Communities of Privilege, Ethics Of Pleasure, Economies of Pain

Small, round Ecstasy tablets in green, blue, white, brown, orange, pink and yellow, arranged in a grid, four across and four down.
Small, round Ecstasy tablets in green, blue, white, brown, orange, pink and yellow, arranged in a grid, four across and four down.

The recent hospitalizations and arrests at Wesleyan University, initiated by the indulgence in a club drug called Molly, is prompting a lot of self-examination on the campus, and I can imagine that much of that self-examination is at risk of being polarized – even derailed – in a way that sex work conversations, and conversations about rape on campus often are. On the one hand, there is the crackdown mentality that supports harsher penalization of school policy violations, and on the other hand, there is a neoliberal approach focused on providing resources for already privileged students to more safely transgress boundaries in the name of curiosity or the development of their identities.

Neither approach allows for a nuanced discussion of community ethics, and neither allows for students to express ambivalence about the actual experiences that have so dramatically altered the lives of their friends or for faculty to express frustration about the wasteful use of personal, financial, and intellectual resources represented by the lost classroom time – whether by hospitalization or incarceration – that their students are suffering.

There is a way to talk about the harm done by drug use without supporting a War On Drugs mentality. There is a way to criticize the prison industrial complex without requiring that we support the waste of precious financial and intellectual resources by turning a blind eye to the overuse of drugs on our elite campuses. That way was paved by feminist sex worker rights advocates who have been in the trenches of conversational warfare with anti-sex-work carceral feminists over these very same issues: privilege, pain, abuse, exploitation, freedom, harm, pleasure and danger.

LESSONS FROM THE SEX WARS:

Stigma is part of the problem. It is hard to have a nuanced, wide-ranging conversation about drug and alcohol use because, despite being common, illegal drug use and addiction are both stigmatized. While overdoses make the news, often prompting moral panics and policy re-examinations, the daily reality of drug use is less frequently part of the conversation. Differing levels of stigma attached to “street drugs,” “club drugs,” and prescription drugs affect the likelihood of full and meaningful conversations about all drug use.

Polarization derails the conversation. Sex work conversations are often derailed by the tiresome and unhelpful question about whether sex work is “empowering or exploitive”. Sex worker rights advocates redirect that discussion so that the focus is the wide range of working conditions, the need to reduce exploitation and protect worker safety. Likewise, conversations about drug use are often unhelpfully polarized. It is hard to stake out a position that opposes the war on drugs while also challenging the notion that drug use is purely a matter of personal freedom.

Decriminalization and harm reduction are partners in the solution, but taking a harm reduction approach means fully acknowledging the harm that happens, and that the harm occurs at the individual, community, and societal levels. The consequences of our actions extend beyond our own lives, and our choices are made in the context of often harmful systems. If we can’t confront all of those kinds of harm head-on, we can’t talk about how to move forward.

WHAT WE COULD BE TALKING ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DRUGS:

Individual freedom does not absolve a person of the responsibility to act ethically. Is it possible to talk about the tremendous intellectual and financial resources being poured into each Wesleyan student, and ask that those students make choices that honor the resources invested in them.

Economic injustice is real, and we need to account for our contributions to it. Privileged drug use fuels some of the economic exploitation and discrimination that is so widely criticized by those same privileged drug users.

There are real and legitimate motivations for getting high or to enjoying altered states of consciousness. Some of those are connected to the harmful and unjust systems that many of us feel a need to at least temporarily escape. Others may be connected to the pressures involved in maintaining a privileged position. Still more maybe be connected to pleasure-seeking, religious, meditative or intellectual exploration. There are many reasons, and we need to consider all of them in light of their origins, and in light of the impacts that acting on those motivations might have on us, and on our communities.

Colleges, especially the elite liberal arts colleges, are being asked to create a safe learning environment for some of the word’s most privileged young minds, and that call for safety is tinged with panic. Panic, whether related to sex or drugs or intellectual challenges – don’t forget the trigger warning debates – does not lead to safety nor does it lead to much learning. Worse, the bad policies that come from those panicky elites often trickle down to impose further constraints the already-less-privileged lives of students at public universities and community colleges.

Serious education and harm reduction strategies, rather than criminalization and stigmatization, should be in place not as a free pass but as a means to protect communities when their members make ethically questionable choices. We have a human right to pleasure, and to the bodily autonomy we need in order to experience pleasure, but we also have a human obligation to refrain from harming one another. In considering the potential for harming one another, we have an ethical obligation not to squander resources that are invested in us, while at the same time remaining focused on finding ways to share those resources justly. We can do better, and we must.

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“Ecstasy monogram” image licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ecstasy_monogram.jpg#/media/File:Ecstasy_monogram.jpg

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