Tag Archives: criminal justice reform

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” Brilliant Breakdown On Sex Work

I know it’s been a while since I’ve discussed topics like sex work on this site. It’s something I’ve touched on regularly, from why our current laws about it badly need reform to why it’s wrongly conflated with the evils of human trafficking. It’s also an issue I think is still subject to many taboos, plenty of which bring out the worst on both ends of the political spectrum. It’s one of the few issues you’ll find radical feminists being on the same page as right wing religious conservatives.

I get that talking about it isn’t easy. I’m certainly not qualified to do so and I doubt I’ve changed anyone’s opinion on the issue with the arguments that I’ve made, which is disappointing since so few pundits or news media talk about it. Thankfully, that changed recently with John Oliver on his show “Last Week Tonight.” He actually dedicated an entire segment of his show to discussing the issue, why it should be decriminalized, and why our current approach is so flawed.

Now, I have my share of criticisms of John Oliver. I’ve even referenced them a few times before. In general, though, he does a pretty good job of breaking down complicated issues in a way that makes sense for everyone, regardless of their political persuasion. If you’re at all curious or in need of greater understanding on the issue, I highly recommend you watch this clip.

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What Going Through The D.A.R.E Program Taught Me (And What It Failed To Teach Me)

Was D.A.R.E. Effective? | Live Science

Don’t do drugs. They’re bad for you.

We’ve been telling that to kids for decades. Many people reading this probably remember hearing it as well when they were kids. They heard it at school, form parents, from churches, and from any number of anti-drug PSAs. “South Park” has even done entire episodes about it.

The message is out there.

It’s not exactly ambiguous.

Drugs are bad and you shouldn’t do drugs. We get it. It’s so belabored at this point that it might as well be background noise.

However, it’s for that very reason that we should scrutinize that message. I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but despite all those anti-drug ads and programs, drug abuse is still a big problem. People are still doing illicit drugs and thousands still die from it.

Why is that?

Did these people not hear the same anti-drug messages that we’ve all been hearing for years?

It’s very likely they did. It just didn’t have any effect on them. That raises plenty of other questions. Before I even try asking those, I’d like to share a brief personal story about my experience with these anti-drug programs. Once I do, I hope it reveals why their impact is so muted.

When I was in grade school, the now-infamous Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, better known as DARE, was in full-swing. All over the country, various schools and community programs would take time out of their schedules to hold these DARE-sponsored events. Those events were meant to be informative, but they always came back to just telling kids not to do drugs.

I was in the third grade when I first went through it. I distinctly remember only caring about it because it meant an entire afternoon had been cleared of other schoolwork. That’s how most of my friends at the time thought of it, too.

The program itself wasn’t that elaborate. We just had two men, a DARE spokesman and a police officer, sit down in front of our class to talk about drugs. I don’t recall any discussions about addiction or why people do drugs in the first place. Almost everything revolved around identifying certain drugs and learning to say no to them.

Some of those drugs, namely marijuana, are now legal in large parts of the country.

Curiously, the two drugs they never mentioned were alcohol and tobacco, which are far more likely to be abused.

I’m sure there was a reason for this and it had to do with these two drugs having billion-dollar companies behind them, but I digress.

What my third-grade brain took away from this was mixed, at best. Going through this program, these well-meaning adults painted a strange picture. They made it seem like there are these evil, nefarious drug dealers lurking in the shadows, looking to jump you on your way home from school, and shove illegal drugs in your face.

As a kid who read a lot of comics and watched plenty of cartoons, I found that to be very strange. Even crazed supervillains had some motivation behind it. These DARE people never talked about that. They didn’t mention things like drug cartels or gang violence. They just said these drug dealers are evil people who just want to get you addicted to drugs.

I honestly wanted to ask questions, but we never got a chance. This whole program was basically a lecture, not a discussion. The only questions they answered involved what certain drugs looked like and what they were often called.

Things got even more confusing in later years when I went through other parts of the program, which often included watching cheesy, poorly produced videos about the horrors of drugs. We would see pictures of ugly drug addicts and people getting arrested. At no point did we ever learn why these people were addicted or what happened to them after they got arrested. It was all so basic and bland.

Now, I understand keeping things basic for school kids, but it’s also worth noting that kids have bullshit detectors. They may not be as smart or as knowledgeable as an adult, but they’re not stupid. As a result, the way DARE framed drugs, drug dealers, and drug abuse never came off as something serious. It just felt like another case of adults talking down to kids again.

In that sense, I really didn’t get much out of DARE. If anything, it often left me confused.

I understood what drugs were, but the way DARE talked about them left little room for nuance. I still remembered at the time my parents often saying we had to stop off at the drug store on our way home. I knew what they meant. Some of us had prescriptions that needed filling. My parents explained it to me. I understood that, despite my age.

Now, here’s this program that constantly tells us drugs are bad and you should never do drugs, but never specifying what exactly they mean by “drugs.” Technically, aspirin and cough syrup are drugs. Were those just as dangerous? Again, I never got a chance to ask questions to clear that up.

Even as I reached middle school and high school, DARE programs didn’t change much. They just hammered away at that same message. Somebody from a police department would come to talk to a bunch of students and tell them not to do drugs. At this point, though, we were so numb to it that I remember some of my classmates falling asleep or doodling on their notepads the whole time.

To date, I’ve never met anyone who says the DARE program stopped them from doing drugs. That sentiment is mirrored in actual research done on the effectiveness of this program. For the most part, it didn’t work. In some cases, it actually had the reverse effect because it sent the message to kids that drug use was far more common than it actually was.

Then, there were the kids and teenagers who did drugs just to spite adults. Tell them not to do something and they’re just going to want to do it even more. I don’t know how common they were, but I know for certain those people exist.

Now, I’m an adult and looking back on it, I won’t say the DARE program was a total farce. I don’t doubt for a second that the intentions behind it were good. I know people who’ve had drug problems. Drug abuse is serious and it really does a lot of harm. However, there are far better ways of talking about it with kids and adults alike. None of them involve talking down to anyone.

I also feel like DARE was incomplete. It talked about drugs, but not the kinds of drugs people most often abuse, namely alcohol and tobacco. I didn’t learn about that until I was nearly in college. By then, most people already knew about it from other, non-DARE sources, so it was far too late to do anything about it.

It also felt like a missed opportunity because drug addiction has evolved since I was a kid. Today, abuse of prescription drugs is a far more serious issue than crack cocaine ever was. It’s killing people at a terrible rate and the way it manifests is nothing like what the DARE program described.

These days, DARE is largely seen as some cheesy relic from the late 80s and early 90s. That’s true to some extent, but having gone through it, I also think it’s worth looking beyond the dated references. It showed that we all realized there was a drug problem in this country. We needed to address that problem. We just went about it the wrong way with DARE.

I’m not saying we’ve fixed our approach to educating people about drug abuse. People are still using, abusing, and dying from drugs at an alarming rate. If DARE taught us anything it’s that there’s plenty of room for improvement. We just have to be willing to be serious, realistic, and understanding of this issue. If we aren’t, it’ll only get worse.

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Marijuana Legalization Is Progressing (And Why Prostitution May Be Next)

It’s amazing how certain social issues progress rapidly. Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of Americans opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. Back when I was in college, supporting the full legalization of same-sex marriage was considered an extreme position. Today, it has so much support that even those who identify as conservative support it.

Not every issue changes so rapidly in such a short period of time. I honestly thought same-sex marriage wouldn’t be legal for decades when I graduated college. I thought it would take even longer for marijuana to be legalized. It turns out I was even more wrong about that.

As quickly as same-sex marriage gained acceptance, marijuana legalization has progressed even faster. It actually caught a lot of people by surprise. In 2012, two states legalized it through a ballot initiative. I don’t think even the most ardent weed legalization proponent expected it to progress as quickly as it did after that.

Once the precedent was set, other states followed suit. As of this writing, there are 14 states that have some form of legalized marijuana and several more states are well on their way to follow suit. I may not live in one of those states, but I’m a 20 minute drive away from one of them.

In those states that have legalized it, society didn’t collapse. A new multi-billion-dollar industry emerged. The stage is set. It’s basically a matter of time and bureaucracy. The negative effects of drug prohibition are becoming more and more apparent. It’s not at all unlikely that marijuana will be legalized nationwide in America by the end of the decade.

This trend, which I feel is objectively positive for society, is likely to spill over into other issues. That tends to happen a lot as social attitudes and norms evolve. What was considered taboo or undeniably negative for one generation is considered an issue of justice and progress to the next. We saw it with same-sex marriage in the early 2000s. Then, we saw it with weed in the 2010s.

Now, I suspect that the next issue to undergo that process might be prostitution, or sex work as it is more commonly known these days.

I make this claim with no expertise or insight. I’ve written about prostitution before, both in terms of its legality and its taboos. In terms of progress or change of any kind on this issue, there hasn’t been much since Nevada legalized prostitution decades ago. Unlike weed and same-sex marriage, prostitution has some unique challenges.

The biggest of those challenges, by far, is how policy changes affect human trafficking, an objectively horrible crime that nobody wants to help or facilitate. Whether fair or not, prostitution gets linked to human trafficking. Anytime there are proposed changes to prostitution laws, be they legalization or greater criminalization, human trafficking is often cited.

These are tough hurdles to overcome for anyone hoping to put sex work on the same level as other social issues. However, there are signs that the cultural tide regarding sex work is changing.

Back in 2016, Amnesty International made headlines by publicly endorsing the widespread decriminalization of prostitution. In their official policy, this was their position and their justification.

It recommends the decriminalization of consensual sex work, including those laws that prohibit associated activities—such as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work. This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers. 

The policy reinforces Amnesty International’s position that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are abhorrent human rights abuses requiring concerted action and which, under international law, must be criminalized in every country.

When it first came out, this caused some uproar, especially among those who favored the Nordic Models of combating prostitution, which only criminalized the buyers of sex. That uproar hasn’t fully abated. There is still a great deal of disagreement on how best to reform prostitution laws to improve the situation for sex workers and combat human trafficking.

Then, the pandemic hit and like so many other things, we all had to rethink everything.

To say that the pandemic has impacted the lives of sex workers everywhere would be a gross understatement. Legal or not, this is an activity that cannot accommodate basic practices of social distancing. That’s especially true for sex workers who are minorities or otherwise disadvantaged. Amnesty International even cited racial justice as a reason for their position.

At a time when injustices of so many kinds are becoming more prominent, the time might be right for prostitution and sex work to enter the conversation. Some jurisdictions are actually proposing new, more liberal policies on sex work. The rights of sex workers are quickly becoming more entwined with human rights, in general.

That’s a path that closely mirrors what happened with same-sex marriage. It’s also a path that the pandemic has reshaped considerably. Like every other industry, the sex industry has had to adapt. Even once the pandemic is over, it’s very unlikely things will go back to the way they once were.

The need for change is apparent now. That nature and extent of that change is still unclear. However, as the fight over weed legalization settles and same-sex marriage becomes mainstream, I believe it’s very likely we’ll see prostitution and sex work become a more pressing issue in the coming years. If for no other reason, it’ll have to be addressed. If it’s ignored, then expect progress on sex robots to accelerate even more rapidly.

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Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

fajb_brain_hacking_01_sep2012

How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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