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New York City’s new free internet and recharging kiosks demonstrate that the metropolitan hub has embraced the reality that nobody uses pay phones anymore and, though nobody could possibly have predicted this, the battery-annihilating powers of Pokémon Go has ensured that everybody needs to recharge their phone every three avenues.
Naturally, the seemingly inevitable happened and some people used the kiosks to access porn that they otherwise couldn’t because they were homeless.
The reaction was, unsurprisingly, a lot of shock and disgust.
Homeless people should not be punished or demonized for expressing their sexuality. This goes beyond leaving porn on the kiosks. This is about allowing homeless people a safe space to express their sexuality; their right as citizens and as humans.
Manhattan sex therapist Dulcinea Pitagora expresses conflicting concerns over censorship versus the premature exposure of porn to children. Private spaces, Pitagora argues to BTRtoday, have the right to censor internet usage as they see fit but “an adult should have access to anything on the internet in a public space.”
Pitagora’s view that citizens have a right to full internet access in public spaces is important because it highlights the inherent subclass of citizenship that the homeless are too often cast into.
Humans have a right to sexuality. So says Dirty Lola, sex educator and host of the New York-based sex Q&A, “Sex Ed. A-Go-Go.”
“As long as you’re not abusing it,” she tells BTRtoday, “as long as you’re not harming yourself and others via your sexuality, it’s not something we should keep people from.”
Pitagora is of a similar mind, calling it a “fundamental part of human identity and existence,” though that identity is, of course, “expressed differently in everyone.”
Michael*, a homelessness advocate in Portland, Oregon, who was homeless himself for over two decades, ardently argues that “demonizing” homeless people for viewing porn and/or being sexual in public is “ignoring the larger problem” of homelessness.
“I want to state very clearly that the idea of blaming that person for being so what? So gross, so inhuman, subhuman?,” he stresses. “It’s just a way of avoiding society’s obligation to say that our fellow creatures are not even having their basic need for a place of their own addressed.”
Michael, however, is not “making a saint out of the guy masturbating in the phone booth.”
“Other people have to use it,” he admits, “and there’s contagion and all the rest of it. So it’s not cool on them, they shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing. Find a better place.”
This brings in the question of consent. It is admittedly tricky, because on the one hand people have the right to express their sexuality and people who lack a “proper” home to do it in should not be deprived of that right, but on the other hand, people have a right to “opt in” to witnessing people’s sexual acts.
Is homeless sex, therefore, inherently nonconsensual to the public because it takes place in public spaces?
No. It’s not because it really isn’t that public.
Lola points out that the people conjure up a sex-negative and unrealistic depiction of homeless sexuality in response to episodes like this one.
“People get it in their heads that they [homeless people] are going to be [having sex] on the sidewalk,” she explains, “but when you think about where a lot of homeless people are–especially in New York now–you do see people on the streets but they’re not sleeping. They’re usually doing their thing then they have a place they’re going back to.”
In a bit of tragic comedy, this vision is almost too optimistic because, as Lola points out, class divides are still strong enough that “we’re not there,” by which she means that “everyday folk aren’t walking around where the homeless people are sleeping.” And that’s certainly not for a lack of a homeless population, particularly not in a city like New York.
Michael’s experiences reflect this observation. While homeless in Atlanta, Michael was “flopping” in an abandoned parking building, “waiting to wake up to the sound of a wrecking ball.” It was there that he took to women, also homeless.
He participated in such an “iffy” situation because, as he reflects, “the frustration is real.”
“If you see somebody–somebody who is attractive, someone who is long-term, who’s clean, somebody you wanna treat right, have fun with–you simply can’t do it. Where you gonna go?,” Michael admits. “Under sleeping bags or in an abandoned apartment house, that kind of thing. And always with one eye open for cops or somebody intruding.”
Michael reminds us that human sexuality is a base instinct that is incredibly hard to stamp out. He also gives us a harsh lesson in what happens when people’s basic needs are abandoned (or actively squashed, in this case) by society.
He reflects on fellow homeless individuals “sort of just getting under their sleeping bags and just doing it because if you get to a point where society just doesn’t give a damn about you, then screw them too. If you got a chance get it on with somebody that you care about, you know–somebody who is a close friend or you’re both horny or whatever–why not just find someplace that’s concealed and just do it? I mean, who cares what people think?”
He describes friends living and having sex in an old abandoned semi-truck, overgrown in weeds beneath an interstate.
“You just look for a place of concealment and make the best of it. It’s not gonna be a good deal; it’s certainly not going to be dignified. There’s nothing dignified about homelessness.”
When asked about the semi-joking suggestion of “conjugal buses,” reminiscent of projects to turn trucks into showers and bathrooms for the homeless, Michael is unimpressed but realistic.
“Kinda makes you feel like a rodent,” he says on first blush. But he goes on to say that, while he can only speak for himself, if that was the only option for sexual activity, he’s “sure [he] could rationalize it somehow.”
The biggest concern with leaving porn on the kiosks is not, or at least should not be, that homeless people will view it, but that children might see it. This is one of the main reasons why Pitagora is hesitant to give her full stamp of approval to allowing porn, because ensuring that only adults see it is extremely difficult.
“Kids know how to get around anything,” she says.
This is true, but let’s remember that parents and childcare providers of any kind are tasked with watching their spawn. Children are going to find porn no matter what, be it in a converted phone booth, public library, their parent’s computer, whatever. It’s the role of caretakers to educate and protect their children, including keeping them from converted phone booths flashing images of coitus left and right. And as Michael reminds us, homeless people will have sex no matter what and what’s more, they will find a concealed place. We are not faced with an epidemic of public masturbation in front of children.
The advent of the internet brought the hope that it would be the great equalizer. Everybody with access to information and entertainment. Everybody getting a chance to fully participate as a citizen of the United States. That citizenship includes having your basic needs cared for and one of those needs is sexual satisfaction.
*Name has been changed at his request