, not so much.
But the city attorney made one thing clear: None of that applies to a one-time event, especially when the event already took place last year without any evidence of secondary harm.
So what we had Wednesday was a pretty pure case. The event was fully legal. No evidence existed to show it caused any ancillary harm. But the mayor and his allies on the council didn’t want it to take place in the convention center, anyway, because of their feelings about sex. And more to the point, they wanted the rest of us to hear all about their feelings about sex.
I’m not especially prudish about sex, but I do like the happens-in-Vegas stays-in-Vegas rule. Instead, I felt as if the council chamber Wednesday had been magically teleported to the sanctuary of First Baptist Church and turned into a weird Protestant exorcism, like “Robert Jeffress presents the one, the world’s only … HEXXXOTICA!”
More than a dozen men and women came to the open microphone during the council meeting and explained their theories of sex, especially their belief that naughty sex is a gateway to utter and total degradation and depravity.
I’m not saying they can’t have that theory. They can have any theory they want. I’m saying I don’t want to hear about their theory in the City Council chamber. The chamber is not their church. It’s a public place, a place where we agree as Americans to respect each other’s beliefs and to respect each other’s privacy. Let’s think about why.
The settled law here, not to mention the civilized convention, is that sexual activity within the boundaries of the law is a matter of private and personal liberty. Those seven council members who voted against the ban made it plain in their remarks they were not voting for the dungeon. They were voting to express their respect for privacy and personal liberty.
The rest of us don’t go to the ban-backers’ churches and tell them how to have intercourse. We don’t describe their activities in hoarse stage whispers.
While I would defend their right to entertain any philosophy of sex they like, I did find most of the speeches of the ban-supporters Wednesday deeply icky, mainly because of the great pride they took in themselves for speaking about how other people should manage sexual intercourse. I have the same feeling about people who are obsessively homophobic, for example. Why do they spend so much time thinking about other people’s sexual intercourse?
When sexual activity falls within the law, and given the infinite spectrum on which private notions of good sex may fall, about the only really dirty-minded thing I can think of is people who stand around getting angry about what they think other people are doing in bed without them.
To the mayor, to Senator Hutchison, to Ray Hunt the oilman who owns a lot of land near the convention center, I want to say the same thing the impresario of the event said: Do not buy a ticket. If thine eye offends thee, take thy eye to dinner and a movie.
But just shut up. Don’t tell other people how to have sexual intercourse. Don’t tell me your theories about sexual intercourse. Shut up. In fact, shut the hell up. Who do you think you are? Do you think you are God’s army, here to impose theocratic martial law on the rest of us? Don’t answer that.
And, please, I do understand your theory. You believe that pornography is anything that has to do with what you believe to be dirty or naughty sex, bad sex, wrong sex, the bad kind of sexual intercourse. You have a moral model in mind by which girls are seduced into having bad sexual intercourse by dirty boys or dirty men, or dirty boys seduced by dirty boys, or … let’s just stop there.
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There is an island of truth in what you believe. You know that young boys and girls who lack a core belief in their own dignity can be pressured or inveigled into prostitution. Based on your remarks Wednesday, you also understand that poverty and bad family environments make young people more vulnerable. And you know that prostitution is a really bad life for most prostitutes, although you would probably say for all prostitutes.
What you seem to have no inkling of is that we do not agree on the rest of the picture. People generally do not all agree that there is a hard nexus between adventurous sex and depravity. That is not settled knowledge or belief. Some very successful and happy people might argue to you that kinky sex made them what they are today.
And, I know. You say ick. Then I say ick you. Then you say ick me. Then we stand around saying ick at each other. See. That’s why we need to just not talk about it. That’s how it’s handled in this wonderful place we call civilization.
Hats off again to the seven on the council, then, who voted for the First Amendment, for personal liberty and for privacy, all of which adds up to a vote for the dignity of the individual and for my not having to hear the mayor whisper to me about the dungeon. Hats back on for the eight who voted for the ban. Hats and earmuffs.