Big debate going on now in Dallas about a porn expo at the city convention center, but first we need to talk about eastern Oklahoma and international necrophiliacs.
Necrophiliacs, as I once heard explained by a politician from the “Little Dixie” district of eastern Oklahoma who was speaking to to a small group of early morning drinkers, are “people who go around the country having sex with the dead.”
I won’t stall my point. I am going to argue here that in rural and small-town parts of the world — the places we might think of as being occupied by “folk” — all significant local disputes that are allowed to go on long enough will lead eventually to someone being accused of belonging to an international ring of necrophiliacs.
The phenomenon I’m talking about — the irresistible gravitational tug of ultimate libel — expresses a genuine horror held deep in the hearts of people whose relationships are entirely personal and informal, rather than legal and formal. That fear is that the other, the bad person, the one who is not like me, will suck me into his moral hell if I am forced to see him, hear him or know too much about him.
We’re supposed to be different in cities. Here we are supposed to trust the boundaries that we have set by law and to respect the privacy of people on the other side of our own personal boundaries, as long as they don’t try to trespass.
That’s not always as simple as it might sound. In the late 1990s Dallas school board member Roxan Staff, her banker husband, Randy Staff, activist Tim Dickey and other volunteers led what some people at the time thought was a blue-nosed ultra-conservative crusade to shut down harmless strip clubs near Bachman Lake on Northwest Highway.
Only they weren’t harmless. The clubs in question, no longer in existence, operated way outside the law and with appallingly little interference from the cops or City Hall. They ran after hours. They scorned and openly flouted local limits on porn, exposure or sex acts. They were whorehouses. They were drug-houses. And they spilled crime, vice and violence into decent working and middle class neighborhoods all around them.
How was that harmless? What boundaries would that have been within? The borders of total chaos? And, by the way, that whole area, once cleansed of the bad clubs, immediately turned the corner and has now entered into a real estate boom.
So there are borders. And, yes, they have to be enforced. But we have to stop at the border. We can’t march on into everybody else’s territory and start telling them what to do any more than we can (or would) just run around the country having sex with the dead.
Which brings me back to Little Dixie. My early-morning bourbon-enabled chat in Oklahoma City with an elected official from that area took place just after New Yorker magazine writer Mark Singer, a Tulsa native, had written a wonderful profile of Little Dixie for the “Reporter at Large” column of his magazine. One of the anecdotes Singer told in that piece was of a local person in Little Dixie who had the temerity to run for a school board seat without the permission of political boss Gene Stipe, known in Little Dixie as “The Prince of Darkness.”
In these matters, all issues devolve eventually into sex, because … sex. The typical modus operandi of the Stipe machine would have been to launch a whisper campaign against the renegade school board candidate based on a sexual peccadillo, but in this case there were no feet of clay. The person who defied the machine with his maverick candidacy was a man who also defied libel. He had an impeccable, longstanding, unblemished and unquestioned good name.
The machine could find nothing. So they started a rumor that he was part of an international ring of necrophiliacs. It caught on like wildfire. The man was trounced at the polls and later moved away.
The elected official with whom I was drinking in Oklahoma City a couple years later claimed to have been an important part of the necrophilia whisper campaign and probably was. He explained to me and a couple of other foggy listeners that the secret of the good whisper campaign is what he called “the long ball.”
Whatever it is that people think of your opponent, you must tell them he is the extreme and horrific contrary of that. They have been duped all these years by his fiendish duplicity. The good man is wicked, the godly man a demon. In a landscape divided only by picket fences, the whisper campaign must set the fences on fire, obliterate trust and ignite terror. Nothing else works, my informant assured me. Plus, he said, people in small towns find it exciting.
The dispute in Dallas is over a sex show called Exxxotica. Sometimes called a convention but not really, the show books space in big-city convention centers like the ones in Chicago and Dallas. I have not attended. I have only seen the pictures and read my own newspaper’s diligent coverage.
I am not really an expert on sex shows, but as an adventurous quasi-urchin in a hick town in the Midwest with a mother who was always busy writing, I managed to get myself expelled from more than a few county fair midway tents before age 6. I would rank Exxxotica somewhere between the “See the Beautiful Dancing Ladies” tent and the “See the Two-Headed Calf” tent — not a threat to anybody’s morals unless it really is your very first county fair.
Last February, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gave a kind of first-county-fair speech about why Exxxotica, which had appeared here the year before without incident, should be banned from the Dallas convention center this year, no matter what sort of lawsuit might follow.
The mayor said he had come across promotional literature for the event describing a “sex dungeon” where sexual bondage would be acted out for onlookers. The mayor said, “You’ve crossed the line. You’ve crossed the line. I can’t be for that.”
As you probably know, a lawsuit did follow; the mayor won a preliminary but important battle over an injunction that would have forced the city to accept Exxxotica’s contract for this year; some legal experts think the mayor will lose if Exxxotica goes to trial, which it has vowed to do; but going to trial will cost a zillion bucks, so who knows?
But what line? What line did Exxxotica cross by including an act which, judging by the pictures, probably winds up looking less like real sex than middle-aged physical therapy? (Or is Exxxotica “where sex meets physical therapy?” Catchy slogan?)
Remember, the police patrolled the show the year before and said it crossed no line. Everything about Exxxotica was within the legal line. That’s an important line to recognize.
In the world of formal legally defined relationships — life in the big city we might call it — someone can be on the other side of my own personal moral boundary but still well within the law. All of the evidence — including the advice of the Dallas city attorney — is that Exxxotica’s show here last year was within that legal boundary, even if it was outside the mayor’s own personal moral boundary.
Now we find that the city’s outside attorney, once he found himself on the courthouse steps, veered away from the mayor’s line — no sex dungeons here — arguing instead that Exxxotica had violated lines within its contractual obligations when it was here a year ago.
That may be a smart legal tactic, getting the mayor out of all sorts of First Amendment and other constitutional problems related to sex and sexual expression, but it’s also fundamentally dishonest, as Stephen Young reported here last week, since the mayor and the majority of the City Council who supported his ban all based their votes explicitly on the mayor’s condemnation of the kind of sex they thought people were going to have or might depict at the show, with nary a mention of contracts.
And there is the line. It’s the sex line. Come on. That’s obvious, isn’t it? The objection here is to the way people in the show and attending the show approach sex.
Why does anyone not in attendance care? The people who do care, the ones who pushed for the ban, have told us explicitly that they believe the kind of sex people might have in this show will exert a kind of infectious force on the rest of us, even if we don’t attend. The bad sex will leak out of the show somehow and get into the rest of us.
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At a City Council hearing, supporters of a proposal to ban Exxxotica trooped to the microphone one after another to express exactly that view — that allowing a kind of sex to take place of which they disapprove would plunge the city down a slippery slope to ultimate moral ruin.
Yes, there are borders, and, yes, we have to enforce them. But we also have to know that a border is where you stop. The slippery slope is what we find ourselves on when we cross those formal legal boundaries into no-holds-barred judgment of other people’s personal choices, the same slope that leads inevitably to the international ring of necrophiliacs.
That’s the real danger when we wander out of urban territory and start borrowing from the yahoos. For one thing, the yahoos have more practice than we do with whisper campaigns. They can decide a beloved school principal is head of a gang of baby-mutilating satanists, then shrug it off and kind of get over it, if she’s still alive.
I can’t even guess where it goes when a 21st-century city heads down this path, but do me a favor. If you hear anything good, let me know, OK? We’ll know the critics were right after all about the infection thing, by the way, if everybody in Dallas starts having boring sex.