Free speech, old laws, and vibrating objects

(Warning: linked pages contain profanity and obscene gestures. If you are easily offended by adult topic matter, you may wish to skip this post.)

AlterNet recently published an excerpt from a book entitled In Praise of Indecency, entitled “You Still Can’t Buy a Vibrator in Alabama.” The excerpt is a very candid–almost too candid–look at obscenity in the media.

Of particular note is this incident:

In March 2007, on International Women’s Day, a public high school in Westchester, New York suspended three 16-year-old girls for saying the word “vagina” during a reading from The Vagina Monologues. Principal Richard Leprine said the girls were punished for disobeying orders not to say the word, which he referred to on the school’s homepage as “specified material.” Writer Brigitte Schoen suggested calling the play Elastic Muscular Tube Monologues.

I honestly think this goes a bit too far. “Vagina” is, after all, a medical term. It is one thing to discipline kids for gratuitous use of street terms for private parts; it is another entirely to censor the proper, medical term. Heck, Elliott in E.T. uttered the very-famous “penis breath” line and the movie was still rated PG, and probably airs intact on TV.

And, of course, the part for which the excerpt is named:

Which brings us to Sherri Williams, a casualty of the war on pleasure. She was acquitted of the heinous crime of selling non-prescription vibrators. She had violated an Alabama statute, which bans the sale of vibrators and other sex toys. The law prohibited “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”

But the not-guilty verdict in her case was overturned by a 2-1 decision. In the Court of Appeals, the state’s attorney general defended the statute, arguing that, “a ban on the sale of sexual devices and related orgasm-stimulating paraphernalia is rationally related to a legitimate interest in discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex.” Rationally related? Moreover, he said, “There is no constitutional right to purchase a product to use in pursuit of having an orgasm.” There isn’t?

I think Texas still has a similar law on the books; why, I don’t know. Such is the nature of laws; once passed, they tend to stick around until legislators find time to repeal them. I think these laws, if they ever served a legitimate purpose (big if), do not serve a purpose today. As stated later in the article, Sherri is not giving up, and plans another lawsuit on First Amendment free speech grounds. Which is pretty daring, given some of the past case law on the First Amendment versus pornography.

But I cannot honestly blame Sherri for continuing to fight the good fight. The article ends with this stirringly defiant quote from Sherri, which is great inspiration to us all:

“My motto,” she says, “has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand. I refuse to give up.”