Sex shopA Belfast sex shop – Misbehavin’ – has been involved in a long running legal battle with Belfast City Council to be allowed a licence to trade in Belfast. Sex shops are permissible in law but they require a licence from the local government authority. The Court of Appeal decided in favour of Misbehavin’ but the House of Lords overturned the ruling and found in favour of Belfast City Council’s decision not to grant a licence. The owner of Misbehavin’ is now taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme recently had David McIlveen, a minister in the ironically named Free Presbyterian Church, to discuss the matter. He’s very much against the licensing of sex shops generally and seemingly would very much enjoy ramming a huge legislative cock up the arse of freedom of expression. I’ve attempted to decipher his arguments, a rather laborious task once you wade through the rather cluttered moral-speak and religious clap-trap. But, I’ve done my best. Here they are:

(1) Free Presbyterian views are shared by many.

I’m loath to dignify this comment with a response since I don’t think anyone with more than mush for brains would be convinced. Suffice it to say the views of the Nazis were also shared by many.

(2) McIlveen argues that it is “Fundamentally sinful to merchandise products that represent a God-given gift…[it is] unacceptable to turn it into a business.” He reckons that sex should take place solely within the marriage bond and that providing “lustful products takes away the core issue of love between a man and a woman.” Quoting the Sermon on the Mount – “Any man who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – he argues that sex shops promote “a style of life contrary to the Bible.”

This is classic Free Presbyterian morality. The philosopher Peter Cave responded to McIlveen with the comment: “The ability to run is a gift of God but that doesn’t mean we don’t have shops selling shoes.” Or that we should ban people from watching the Olympics. Eating is also, presumably, a gift of God – so seemingly every shop selling food is in danger from Free Presbyterian principles.

Just what is McIlveen’s problem? This is a minister who thinks that line dancing – yes, YEE-HAW! – is fundamentally sinful. Would he therefore advocate the banning of dancing clubs and shops that sell cowboy boots? But, lets say he is right. Why does this necessitate a ban on sex shops? Are we to ban everything because it is “fundamentally sinful?” This is an example of a popular confusion in the minds of both the religious and traditional social conservatives: the confusion of morality with legality; if it’s immoral it should be banned. There is absolutely no justification for such an approach. Presumably McIlveen believes that masturbation is “fundamentally sinful?” Might he therefore agree with banning masturbation? Perhaps we could set up a new force – Masturbation Police – armed with ladders and binoculars – who patrol the neighbourhood to make sure little Jonny isn’t playing with his namesake underneath the bed sheets.

Bars would be banned. Cinemas closed. Social clubs knocked down. Children’s playgrounds closed on a Sunday. Welcome to the land of Free Presbyterian morality. If I was God I’d be embarrassed to be represented thus. McIlveen would undoubtedly lambast Islamic societies run on Sharia Law, but his own principles would be exactly the same: a Christianised version where everything is regulated by a literal interpretation of the Bible.

(3) Sex shops defeminise women and makes men look at them as sex objects rather than as people.

Leaving aside the argument that it is men and not women who are really exploited by the sex industry, and the fact that Free Presbyterianism is a tradition not well known for empowering women, McIlveen has beautifully demonstrated his ignorance of what sex shops actually sell. Misbehavin’ has three levels. The first two levels sell items that would be found in many other shops: thigh-high boots, hand-cuffs, nurse uniforms, fake boobs, crotchless underpants, and the like. In other words: the kind of thing you might buy for a stag or hen party, or the kind of thing that couples – including many married couples – might use for sexual experimentation and a bit of fun. None of this can be said to defeminise or dehumanise anyone by any stretch of the imagination. On the third floor of Misbehavin’ you’ll find pornographic DVDs and magazines, and it’s probably these items that McIlveen has in mind. Most pornography is aimed at men – that much is true. Apparently men are aroused more by the visual and the physical. Does this defeminise women? Hardly. Human beings are sexual by nature: most normal adults have or desire regular sex. It’s a normal function and sexual attraction shouldn’t be seen as something insidious. Rather than see pornography as exploiting women McIlveen should realise that it empowers women. Misbehavin’ stocks DVDs with men and women having consensual sex, and these films will be watched by consenting adults. Women and men should be in charge of their own lives, including who they have sex with and the terms under which they have sex: whether cameras and payment are involved. Women, like men, don’t need protection, and certainly don’t need religious moralisers dictating what sort of consensual sexual activity they can and cannot engage in. It is this kind of morality that really defeminises and dehumanises woman: since it robs them of the right to live as they please, make their own decisions, and use their own mind in pursuit of their own happiness.

(4) Many people are offended walking past sex shops.

True, but so what? Many people are offended walking past churches and street preachers who tell them that they are hopeless sinners going to burn in hell for all eternity. But no-one is calling for churches and preachers to be banned. Personally I don’t get the concept of offence. I’m not sure I’ve ever been offended and it baffles me why the thought of people having sexual fun offends people. How? Most of the time the problem of offence is in the mind of the offended, and they just need to grow up and get over their petty little dislikes of everyone and everything they dislike. It’s difficult not to conclude that McIlveen and his cronies are simply irritated at the thought that somewhere someone is enjoying themselves.

(5) Sex shops degenerate society and appeal to the baser instincts of human nature – purely for financial gain – through the “Advocation of experimentation” which “unleashes passions that are uncontrollable and ill disciplined.”

That sex shops degenerate society is an empirical statement and one which McIlveen doesn’t bother (because he can’t) to back up with empirical fact or good reason. If Billy buys a porn DVD and sits watching it while slapping his dolphin, the fabric of the universe isn’t going to fracture. Will more crime occur that night because Billy decides to play with little Jonny while watching the latest Jenna Jameson flick? Is Billy more likely to rape women after he has done so? No.

I think McIlveen gives the game away talking about “baser” instincts. He really means that sex shops appeal to sex instincts – and they do. But what is “base” about sexuality and people having sex? It’s normal and it’s fun – not dirty and base. McIlveen clearly has some issues and terrible hang-ups with sex generally.

(6) “[Free presbyterians have] every reason to object when [sex shops] are not essential for day to day living…we can live without sex shops in our city.”

This argument is baffling in excelsis. It’s true: we don’t need sex shops. No one will die if none are allowed to open. But, so what? Shops selling televisions and DVD players aren’t essential either. Neither are McDonalds restaurants. Neither are Free Presbyterian Churches. We can live without any of these, but that’s not the point. Human life isn’t about living with the minimum of what is necessary for life. That’s the Middle Ages. Human life is about making yourself happy and finding contentment. Some people find this in church, some in entertainment venues, some in bars, and others in sex shops. None are essential for happiness, but they all represent various options for people to choose in pursuit of their happiness.

(7) We’re not forcing people to live the way we want them too, we’re just trying to persuade society.

What a crock of retarded swill. Calling for and supporting government bans is the very definition of forcing people to live a certain way. Persuasion doesn’t need government force to back it. Only bad arguments that can’t persuade require force.

(8) Libertarianism is an “anything goes” morality and we need boundaries.

John and I have written on several occasions on the misrepresentation of libertarianism by opponents, and here is another classic example. Libertarianism is not an “anything goes” morality. There would be no place in a libertarian society for genital mutilation, rape, the infliction of pain on non-consenting parties. Libertarianism is guided by the harm-consent principle. Everything is permissible except that which inflicts harm on the rights of other people without their consent: so murder, theft, rape, vandalism are outlawed. Anything does not go: you must not contravene anyone else’s rights. Sex shops are certainly permissible under this scheme of things – and rightly so.

Such a libertarian principle should be welcomed by a Protestant faith that historically suffered persecution at the hands of Catholics who wanted to stop them worshipping the way they wanted and living their lives according to different beliefs and morals.

The products on sale in sex shops are not unlawful, and there is a market for them. They can serve many functions – even educative and therapeutic ones – but what’s wrong with sexual pleasure? What’s wrong with consenting adults using sex shop products? Consenting adults are not harming anyone else. Free Presbyterians are not at risk of Hell if others over which they have no control decide to experiment in their sexual lives in a way that they think immoral. What concern is that to religious moralists? I would go so far as to say that not only should Misbehavin’ be given a licence to trade but the entire notion of requiring licences for sex shops at all should be scrapped.

The concept of licensing and banning contravenes the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. The Belfast City Council is not known for social liberalism, but Mr Justice Weatherup has said that if the council is against sex shops in principle this is in effect a blanket ban, and would therefore be unlawful. At the root there is a fundamental issue at stake. If something is banned because some people simply disagree with it then there is massive application to other areas of life, and I reckon that not a single piece of life would be unsullied by such a principle. Would we have to ban everything that is deemed offensive? Or worse: ban everything that is non-Christian?

McIlveen is imposing his views on others when the others in question are not harming him. Not only is this morally questionable control-freakery, it’s downright dangerous and every right thinking person needs to reject this perverted and twisted morality. The real perverts here aren’t the owner of Misbehavin’ and his patrons. The real perverts are Free Presbyterian moralists and others of that ilk.