In defense of heroin users and sex workers: an interview with author of You Will Die

I interviewed Robert Arthur, author of a thought-provoking book about taboos, called You Will Die. (If his name sounds familiar, it could be because we've run a number of Rob's cartoons on Boing Boing, and they've proven to be popular.)

A book that vigorously defends heroin users and sex workers? In You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos Robert Arthur does that and more to demonstrate that taboos are not relics of primitive societies. America has its own ridiculous phobias and beliefs that cause tedium, suffering, and death. The government and the media use these taboos to lie and mislead. It is not a conspiracy, but by pushing panic for votes and viewers they thwart our pursuit of happiness.

You Will Die exposes the fallacies and the history behind our taboos on excrement, sex, drugs, and death. Arthur uses racy readability and rigorous documentation to raze sacred shrines of political correctness on the left and of conventional wisdom on the right. From the proper way to defecate to how to reach nirvana, anticipate the unexpected. It is not simply a novel exploration of sex and drugs, but also of individuality, liberty, and the meaning of life. You Will Die gives readers a new way of seeing their world and allows them to make a more informed choice about living an authentic life.

What made you write You Will Die?

Disillusionment. I grew up with the angst of believing I was a disgusting perverted heathen and after graduating from NYU Law in 2001 I began to research whether I was broken or if conventional wisdom was. The truth was out there but it was buried in boring academic texts, suppressed from the mainstream by puritanical censors on the right and politically-correct censors on the left. I wanted to make the truth easily accessible to the younger versions of me. I wanted them to realize that in these areas they aren't messed up. Our society is.

What do you think is the basis behind taboos? Is there an evolutionary behavior reason for taboos?

Ignorance is the basis behind taboos. Taboos are associated with an ignorance so ingrained that people are disgusted or morally offended to have their beliefs merely questioned.

I think there is an evolutionary need to accept common convention or else there would be chaos, but I also think there is an evolutionary need to have some people question our deepest cultural assumptions, our taboos. Mutations in thought are as rare as physical mutations but they are necessary for society to evolve.

Do you think some taboos are genetically hardwired, rather than culturally acquired? Are there any universal taboos that you've come across?

I think incest and fecal avoidance have become hardwired because they are evolutionary advantageous. Not surprisingly, these functional taboos are the closest to being universal. More often taboos work in the opposite direction. Instead of genetics influencing cultures via taboos, cultures will frequently try to influence instinctual desires via taboos. Comparing the amount of propaganda and police force directed against drug usage and sex work versus coprophagy (the eating of feces) and incest, provides a clue as to which taboos are natural.

Have you received any letters or email from readers who are upset that you are examining taboos?

Yes. Frequently they are from drug-war supporters who have a loved one that was addicted to drugs. I find them as morally reprehensible as they find me. Addiction is often driven by people seeking an escape from problems -- not by drugs themselves. Addicts need mental-health treatment, not a permanent criminal record. Outside of marijuana, Hollywood and journalistic portrayals of drugs are still just as misleading as the Reefer Madness films of old were. Often, the only media image of drug users is an out-of-control addict, despite statistics showing that they constitute a small minority of users even with "hard" drugs. When it comes out that Barack Obama used cocaine, people are surprised he was successful, but non-addicts like him are the norm. If Obama was branded with a criminal record as a young man for drug possession the government would have been responsible for destroying his future, not cocaine. Suffering people will always find something in which to lose themselves, but Mexico's annual carnage on the scale of 9/11 and the mass incarceration of America's black men -- that requires prohibitionists.

You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos


    1. What constitutes living an authentic life, exactly?

      Hos before hipsters.  Or you could just watch Edward Norton talking about his Ikea purchases in Fight Club.

    2. septimar nailed it. To existentialists living authentically means living in a way that is honest to yourself, and not merely what society recommends. I agree with the existentialist, Heidegger, that facing death is key to living an authentic life. Hence the title of the book and the last taboo covered in the book, death.

  1. I am getting really tired of seeing the phrase, “political correctness” every damn day.  An awful lot of what is called “political correctness” is what used to be called “basic human decency.”  Don’t call people bad names.  Respect the rights of others.

    It also seems to function as a way of saying: Sure I hate conservatives – but don’t worry, because I hate liberals too.  In fact, I’m so mavericky my every thought falls off the political spectrum and into a dimension of pure originality.  Watch me punch this hippie!

    1. The author says,

      The truth was out there but it was buried in boring academic texts, suppressed from the mainstream by puritanical censors on the right and politically-correct censors on the left.

      Of course the “left” is “politically correct” and the “right” is “puritanical”. Could it be any other way? And naturally both sides are engaging in a conspiracy to “suppress” the truth.

      Hopefully the book isn’t full of cliches, but after this fine example, I doubt I’m going to buy it to find out.

    2. An awful lot of what is called “political correctness” is what used to be called “basic human decency.”

      I believe the word you are looking for is “polite.”

    3. I could point out a lot of examples of what he’s talking about, but I’ll stick with one really obvious one for now:  While I think it’s fairly clear that MORE of our behavior is related to environmental influences than any other animal we know of, it is a ridiculous fallacy, very similar to that of creationists, to assume that it ALL is, and that genetic differences between people predispose them to different behaviors (I’m talking about individuals, here.  When you start talking about populations, many things, including the influence of culture, get much harder to deal with, but the principle is the same.)   While we don’t know enough about the underlying biological mechanisms involved yet to say a lot about this, there is no way that our genome doesn’t influence our behavior. (Current research hasn’t told us much.  evo-psych and books like “The G Factor” are worthless, steaming piles of shit.   The former just makes stuff up, and the latter, like a lot of psychology, uses statistics poorly due to a lack of understanding of the underlying math.)   The point being that, due to “political correctness,” anyone who even tries to figure this stuff out automatically becomes a pariah in many fields of social “science.”  

    4. spacedmonkey nailed it. Political correctness is used to repress more than just rudeness. For example, the evidence is overwhelming that men and women–on average–are very different when it comes to sex. I think acknowledging this is important in understanding our society and in improving it, e.g. decriminalizing sex work. However, even in “enlightened” circles mentioning this belief can get you dismissed as an ignorant sexist. Talk to evolutionary psychologists about how difficult it is to be in a field where the findings are not always PC … or just read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. 

      social_maladroit, here is an example of  the truth being suppressed. I’ll let you decide if it is from the cliche on the left or the right.

      Lastly, I love hippies.

      1. Please don’t use URL shorteners here unless they’re obvious proprietary ones like YT or Amazon. Thanks.

      2. The very important word in your post is “on average”. Most of the often-cited differences between genders are so subtle that they are orders of magnitude smaller than the standard deviation within the genders. Therefore, they may be provable, but of purely academic interest. The fact that these things are used in public discussion so often usually means that someone tries to justify discrimination.

        As to prostitution: I think it may be possible to determine whether someone is a forced prostitute, but it will be impossible to discern the whole spectrum from “does it for fun” over “does it for money” to “didn’t really have a choice” or “has no other way to pay for the drugs that someone else put her on, which are also the only reason for her accepting the situation” … and everything in between. 99% of the prostitutes may not be sex slaves but they may not be doing it entirely voluntarily. Which of course means they too are victims, not criminals, so there is something to complain about, after all, but it’s not that 99% of prostitution is fine. Much like drug users, many of these people need help, not a criminal record.

        1. Mr. McKracken, we disagree on how large the difference is. I think the difference is enormous and that much of it stems from biology. I think this is reflected in the massive disconnect in male vs. female usage of sex workers and pornography. Unfortunately, all the arguments and evidence from my book cannot fit into a Boing Boing comment.

          I think we also disagree on the percentage of drug users and sex workers that need “help.” Many of the factors that people use to say sex workers are victims are prevalent in many fields as I cartooned here. That said, I am not opposed to giving anyone help as long as the help is not administered by the police.

          1. And as long as the alleged victim requests help… and it isn’t forced on them as is so often the case with those in sex work. We are ‘rescued’ by those with a religious or rabid radical feminist agenda, and forced to learn to sew or to do some other type of acceptable feminine labor.

          2. “Unfortunately, all the arguments and evidence from my book cannot fit into a Boing Boing comment.”

            Apparently, not even a single one can.

            You did find plenty of space for uncited cliches about pornography and sex work, without any clear explanation of how those stats, even if they were substantiated, would point to biological rather than cultural norms being in play.

        2. As an international sex worker rights activist for 31 years- and also a retired sex worker- I think I can speak with a little more credibility than you can about what us sex workers think of our work and whether or not we ‘need help’ from people like you with ‘rescue’ fantasies. I’ve met thousands of sex workers from around the world, and while there are certainly those among us who do not enjoy the work, they do not care to be ‘helped’ (rescued) either.

          I am sure you have no idea how very patronizing and condescending your comment sounds, claiming that us poor, ignorant ‘hos are not doing our work ‘voluntarily,’ turning us into victims,  and thus reducing a group of highly competent individuals whom you have never met to some pathetic creatures who, in your warped mind, don’t have the mental capacity to know what we do or do not want to do to earn a living.Everyone who is not born into wealth must work for a living. Or, in the case of many women, they opt to get married and have their husband support them. Perhaps marriage wasn’t their ideal choice, but hey, someone has to bring home the bacon and they’d rather it not be them. Are they victims?Some women have no discernible skills, are not sufficiently attractive to become sex workers and thus must resort to taking  jobs doing menial labor for minimum wage- cleaning the caked-on urine, feces and vomit of strangers off hotel/ motel floors or working in a private home.  I’ve seen many tiny, fragile looking women in their 60s and even early 70s, working in nursing homes, changing the diapers of incontinent elderly persons, and those women never look like they are doing the work ‘voluntarily.’ Are those women ‘victims’?

          I think if you interviewed 1,000 men and women who earned their living slinging hamburgers, cleaning up after others, worked in a tiny office cubical doing mind numbing labor, I doubt that you would find very many who did such work ‘voluntarily’ in the sense that you describe relating to sex work. So would ANYONE who would rather be doing something OTHER than the work in which they were currently employed be said to not be doing the work ‘voluntarily,’ and therefore be considered by you to be ‘victims’? If not, why not? Why just us sex workers who may or may not all love providing pleasure to others for a significant fee? If you WOULD consider everyone who hates their job a victim, what would you propose we do to ‘help’ those ‘victims’? Take away their job and force them to either become dependent on the state or be taught how to ‘sew’ in order to become trafficked into garment manufacturing? 

          Whether or not someone loves or even likes their work- whatever it is- is simply not the business of people like you, and is not a reason to be infantilized and treated as a less than competent adult. We are quite capable of asking for help when and if we need it. What we need is for people like you to MYOB and stop with your hideous campaign to ‘rescue’ us!

          1. “I think if you interviewed 1,000 men and women who earned their living slinging hamburgers, cleaning up after others, worked in a tiny office cubical doing mind numbing labor, I doubt that you would find very many who did such work ‘voluntarily’ in the sense that you describe relating to sex work. So would ANYONE who would rather be doing something OTHER than the work in which they were currently employed be said to not be doing the work ‘voluntarily,’ and therefore be considered by you to be ‘victims’?”

            Of course they are victims.  The capitalist system forces people to work and is in no way voluntary.

            If we decide that a certain amount of arduous labor must be done for our needs to be satisfied, the ethical thing to do is to evenly distribute such work.  It should not be forced on the powerless.

            Everyone should have the opportunity to do some rewarding, creative, empowering work.  Any necessary shit work should also be evenly distributed.

          2. I see. So, no one should have to work or earn a living and it all should be handed to us by…. whom? Government? So, government agents aren’t working? Who do you propose ought to be forced to work to provide for the workers who don’t want to work? Who will ‘evenly distribute’ the shit work? Persons who may hand out MORE shit work to those they don’t like and less to those who are their friends? Sorry, communism is hardly the anecdote to having to work for a living. I take it you don’t have to work for a living? Probably an academic?

            What if we enjoy providing pleasure to others and earn lots of money doing so- is that a bad thing? 
            I guess your hobby is infantilizing others, because in your world, none of us are sufficiently rational to make choices for ourselves…

        3. ” 99% of the prostitutes may not be sex slaves but they may not be doing it entirely voluntarily.”

          99% of cubicle jockeys, burger-flippers, janitorial staff, and pretty much any job in the world may not be slaves, but they may not be doing their job entirely voluntarily.

  2. According to this interview, the book seems to be following the thread of “Taboos are bad”. Which is not true. Taboos are social rules that exist for a reason. Another ancient social mechanism is that every generation looks at these taboos and if they dislike them enough (i.e. if they think the reason isn’t valid anymore), they break them. Actually, mostly they break them first, then they think about it :)
    This mechanism of establishing and removing taboos should in theory ensure that only useful taboos exist, but of course:
    A: Some people have different needs than others, some people are more fragile than others or live in different circumstances, and for these people taboos have a different effect
    B: Some taboos are so deeply enshrined that they will not be removed at just the time when they start costing society more than they have use.
    C: On the other side, taboos take some time to be established. I think we need a whole new set of taboos surrounding internet privacy. Lots of stuff companies (and people)  do these days should simply be socially frowned upon and known to everyone to be bad manners.

    => There will always be reason to complain about something not going right in this respect, depending on where you’re standing. But without taboos society would be in trouble. They are part of the rules that allow us to have a society in the first place. Also, no one should think they didn’t have taboos. Everyone has some, even if they’re not aware. Most people who want to remove taboos or other social rules will end up installing their own ones instead, for better or worse.

    In that context, discussion is fine (even necessary), but don’t try to be so absolute about it.

    1. Mr. McKracken, we are in agreement. Views protected by taboo are not inherently bad. What is bad about taboos is that they foreclose debate. Discussion of tabooed topics, when it occurs at all, tends to be extremely one-sided particularly in the mainstream media where society does much of its rumination.

  3. What should be a taboo is creating laws which can be arbitrarily and selectively enforced. Such laws always have and always will engender police corruption. The police use the laws to force sex workers to provide sex, money and information. The police also use drug laws to intimidate drug users into becoming informants. The hopefully unintended consequences of such laws creates a hideous situation for society in which law enforcement agents resort to report-a-lying and testalying in court to make their weak cases stick, which, when lying cops are caught, invalidates their credibility relating to any other cases, including those in which serious and real criminals may be released from prison because they were originally convicted on the unimpeachable testimony of a now known liar cop. 
     There is no possible way to uniformly and with neutrality enforce laws in which the victim is also the criminal. There are simply not sufficient resources available even if the cops stopped  investigating ALL OTHER LAW VIOLATIONS, including rapes, homicides, burglaries, child abuse etc. to enforce ‘moral’ laws in a non-selective manner.

    When cops are also the perpetrators of crimes against those whom society has deemed to be both victim and criminal, there will never be justice. If you want to see a few of the examples of this, visit policeprostitutionandpolitics  .com website. It was the rampant police corruption within the LAPD that led me to leave many years ago and take up the more honest profession of sex work. Google “Norma Jean and the Hollywood Corruption Scandal.”

Comments are closed.