Paul R. Abramson, a UCLA psychology professor, is a rare man. A prophet no less. I don’t mean in the biblical sense, a self-sacrificing nomad placed on earth to banish endemic sorrows. I don’t mean as the leader of a nefarious cult either. He is, instead, oddly enough, a self-described skeptic, rarely impressed and easily bored. He rises to the level of a prophet however through the wisdom of his words, notably in his new book, Screwing Around with Sex.
The book is built upon an edifice of 40+ years of teaching sexuality and testifying as an expert witness in sex-related litigation. A dilettante, he is not. Abramson earned his wisdom the hard way, unremittingly defending our sexual rights, and striving, in courthouses throughout the United States, to rectify sexual harms by helping to incarcerate perpetrators, while simultaneously championing the needs of victims. Throughout his long career Abramson’s aim – as a teacher, as an author, and as a singer and lyricist no less – has been to protect all of us from sexual harm while fighting for sexual rights as a preeminent example of human rights.
This book is not however a pleasant romp through all matters sexual. His cases are often devastating. One could easily be discouraged reading some of this material, wondering about the ethics of humankind itself. How can sexuality, a source of enormous pleasure, be so dangerous too?
Abramson’s voice thankfully still retains a strong positive depth, perhaps it’s the measure of his soul. He never strays too far from reinforcing the viability of a healthy, beautiful, amazing sexuality either, despite the sexual corruptions that regularly besiege us. I truly believe he is right, and I wish a lot of other men would think and act like him.
UdA: Saying yes versus affirmative consent: what’s the difference?
PRA: Men are lousy interpreters of sexual cues. Subtle not being part of their playbook. If a woman smiles at a man, that man often thinks she wants to go to bed with me. It’s even worse in the throes of sex itself. If a woman consents to kissing and genital touching, many men also believe that it constitutes a green light to sexual intercourse. There are even men who claim that a woman consented to sex despite an appalling struggle that included rape.
Unlike consent per se, or giving a generic yes beforehand, affirmative consent means that both partners in a sexual encounter must affirmatively consent to each step prior to engaging in any sexual act.
Think of it as a ladder where each step represents a sexual behavior. Every step, née behavior, would then need affirmative consent prior to stepping on it. Affirmative consent is largely designed to protect women, young and old, from the misinterpretation of sexual cues. It makes it very clear that without specific consent to a specific sexual act – no consent has been provided. Even, for example, if the partners have just engaged in oral sex, it does not mean that consent has been provided to sexual intercourse – or any other new sexual act for that matter.
Affirmative consent is obviously more critical in beginning relationships, with teenagers especially, where exploration is the name of the game. Keep in mind that a large percentage of sexual assaults come from sexual partners known to the victim.
The downside, it’s been said, is that affirmative consent ruins the art of seduction. I can’t help but wonder however whether this art ever treated men and women equally.
When we fly today we go through airport security. Shoe bombers and airplane hijackers have made it a necessary burden. The same is true of affirmative consent. Rapists and sexual assaulting men have harmed so many women under the guise of consensual to sex that affirmative consent is the necessary corrective.
Talking about sex beforehand, in a forthright and explicit manner, has advantages too. It creates intimacy and establishes recognizable sexual boundaries.
UdA: Are there more protocols today to protect young people against sexual harm?
PRA: No – just the opposite. Sex education, particularly for teenagers, is usually limited to knowledge of the body, reproduction for example, and the transmission of sexual infections. Rarely do we teach young people about the necessity of obtaining consent prior to every step in a sexual encounter, whether it be kissing or beyond. We also do very little to encourage the reporting of sexual harms, regardless of age, status, or familiarity with the perpetrator.
Without established rules for sexual consent, and clear protocols for reporting sexual harms, young people are largely clueless. We owe it to every victim of sexual harm to create better sex education for young people.
UdA: You seem to have a naïve hedonist vision of pornography, in which women are equal to men and both play by the same rules. We know that’s not true, despite the fact that there have been female directors of porn for almost 30 years.
PRA: I’m naïve about many things, perhaps my vision of pornography too. I write about it, however, from two perspectives only.
The first is based on my work as an expert witness in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a porn company called Knight-time Entertainment. That name is a pseudonym. This particular company wanted to produce pornography that was appealing for every category of sexual orientation, including gay and straight women. It was a marketing decision. Perhaps that perspective was the exception, but it was certainly true of this company.
The federal government, I learned, didn’t care about discrimination in the pornography industry. Their position instead was that porn had no value. Without value it was legally obscene and thus a criminal act.
The focus of my expert witness testimony was to challenge that argument. Many prominent gay male organizations, for example, were encouraging masturbation to pornographic movies as an alternative to risky sex.
The second thesis I proposed was related to the freedom of speech. Extreme graphic violence is endemic to American movies. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino and The Piano by Jane Campion are cases in point. Both movies premiered during time I served as an expert witness for Knight-time Entertainment. Both films are extremely violent, including depictions of rape. The Piano nevertheless received an academy award.
If the government wants to eliminate pornography because of the graphic portrayal of sex, the government should also eliminate the graphic portrayal of violence. Murder should never have an advantage over sex.
Though obviously ludicrous in execution, the pleasures depicted in porn – if void of harmful elements like violence – also have value. Porn is the ballast for the dismal affirmations that populate the Bible, and other fundamental texts, whereby sex is limited to reproducing heterosexual married couples.
UdA: I understand the dangers of exceedingly moralistic views on sexuality, and how problematic it can be to legislate sex, but it now seems that the prevalence of pornographic images are so ubiquitous that it’s very difficult to protect children from exposure. Have we opened up a Pandora’s box of criminal harms? What’s the missing link in your work between child abuse and pornography?
PRA: My expert work has included many sexual crimes against children, horrific ones in fact. It’s so ever-present in my life that I applaud most sexual choices by consenting adults, incest being an exception, because of the obvious psychological harms.
When it comes to protecting children however I bring out the sledgehammer. Child pornography and the sexual assault a child are atrocious crimes, and they should be prosecuted according.
UdA: How can we still protect children against globalized sexual harm, particularly on the Internet?
PRA: Many years ago, I worked as an expert witness for the telephone company, Pacific Bell, in their dial-a-porn litigation. The primary concern, once again, was protecting children. If a minor had access to calling a dial-a-porn phone number, 976-fuck for example, that minor was then exposed to a very sexually explicit message.
Pacific Bell however took several steps to protect children from this kind of harm. The first was to create new telephone lines so that, if asked to do so, Pacific Bell could block access to 976 numbers in any home in California.
When Pacific Bell eventually migrated all of their dial-a-porn accounts to 900 prefixes, those calls could not be made without a credit card. Since minors don’t have credit cards, this was another effective measure to limit access.
Keep in mind that these are relatively low-tech fixes to the problem.
I do not believe that Google, facebook, or others are incapable of remedying this problem in the digital world. If they figured out how to put a computer and a camera into a cellphone, they can figure out how to protect children from exposure to sexually harmful material.
The failure of these companies to do so, I assume, is economic. It will affect their profits. Limiting access to sexually harmful material for children should be a win-win for everyone.
UdA: What do you think about Trump and the risks for sexual freedom?
PRA: It’s very telling that our former director of the FBI said that Trump is a liar. Trump, as we also know, is very slippery with facts, scientific and otherwise. Anything that doesn’t serve his financial agenda has the potential to be mitigated, sexual freedoms included. If he is willing to sacrifice other constitutional rights, there is no reason to assume that he won’t compromise constitutionally protected sexual rights too, gay rights for example.
I’m also very concerned with how Trump made light of sexual harassment and sexual harm. Sexual assault is one of the worst kinds of thefts imaginable. It is the theft of something extraordinarily valuable and extremely personal. Sex is how we create intimate relationships and start families. It’s very private too.
In the Wild West we hung people for stealing horses. That’s obviously not a remedy for stealing sexuality, but the comparison is worth noting. Sexual harm is a theft of the worst kind.
UdA: Do you think United States law effectively punishes sexual thieves?
PRA: Not at all. If there is a sexual crime on a college campus, for example, it’s often labelled sexual misconduct, and the perpetrator is treated accordingly.
Must we now start calling murder a violent misconduct too?
If a person steals valuable computer equipment from a campus laboratory, he – and it’s usually a he – is convicted of the statutory crime of theft. Imprisonment usually follows.
I want parity. I want rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse to be treated as crimes of theft – the stealing of a very valuable and highly personal asset. I want prison sentences and conviction rates to reflect the hardship and long-term damages created by this loss.
Ursula del Aguila was a journalist for six years at Tetu, the leading French gay and lesbian magazine. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Paris.