As is true of a lot of people in the sex-positive community, I’ve been thinking a lot about Deborah Jean Palfrey’s death this past week. I didn’t know her personally, and never met her in person, so I can’t speak of her death in terms of personal tragedy or grief. But grief and anger are what I’m feeling, because Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s fate could have been written onto the lives of so many women and men. And the anger comes from the fact that it has, and it will be.
The real tragedy of her death, from where I’m standing, is not anything extraordinary about her story, but how common and familiar it is, to the point of being clichÃ©. If the story of Deborah Jean Palfrey had been laid out in a novel or play or screenplay, I would be angry at having my time wasted by a writer who was unable or unwilling to rise above cheap hackery that was old and worn out in the days of the Victorian penny dreadfuls. But Palfrey was a real person, and it makes me sick and angry to think how often the lives of people who should live peaceful, untroubled lives are forced into old patterns.
When I heard that Palfrey had hung herself, one of the first things that I thought of was the story of Ida Craddock. Craddock was a freethinker and feminist who wrote several sexual education manuals and pamphlets in the late 19th century. She was hounded and pursued for over a decade by the moralists of the day, in particular the infamous Anthony Comstock. In 1902, she was finally convicted for sending obscene materials through the mail and sentenced to five years in prison. Craddock was 45 years old at the time of her conviction and didn’t think that she could survive her sentence; the night before she was supposed to report for incarceration, she slit her wrists. Comstock showed no signs of regretting her suicide; in fact, he commonly bragged that he had driven as many as 15 people to suicide in his crusade for public morality.
One hundred and six years later, I want Ida Craddock’s story to seem quaint and old-fashioned, like an aged relic of less enlightened times. But Deborah Jean Palfrey is dead, hung from the neck by a nylon rope; her former employee, Brandy Britton, went the same way. David Vitter is still in the Senate. So it goes.
In the eye of the media, Palfrey’s death was regarded almost without a blasÃ© fascination, as if the urge for a woman who transgressed to hang herself in her mother’s shed was as natural and unavoidable as birds migrating. And it seems unbelievable that one hundred and six years after Ida Craddock, we have to work so hard to justify not only the course that she chose to make for her life, but that we also have to fight to make others see that her death was a stupid waste, and not the inevitable end to a badly-written melodrama.
What we do, all the blogging and writing and organizing sometimes sometimes can seem futile, especially with stories like Palfrey’s. The one thing that we can be grateful for, in a somewhat grim way, is that Palfrey had to do more than merely write about sex before she was hounded and shamed into her grave. That, at least, is something that we’ve accomplished in the one hundred years since Ida Craddock opened her veins with a straight razor. But it’s not enough.
I hope this is the end of this story. I hope that whoever the successors of the people in this group are in one hundred years don’t find themselves having to mourn yet another woman who can only find solace with a razor or rope or gun or pills because she offended the guardians of morality. The one thing that gives me hope is the people on this list and in this community. If one day, the deaths of Palfrey and Britton and Craddock seem as ridiculous and wasteful as they should, it won’t be because of the slut-shaming puritans like Heart or Sam Berg or the utterly fraudulent Melissa Farley who pose as “radical” feminists; their hands firmly gripped the shovel that dug Palfrey’s grave. It won’t be because of the Christians who “love” women and queers until they’re bruised and bloody. It will be because we’re lucky enough to have a community of strong, dedicated people who speak out about their lives honestly and without shame. It will be because of Amber Rhea, who’s not only spoken out, but who organized Sex 2.0 and helped people come together and meet and talk in a place where they weren’t shamed for their lives and feellings. It will be because of Renegade Evolution, with her intensely honest anger about the hypocrisy on both left and right regarding sex. Because of Audacia Ray, who’s consistently done brilliant writing and activism and is unquestionably a force for good in this world. It will be because of Jill Brenneman, Melissa Gira, Stacy Swimme, Amanda Brooks, Lux Alptraum, and too many other people to list. In the midst of all this anger and grief, I am comforted by the fact that we have such an incredible collection of people.
Despite the slander that the pseudo radical feminists and the religious right alike spread, none of us are here to make porn cheaper and easier to get, or to turn women into just another product of capitalism. If Palfrey’s suicide says nothing else, it’s that the reason our community exists literally is a matter of life and death.