Sex, Drugs and Freedom

I have been thinking about what my next large research project will be . . . and whether I should even have one at all. I keep coming back to the idea of a global history of drugs, commercialized sex and the idea of freedom over the past two centuries. This may be something I can wrap both my head and my heart around.

First, here is what I am imagining in academic terms:

The international movement to abolish slavery from the late 18th through the 19th century established ideas of freedom and slavery that has shaped the ways that we think about morality, politics and personal values to this day. Perhaps most importantly, they established  a polar opposition between freedom and slavery that were taken to be self-evident. This binary has made it difficult for us to understand the many gray areas that lie between these two poles. The temperance/anti-opium and anti-prostitution movements were the first two major major post-abolition transnational social movements of the 19th century. They latched onto this vocabulary of freedom and slavery in a big way, shaping the way we still talk about drugs and commercial sex. Ironically, these suppression movements arose in the context of expanding global capitalism, and what better exemplifies the markets, urges and consumerism of capitalism than sex and drugs? Both are commodities in nearly indestructable markets in which the logic of prices, supply and demand and all of the other capitalist fetishes survive and flourish even in conditions of repression. Culturally, sex, drugs and the fantasy of freedom virtually embody the desires, urges and dreams that are the life-blood of capitalism. Yet sex and drugs have been primary targets of global suppression in the capitalist world. And both are usually suppressed in the name of freedom: freedom from addiction, freedom from exploitation, freedom from enslavement to our passions, freedom from druglords, pimps, traffickers, chemicals . . . etc. Indeed, drugs, sex trade and the preservation of freedom are frequently  justifications for intervention–often violent–into domestic lives and foreign countries. What better way to understand the paradoxes of modern life and the consciousness of globalization?

It sounds fine as an academic project. As I outline it in my mind, however, I am increasingly dissatisfied. It is all too easy for me to fall into those familiar academic patterns and analyses that will make this book indistinguishable from so many other books: some criticisms of the state capitalism and social control projects; an ironic look at the consequences of regulation and suppression; all flavored with an “I-understand-things-more-deeply-than-you” smirk. I can see where I might add something new by looking at the global dimensions and the interaction of these three phenomena that are usually kept separate. But ultimately the prospect of producing yet another critical, skeptical tome—framed in footnotes and passive voice—leaves me feeling empty.

To put it differently, the inevitable result of all my training in skeptical criticism is to turn it on my own mode of researching, writing and thinking. And when I watch myself thinking about these two topics—drugs and commercial sex—I see how quickly I start thinking of various abstractions and convolutions that will make them acceptable to an academic audience. What insights will I water down, what topics will I avoid, what conclusions will I delete? And once I produce this properly formulated academic tome, I will have contributed to the very structures that put commercial sex and drugs into this cultural hinterlands where we can’t talk about them openly. I would reinforce the very sense of illegitimacy and danger that I had intended to subject to critical analysis in the first place.

Let me explain:


Histories and classes about drug trades and controls are common. Histories of drug use less common. There seems to be a tacit knowledge among my colleagues that many of us have consumed psychoactive substances in our youths. None of us talk about our current consumption other than alcohol and caffeine. I have brought up my recently renewed consumption of psychedelic substances with a few of my closer friends at Claustrodemonic U. Their responses were more accepting than hostile. But they (with the exception of one) quickly shifted the subject away from the experiences to more familiar terrain about legality, distribution and how we might build careers by researching other people’s historical drug use.

Like many users of psychedelics, it is hard for me to forget the actual experience of taking the drugs. I want to understand it, integrate it into my life. I can usually shift the discussion towards topics that now interest me, like the history of addiction science, the psychonautic explorations of 19c doctors, and the ways that big pharmacy has created and packaged drugs from cocaine and heroin to Prozac. But these still feel trivial—modes of analysis that continue to avoid the meaning of the experience in much the way that all the doctors, politicians, temperance activists of the past have avoided it by subjecting it to excessive categorization, abstraction and rigid explanation. They betray the drug experience itself, which constantly reminds users of the limits of these kinds of analysis.

At the same time, I can not easily dismiss the political, social and institutional analyses. All the prisoners and destruction of the War on Drugs; and the ways in which science and political propaganda have shaped even our personal experiences of drug use are not at all trivial. And I am enough of a skeptical historian to get easily frustrated with the more enthusiastic attempts to show that drug use has inspired every aspect of the origins of culture and religion (the conventional methods of historical evidence are worth something). And I can easily dismiss the more utopian claims of contemporary users about how these substances can free our souls and create a society of love (yeah, we’ve heard it all before).

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics among psychologists, therapists and doctors (watch the videos from the Horizons conference on psychedelics). While I am happy to see this (indeed, my recent experiences have been much more Freudian than I expected) I really hope the doctors don’t get too much control over the meaning of psychedelics. The goals of medical science and therapy are ultimately to make us normal by avoiding serious health disturbances (which are increasingly proliferating to include more and more forms of human behavior). They tend to see exploration into new mental experiences only as risky behavior, with consequences that will need to be cured. This is not so much a matter of the attitudes of individual doctors who have an interest in psychedelics, but of the larger structures within which they work—the therapeutic state in which the preservation of life and maintenance of bored, ‘adjusted’ normality seems to trump all other goals.

Say, by some miracle, all of our social critiques, discoveries of medical benefits and calls for freedom of choice took root—what then? Are we ready to engage drug experiences on their own terms? I don’t think so. Our mental equipment has been forged in the fire of analytical reason and criticism. We will just go spiraling in to some new mutually-repressing hell. Critical analysis is not sufficient.

Commercial Sex

It is even harder to speak openly of sex work in academia than it is to speak about drugs. By and large, the anti-commercial sex as exploitative patriarchy attitude is still the norm. There are some cracks in the edifice, but most of them are abstract and cautiously formulated. However much I might openly propose alternative facts and generalizations, I still wouldn’t dream of telling my colleagues that I have visited sex workers.  To be sure, some sex workers in academia have come out to their colleagues, usually without horrible results. But it often comes at a price of having to express their activities in terms of abstractions and a critical vocabulary that does not always do justice to their experiences. (For unorthodox academic opinions on sex work and the difficulties in airing them, see Laura Augustín’s blog Naked Anthropologist).

I am not entirely sure what attracts me to this topic. To some degree, it is that sex sometimes take us into those same realms of ineffable experience as drugs. And adding some commercial exchange can make the experience significantly different—although no less ineffable—and directly links that experience to the more conventional historical topic of capitalism.

I’ve also found that sex workers write some of the most thoughtful and eloquent blogs on the internet (some are listed at the end of this post). This is no accident. The work both attracts people with independent personalities and fosters an outsider perspective, one that is built on daily experience with social hypocrisy. A sex worker daily engages with people who are often at their most vulnerable, insecure or obnoxious. A successful sex worker has to understand the human condition. A successful sex worker also learns to restrain judgment, manage difficult situations, play roles and project images, make people feel at ease, convey self-confidence, manage her or his own conflicting emotions and attachments, and deal with the self-doubt and anger that results from the relentless public criticism of their jobs. When they are good writers, this translates into a mix of emotional nuance, trenchant social critique, unique perspectives, self-awareness, unflinching observation and great story telling. It is a model for how I would like to write. It is a perspective that should not be ignored if we want to understand the modern world.

Drug literature is rarely a model for how I would like to write. Much about drug consumption is asocial and private, and the writing is often excessively personal and opaque, or else self-pitying. Even drug-taking that is about sociability and bonding has a personal dimension that is hard to express. Commercial sex, on the other hand, is fundamentally about communication and social interaction (at least if we focus on person-to-person exchanges rather than the internet). Sex workers and their writings are grounded in the material world, while still living in that liminal world where new insights and truths are more easily found. They directly inhabit the interface between practical reality, social marginalization and the ineffable experiences and emotionality of sex. And it is all mediated through money.


Most of my ideas about freedom come out of my academic experience, so the problem is different here. With drugs and commercial sex, I am confronted with the problem and limitations of translating emotional experiences into academic analysis. Here the problem is of not understanding the emotional and personal implications of my intellectual knowledge. I can elaborate endlessly on the many historical meanings and manipulations of the idea of freedom; the way the preservation of freedom so often justifies intervention into and control of the lives of others; and its uselessness as an abstract idea that can deal neither with the complexities of an interconnected society nor the needs and demands of our psyches. I find it hard to believe that freedom exists, or that it would be desirable if it did.

My historian colleagues will give me a good hearing, acknowledge the nuances of my argument, and then go right back to praising agency, resistance, freedom of choice, multivalence, fluidity or any of many vague ways of putting freedom on a pedestal and criticizing those who might block us from getting it. And I have to admit that, whatever I may convince myself of intellectually, in my daily life I still feel that freedom is something that I want, something I enjoy, an ideal I strive for. And I stubbornly pursue most of my individualistic goals and inclinations more than most people that I know (my stubborn criticism of freedom being one of those inclinations). What the hell is going on here?

I worry too much. Whatever new directions I am trying to explore, I am still excited by the nerdy historical ideas I described back in the second paragraph. The real challenge is how to combine the abstract over-analysis with these more visceral experiences and knowledge. And my black-and-white picture of academic resistance to open discussion about these liminal activities is a bit extreme. Academia has numerous pockets of tolerance and exploration (although one often has to sacrifice the career ladder in order to enjoy them).  Any fear and resistance to exploring in new directions comes more from inside myself than from the outside.  . . . . That’s something I’ve learned from drugs and sex.

*Some sex worker blogs that have inspired me (there are many more):

because i’m a whore, Grace UndressedNightmare Brunettepretty dumb thingsStory of StoryTits and Sass

Posted on October 4, 2011, in Academic History, Love and Sex, Psychedelics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.


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