Nepali Times Asian Paints
Sex and surveillance


UNDER WATCH: IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn appears in Manhattan Criminal Court for allegations of sexual assault.

It is impossible to hear about sexual or sex-crime scandals nowadays, whether they involve Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or the half-dozen US congressmen whose careers have ended in the past couple of years, without considering how they were exposed. What does it mean to live in a society in which surveillance is omnipresent?

Like the heat beneath the proverbial boiling frogs, the level of surveillance in Western democracies has been ratcheted up slowly, but faster than citizens can respond. A concerted effort is underway in the US and UK to brand surveillance as positive. New York City subway passengers are now advised that they might experience random searches of their bags.

Activists in America assume their emails are being read and their phone calls are monitored. Telecom companies Verizon and AT&T have established areas on their premises for eavesdropping activity by the National Security Agency.

The spate of sex scandals is a sign of more serious corruption and degradation than most commentators seem to realise. Yes, sex criminals must be punished, but political careers are ending because of consensual affairs.

Consensual sex between adults is no one else's business. But now that public figures, especially those deemed to be 'of interest' to intelligence agencies are susceptible to being watched three-dimensionally, the chances of being compromised high. And there is no end to this crash-and-burn surveillance strategy, owing to the nature
of the information that is caught in the net.

After all, the human sex drive, especially if it compels risky or self-destructive behaviour, has held appeal for dramatists since the ancient Greeks, who originated the story of Achilles and his vulnerability. And, because sex scandals are always interesting to read about, certainly compared to yet another undeclared war, they will always be useful diversions.

Citizens' attention can be channeled away from, say, major corporate theft and government malfeasance toward narratives involving two hapless individuals (and their wives and children, who are usually suffering quite enough without the media's heavy breathing).

Another reason to mourn the normalisation of a surveillance society lies in the link between sexual privacy and other kinds of psychological liberation. That is why closed societies monitor their citizens' sexual lives. The combination of sexuality and privacy has an anarchic, subversive effect on citizens.

Connecting with another person in an unscrutinised, uncivilised, unmediated, unobserved way inevitably reminds people that there are aspects of the human soul that cannot and must not be subjected to official control.

For this reason, closed and closing societies have always feared sexual liberationists, and have sought to link political dissidence with sexual anarchy. A surveillance society falls softly into place, and people realise too late that everyone has secrets. Think about your own privacy and secrets.

Official surveillance has been marketed as a national-security imperative. In fact, it gives the state the power to blackmail anyone it wishes.

Consider the official US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks that revealed that State Department employees were asked to obtain biometrics on public officials at the United Nations. Are we entering an era of geopolitics by blackmail?
Project Syndicate

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)