Banning Sin and Managing Risk: Why Are Vice Laws Back In Vogue?

Like something out of a 1930s film noir, the old fashioned vice squad is making a comeback across the globe. Spurred on by perceptions of cultural excess and corporate corruption the new prosecutors of sin come from across the political spectrum.

Earlier this year, Ireland joined a number of Nordic countries in criminalising the purchase of sex – to the criticism of sex workers, human rights organisations and health workers alike. The so-called ‘Nordic Model’ had the usual supporters of religious moralists but also gained momentum through sex worker exclusionary feminists and a middle-class susceptible to moral panic.

Now it appears pornography is the next target. Strange alliances are being formed between feminist critics, religious puritans and self-appointed ‘sexual wellbeing’ experts to ensure erotic material is framed as a brain-destroying spectacle. Theresa May, in her Conservative manifesto, has noted plans to regulate the internet to protect Brits from unsavoury and offensive X-rated material. This plan echoes the failed ALP proposal to wholesale filter the internet so that it meets ‘community standards’.

Whilst we are punishing sex, why not drugs as well?

Our most popular intoxicant – alcohol – has had a good run since failed attempts at prohibition, but this is starting to change. Influential public health bodies are pushing for higher ‘sin’ taxes on alcohol, applying curfews and regulating nightlife. Such technocrats are also keen to come after nicotine alternatives such as e-cigarettes due to a deep-seated fear of the unknown.

Then there are the more stigmatised – and criminalised – psychoactives. The appointment of Jeff Sessions as the 84th US Attorney General has guaranteed that the failed War On Drugs is back in full swing. Reaffirming prohibition goes against a mountain of evidence in favour of decriminalisation and legalisation of ‘soft’ drugs such as cannabis. It also ignores the very real harms caused to users, addicts and society as a whole.

Fatty foods, pub lotteries, violent video games, sexting, rude tweets… there seems to be no end to recent calls for the law to regulate, and in many cases criminalise, objectionable lifestyle choices. Recent trends have multiple causes, but appear at least partially provoked by our uncertain social and economic conditions.

Ulrich Beck coined the term ‘risk society’ to describe a culture’s response to risk. Our modern culture is heavily invested against mitigating against future risks and applying strict precautionary measures to mitigate such risk.

The decline of stable ‘New Deal’ state institutions since the 1960s has led modern citizens to become obsessed with lowering future risk. We live in an anxious, pessimistic culture  where individuals are overly concerned with potential hazards. In an obsessively risk averse society, every mundane pleasure or new technology has the potential for social disaster. Harms are no longer seen as the ‘exception’ to the norm but are the natural consequence of self-indulgence. Too much of a good thing is always bad.

Looked at this way, efforts to regulate ‘vice’ provide a sense of security for political actors given the very real and unpredictable nature of modern threats such as financial crises, terrorism and climate change. Vice squads – much like the security theatre of scanners at airports – make us feel safer, even if there was very little to fear in the first place.

However, in our obsession with risk we have forgotten what makes vices so damn appealing in the first place, pleasure. Missing from time-series graphs and population surveys of regulators are the incalculable joys of life: the sweet relief of a cigarette after a fat-laden meal, the foolish banter of two sloshed friends at a 3am gig or the warmth of a lover in times of loneliness.

Nothing in life is without hazards, with the pursuit of pleasure being no different. But let’s not allow our cultural obsession with risk regulate away what makes life worth living.

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